Anger Over Pensions Law Fuels May Day Protests in France

French workers headed to the streets across the country on Monday, as the annual May Day demonstrations in France coincided with smoldering anger over an unpopular pension overhaul that President Emmanuel Macron pushed through last month.

From Le Havre in the north to Marseille in the south, tens of thousands of people had taken to the streets by midmorning, and the protest was set to culminate in the afternoon with a march in Paris, the capital.

The police expect about half a million protesters to rally across the country against the government’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62, an effort that led to the biggest political threat in Mr. Macron’s second term.

Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest union in the country, presented the marches as a way to continue the fight against the pension overhaul. “I don’t accept the 64 years,” he said on Sunday. “I will never accept them.”

Mr. Berger’s defiance reflects a broader truth confronting Mr. Macron: Although he was able to push through the pension overhaul, he did so only by turning to a constitutional measure that allowed him to sidestep a full vote in Parliament, and the protests will serve as a stark reminder of the residual fury.

Still, the pension overhaul was approved by the country’s Constitutional Council and officially signed into law, so while leaving the issue behind will not be easily achieved, there is little chance the protesters will be able to persuade him to reverse his decision.

“Macron is trying to move forward no matter what, but people are standing still,” said Antoine Bristielle, the head of the polling department at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute. “About 60 percent of the population say they don’t want to move on from the pension reform.”

Mr. Macron’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement was based on his conviction that the pension system was unsustainable and that changing the program, with its generous benefits, was essential to France’s economic health.

In doing so, he struck a nerve in a society that considers retirement an important stage of one’s life, while failing to convince large numbers of French people of the potential benefits of the change for the country’s economic development.

France has been convulsed for months by regular strikes and protests that have drawn millions into the streets. Monday marked the 13th day of nationwide protests since January, and the first time in more than a decade that the country’s labor unions, usually divided, formed a united front for the traditional May Day demonstrations.

“There will be no return to normal unless the reform is withdrawn,” Sophie Binet, the head of the General Confederation of Labor, France’s second-largest labor union, told the RTL radio station on Thursday.

But Mr. Macron has insisted that he would not yield on the pension changes, which will gradually come into force starting in September, leaving his opponents with few options.

An opposition group has submitted a bill in the lower house of Parliament that would return the legal age of retirement to 62, but it has little chance of garnering a majority of the vote from the fractured opposition.

Mr. Macron’s opponents are also clinging to a request they have filed with the Constitutional Council that would allow a referendum on the issue. The council is expected to rule on the request’s validity on Wednesday, but it already rejected a similar request last month.

Even if it were to rule in favor this time, the procedure would be long and complex — involving the collection of the signatures of at least 10 percent of voters, or roughly 4.8 million people, over nine months — and would not automatically lead to a referendum.

The marches on the French equivalent of Labor Day will provide an indication of what lies ahead for the protest movement. They might give it a new impetus or symbolically mark its last stand. “On the morning of May 2, we will decide what to do,” Mr. Berger said.

Mr. Berger predicted that “May Day is going to be one of the biggest May Days on social issues in the past 30 or 40 years,” although the turnout is expected to be far less than for other protests at the height of the dispute over the pension law.

The marches will maintain some degree of pressure on the French government, which is trying to figure out a path forward after the heated debate on a divisive issue.

In a televised address to the nation last month, Mr. Macron gave himself 100 days to deliver a handful of crucial overhauls to improve the working conditions and salaries of the French, as well as to tackle illegal immigration.

But last week, Ms. Borne announced at a news conference that the immigration bill Mr. Macron was counting on would be pushed back to the fall because “there is no majority to vote such a text.”

And two days later, the rating agency Fitch downgraded France’s credit rating, citing concerns that the political upheaval over the pension law could limit its ability to make changes and bolster its public finances in the future.

That came as a blow to Mr. Macron, who had suggested that the pension overhaul was intended, at least in part, to reassure financial markets about France’s economic health.

Mr. Bristielle, from the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, said the French government hoped the protest movement would die down in the coming weeks. “The French will have no choice but to move on from the pension reform after a while,” he said.

But, he added, the monthslong battle had produced “a kind of widespread resentment against Emmanuel Macron and the political institutions” that would be fertile ground for any future protest movement.

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