Strikes at home and war in Ukraine will test the French president
EManuel Macron swept to power in 2017 on the back of a twin promise: to shake up France, and to inspire Europe to become a better power. The French president’s first term had its ups and downs, but France today is largely a stronger, more entrepreneurial place, creating jobs and welcoming investors. The European Union, too, has moved according to Mr Macron. Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine has shown that a rogue rules-based club of 27 members can stick together, think geopolitically and send weapons into a war zone.
Now, however, Mr. Macron is facing trouble on both sides. His authority is being tested in the National Assembly and on the streets at home, and his leadership has been challenged abroad. How he answers will determine if the leader of the themthe second largest economy and leading military power can continue to modernize France and shape Europe.
Mr Macron’s domestic concerns relate to his plan to raise the minimum pension age from 62 to 64. The French are living almost a decade longer than in 1980, and are spending longer in their deck chairs than their neighbors. Without reform, the pension system faces an annual deficit of €14bn ($15bn) by 2030. But Mr. Macron did not succeed in persuading the French that he is the right position. Last year voters denied him a majority in parliament. Now unions want to defeat his project in the streets.
This pension reform is essential for France. Mr Macron needs to do a better job explaining why he is not just an accounting tool, but part of a wider effort to get the French to work more, and more of the French to work . The unemployment rate stood at 7.2% in the last quarter, about twice the rate in America and Britain. The last time it was as low as 5% was in the 1970s. His government must also accept the opposition parties’ plea for a better solution that includes more taxes on companies and the wealthy. That is the last thing France needs. Despite Mr Macron’s tax cuts, France remains the highest taxed economy in the euro zone. Therefore, even if painful strikes drag on, the president cannot pay back.
If Mr Macron cannot secure parliamentary support by the March 26 deadline, he could still force the reform through. But it would be better to avoid that. The left-wing opposition parties have been trying again and again to create havoc and cancel the parliamentary procedure. They would take any opportunity to declare the reform invalid. The centre-right opposition has also behaved dishonestly, refusing to support a change he also proposed in 1995 and 2010. He has no excuse for not supporting the next development.
Abroad, Russia’s war on Ukraine has in many ways confirmed Mr Macron’s call for greater force them, pressed between America and China, which can be expressed by hard force, not just trade and regulations. But Mr Macron is struggling to convince his friends that his policies, especially on European security, are the best way to achieve this. He does not lead the debate on Ukraine. And in Africa it is losing influence to China, Russia and Turkey.
If Mr. Macron is to recover them leadership, he would spend much less time wondering about the shapes of future post-war settlement, and create more closer ties with countries, Poland and the Baltics than among them, who are still suspected of wanting to pressure Ukraine prematurely into negotiations. . After initially focusing on its diplomacy with Russia, France has moved strongly behind Ukraine. Its position is now close to that of America. But Mr. Macron is too often tempted to express ideas that may divide America, but keeps to himself. France could also do more to send heavy weapons to Kyiv, and quickly.
A stronger Europe, with the risk of autocratic powers and the risk of over-reliance on America, needs a strong France. Mr Macron is now one of Europe’s most experienced leaders. He is full of ideas, many of them good, and he commands a good diplomatic tool. This is a critical time. He can’t go wrong. ■