Tens of thousands of people have taken part in French street demonstrations as Labour Day marches sent a “message” to Emmanuel Macron that he must consult citizens more during his second term, and reverse plans to raise the retirement age or face protests.
“There will be a fight over pensions, that’s clear – battle has been declared,” said the leftwing CGT trade union in Toulouse. Trade unionists, environmentalists and parties on the left – as well as yellow-vest anti-government protesters – marched in cities across France, demanding a rise in pensions and salaries and an end to Macron’s plan to gradually raise the pension age to 65.
There was a large police presence in Paris. France Télévisions reported that a few demonstrators dressed in black on the edge of the otherwise peaceful Paris march had smashed windows and a cash dispenser and police fired tear-gas. In the Brittany city of Rennes, police used tear-gas and water cannon to keep a group of anti-fascist demonstrators from the city centre.
The centrist Macron, who was reelected last weekend with 58.5% of the vote against the far-right Marine Le Pen, is under pressure to govern differently in his second-term — with less top-down decision-making and a more participative, decentralised approach, in which citizens would have more input.
“This is a very political May Day, where workers intend to weigh heavily on all the big issues,” said Benoît Teste, head of the FSU teachers’ union. “It’s a crucial moment to feel the mood on the ground and set the tone.”
“I want to calm things,” Macron had told locals in a walkabout in south-west France on Friday, after vowing to take into account everyone who voted for him, including those on the left who chose him only to keep out Le Pen. But no details have filtered out on how Macron would consult with citizens or whether he will undertake a reform of France’s political system, including introducing an element of proportional representation in parliament.
With his second term beginning officially on 14 May, Macron is currently deliberating over who to appoint as the new prime minister who will have expanded powers on overseeing French environmental policy. Some have hoped it would be a woman with a background on the left.
Macron has spent recent days still in campaign-mode, wading into crowds in town squares in order to listen to voters’ concerns, sometimes for hours at a time, to counter his image as haughty and aloof and to show he has understood the current cost-of-living crisis, which is voters’ number one concern.
This is seen as crucial if he is to secure a broad centrist majority in the parliamentary elections in June that would give him a free hand to implement his policies of overhauling the welfare state and pensions system. The parliament vote has been seized upon by both the far-right Le Pen and the radical-left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who are seeking to greatly increase their seats in a France where voters are divided and disappointed with politics.
“What we have seen is an extremely strong break between the base of the social pyramid – those who don’t have riches nor power nor influence – and the so-called summit,” said François Bayrou, the head of the centrist party MoDem, and a key Macron ally, during the campaign. “There must be a new government approach, which must be constantly in consideration of the French people.”
Sylvain Burquier was one of 150 people randomly selected to take part in a citizens’ assembly to develop methods for cutting carbon emissions during Macron’s first term. Environmentalists criticised the government for not going far enough to follow the citizens’ recommendations. But Burquier said the method itself, of forming an assembly of everyday people to thrash out difficult public policy issues, had proved that it worked and should be expanded.
“The 150 of us are convinced that new forms of participative or deliberative democracy can move issues forward,” Burquier said. “By being a middle path – neither activists nor businesses – we shook things up … The population was behind us, we’re still active today, we upset a lot of people because we were totally transpartisan, and only linked by the common good, not at all by political posturing … It’s a new transversal way of doing things that upsets the status quo and when that happens, things move forward.”
Macron has promised his second term would be devoted to tackling the climate emergency, after admitting environmental policy must be speeded up. But an Elabe poll after Macron’s presidential win on 24 April found 57% of people didn’t believe he would make the environment his top priority.
A key policy task in the short term is to address the cost of living crisis. Macron is expected to renew caps on energy costs and consider further anti-inflation payments to low-income households this summer.
Ultimately, Macron has promised to get France to full unemployment. The unemployment rate dropped to its lowest in 13 years during Macron’s first term, and its economy – the world’s seventh largest – outperformed other big European countries as well as the broader euro currency zone. But with inflation in France reaching a new high of 5.4% in April, while growth stalled in the first quarter, May Day marchers warned that people were angry at the struggle to make ends meet, calling for salaries to be increased and pensions to be raised.
Trade unions at the demonstrations said Macron’s new plans to raise the retirement age could lead to strike action.
During Macron’s first term, a different proposed pensions overhaul sparked protests that lasted longer than any strike since the wildcat workers’ stoppages of 1968, and the reform was shelved during the pandemic.
“If there’s a need to, we’ll strike,” the secretary general of the Force Ouvrière trade union told BFMTV at the Paris demonstration. “Let that be heard. We have our reasons. It’s not just pure obstruction, it’s based on an economic and social argument.”