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Macron, between a rock and a hard place

Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.

In a striking trio of speeches last month, French President Emmanuel Macron sought to place the tangle of military, economic, energy and climate crises facing the world into a single apocalyptic pattern. 

The war in Ukraine, compounding economic and energy problems, and France’s hottest and driest summer in 60 years weren’t just individual boiling points but part of a “great shift,” or “upheaval,” he argued. And he urged the French to prepare for a difficult winter in which they should be ready to pay “the price of liberty” and not surrender to “simple-minded” rhetoric about the allegedly self-destructive impact of sanctions on Russia.

He also said the age of “carefree abundance” — in energy, water, credit and endless technological advance — is over.

With these speeches, Macron was partly responding to criticism in the media, and from his own allies, that he’s lacked a clear strategy or overarching vision for his second presidential term. But Macron’s also preparing the ground for a troubled fall and winter of energy shortages, outages and popular protest, both in a deeply divided parliament and on the streets, where the left is threatening a “running battle” for lower prices and higher wages.

Street marches and strikes now seem likely and will soon escalate, with mounting clamor for higher wages across the board and increased state action against high food and fuel prices. This, despite the €40 billion already spent or allocated by the government, which has managed to keep inflation in France lower than most of its neighbors (France’s official annual inflation rate fell slightly in September to 5.8 percent, compared to over 10 percent in the United Kingdom).

But Macron and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne also face a hostile parliament, where they’re 39 seats short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

Before the summer recess, the government did manage to win the support of the swing bloc of 62 center-right Les Républicains deputies on most key votes, which enabled Borne to steer her €44 billion anti-inflation and emergency spending plans through parliament almost unscathed. But asking deputies to give anti-inflation relief to their constituents is one thing, asking a hostile parliament to pass next year’s budget and approve Macron’s flagship plans of raising the state retirement age and tightening conditions for unemployment benefits, is quite another.

These policies — decried by the left and the far right — are crucial to the two most important goals of Macron’s second term: decreasing unemployment and the state budget deficit.

Macron has pledged to reduce unemployment from 7.4 percent to below 5 percent and to reduce France’s annual budget deficit — predicted to reach 5.5 percent this year — to below the European Union’s ceiling of 3 percent by 2027. Achieving both is central to his vision of a French population that is more prosperous because it works longer, and it’s vital to his hopes of bringing state spending under control in the next four years. 

Although, ideologically, the center right is broadly in favor of what Macron proposes, tactically, many Les Républicains deputies fear that their party’s election prospects would implode if they assist Macron with such unpopular reforms.

Les Républicains has therefore made clear that the government shouldn’t count on continuing support this fall, a position that’s likely to be reinforced by the election of the party’s new national leader in early December.

Front-runner Eric Ciotti, a 61 year-old deputy from Nice, is the leader of the hard-right, Macron-detesting wing of the party. But even moderate center-right deputies, like Ciotti’s pro-European rival Aurélien Pradié, fear that maintaining support for the Macron-Borne government will destroy the once dominant but now much-weakened party’s chances of winning the Elysée in the 2027 presidential election.

The government will almost certainly have to resort to its emergency powers, under Article 49, clause 3 of the Constitution, to push through its 2023 budget without a vote in December. But the real parliamentary crisis is likely to be early next year, when Borne will seek elusive majorities for Macron’s plans to increase the state retirement age and tighten conditions for access to unemployment pay.

This means Macron faces an incredibly unenviable choice next year, one between dissolving the parliament and calling an early election in the hopes of securing a majority, or accepting very limited ambitions for his second term in office. A winter of discontent is scarcely the best preparation for a snap election campaign. However, neither is being a lame duck — with four-and-a-half years still left of a second term. 

But with the fall and winter looking very difficult for Macron, and the new year and spring looking even worse, the president is going to have to choose.



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