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France Rages Over Pension Reforms
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France Rages Over Pension Reforms

‘It’s perhaps not the moment to take a trip to Paris.’

Happy Tuesday! What better way to start the day than reading an 8,000-word research paper from MIT engineers on how best to twist apart Oreos. “For me this all started as a personal question,” Crystal Owens told The Wall Street Journal. “But I guess everyone else was also thinking like, ‘Oh, let’s understand my Oreos better.’”

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Six people were killed—three 9-year-old children and three adults—when a 28-year-old transgender person opened fire at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville on Monday. The shooter, reportedly armed with two assault-style rifles and a pistol, was killed by police minutes after they arrived on the scene. John Drake, chief of the Metro Nashville Police Department, said the shooter is believed to have once been a student at the school, but any motive is not yet clear.
  • Facing mass protests, strikes, and criticism from members of his own government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday he would pause his controversial push to overhaul the country’s judicial system. “Out of national responsibility, from a desire to prevent the nation from being torn apart, I am calling to suspend the legislation,” he said. “When there is a possibility to prevent a civil war through negotiations, I will give a timeout for negotiations.” 
  • The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) announced late Sunday night First Citizens Bank had agreed to purchase large portions of what was formerly Silicon Valley Bank, acquiring about $72 billion of SVB’s assets—including deposits, loans, and branches—at a discount of $16.5 billion. Approximately $90 billion worth of securities will remain in FDIC receivership, and the agency estimated the episode’s total cost to the Deposit Insurance Fund to be about $20 billion. 
  • President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Monday restricting the use of commercial spyware by the federal government, arguing it’s in the United States’ “fundamental national security and foreign policy interest” to stop the proliferation of the software, which has been used to hack and surveil mobile phones. At least 50 U.S. government officials have been targeted with such commercial spyware in recent years, according to the White House.
  • North Carolina on Monday became the 40th state to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signing into law legislation passed by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature after years of opposition. “Now we have a Medicaid system that is stable,” Republican State Sen. Phil Berger said. “By transforming our state’s Medicaid program, we’re now in a place where our system can handle those additional enrollees.”
  • Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California announced Sunday he won’t run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein next year, opting instead to run for reelection in the House. He told CNN’s Jake Tapper he is endorsing Rep. Barbara Lee in the race instead.
  • President Biden’s pick to run the Federal Aviation Administration, Phil Washington, withdrew his nomination to run the agency over the weekend after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona joined Republicans in expressing skepticism about the Denver International Airport CEO’s qualifications. Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen—a former airline pilot—is emerging as a likely replacement, favored by both Republicans and industry leaders alike.
  • Cecilia Rouse, chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers, told Bloomberg over the weekend she will leave her post on Friday, at which point Jared Bernstein—Biden’s former chief economist as vice president—will assume the role.
Youth in France take part in a demonstration Tuesday after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)
Youth in France take part in a demonstration Tuesday after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

As fans of Les Misérables know well, the French have something of a history with kings. Perhaps with an eye toward forestalling any unsavory parallels, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to postpone British King Charles III’s visit to France—the first state visit of the new king’s reign—that was set to begin Sunday. The optics of a gala banquet at the Palace of Versailles while protests raged outside were just too much. Plus, several buildings in Bordeaux—a southwestern city the King and Queen Consort Camilla were slated to visit—were on fire

Regular TMD readers can guess what has set France ablaze, first figuratively and now literally: Macron’s ongoing effort to reform the country’s pension system by raising the retirement age for most workers from 62 to 64. 

As we noted a few weeks ago, Macron succeeded in passing his signature pension overhaul using Article 49.3, a constitutional provision that allows the President’s Council of Ministers (his cabinet) to bypass a National Assembly vote when the legislation in question has already passed the Senate. While neither illegal nor terribly uncommon—the mechanism has been used dozens of times by politicians of all ideological stripes since 1958—its use this time nonetheless set off waves of fury inside the lower house of parliament and across the country, where strikes and protests over the reforms have been a fixture since early this year.

“There is a definite ‘before’ and ‘after’ the use of this 49.3 constitutional tool,” Ben McPartland, managing editor of The Local, an English-language news site in France, told The Dispatch of the tone and tenor of the protests and discourse. “It’s rekindled this real resentment of Macron himself—his method of governing and his personality, everything about him and his background [in banking].”  

If you’re in the opposition, it’s in times like these the national anthem’s origins as a revolutionary battle hymn come in handy. Before Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne of Macron’s Renaissance party could announce the government was invoking the 49.3 rule, members of the opposition delayed the speech by singing “La Marseillaise,” whose lyrics include, “​​To arms, citizens! Form your battalions. Let’s march, let’s march, that their impure blood should water our fields.” Once she did take the podium, deputies—members of the National Assembly— stalled her speech at various points with calls to resign and another rousing chorus of the national anthem.

Invoking Article 49.3 comes with a catch. While MPs in the National Assembly don’t vote specifically on the legislation in question, using the constitutional mechanism triggers a 24-hour period when deputies can move for a “vote of no confidence” in the government. If the motion passes with an absolute majority, the government—composed of the prime minister and the president’s cabinet, though not the president himself—falls and the law fails. If it doesn’t—or if no motion is put forward—the law is adopted.

Macron’s government was hit with not just one, but two no-confidence motions last Friday. One originated with Marine Le Pen—Macron’s two-time presidential election opponent—and her right-wing National Rally party, while another emerged from a group of independent deputies with support from the left-wing parties. “You could have submitted [your reform] to a vote, and you probably would have lost it, but that’s the game when you are in a democracy,” said MP Charles de Courson, who helped author the independent motion.

The independent group’s censure garnered 278 votes, just nine shy of the 287 needed to oust the government. Among the 278 were 16 Republicans, themselves part of the governing coalition. National Rally’s failed by a much wider margin, lacking the support of the left-wing parties.

Though the government narrowly survived, the 49.3 episode—which critics have called undemocratic—inflamed what had already been significant opposition to the reform plan, particularly among labor unions. “There’s a feeling that Macron took advantage of a divided opposition to pass this law in a way that, while legal, was not very elegant and a little abrupt,” Luc Rouban, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Political Research at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, told The Dispatch. “It’s perhaps not the moment to take a trip to Paris.” 

One of your Morning Dispatchers, having just returned from Paris, can confirm a long strike of garbage collectors in the city has left massive piles of trash on almost every block of the capital (though that particularly smelly element of resistance seems to be reaching its end). Now iconic images have shown people eating in restaurants or sipping glasses of wine on terraces as fires burned in clear view. According to McPartland, life has continued despite the sometimes violent demonstrations. 

It’s not the first time Macron himself has been the target of protesters’ disdain: Back in 2018 the “Yellow Vest” protests wreaked havoc on the country every Saturday for months. Macron’s critics often call him “Jupiter,” a reference to what they consider to be a detached, sometimes imperial governing style, and a televised interview from the president Wednesday didn’t seem to help that image. 

“If I have to take on unpopularity today, I will,” he said, defiant in the face of his record-low 23 percent approval rating. He doubled down on his commitment to the reforms, saying he has “no regrets,” save one: that he and his government didn’t do enough to convince the French people of the necessity of the changes. 

He also condemned the violent elements of some of the protests, including threats made against MPs and local officials. “When [people] use extreme violence because they’re not happy about something, that’s not a republic anymore,” he said, referencing the events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the January 7, 2023, riots in Brasilia, Brazil, over the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “You have to say, ‘We’ll respect, we’ll listen, but we won’t accept factions or sectarians.’”

That latter comment was poorly received by his opponents on both ends of the political spectrum. 

“What I heard is that he compared the masses to what happened in Capitol Hill, in Brazil,” said Le Pen. “He says he respects, but actually he offends, he offends all the French who are demonstrating.” 

To his left, Philippe Martinez, the president of the hard-line CGT labor union called the comparison “scandalous.” 

Some fear that rioting and property damage will continue to escalate as the protests get out of the control of the unions. Last Thursday alone, a week after 49.3 was invoked and the day after Macron’s TV appearance, almost 500 people were arrested and nearly 450 security force officers were injured. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said 903 fires were lit across Paris Thursday. Informal, sometimes violent demonstrations have broken out nightly in the city since the 49.3 declaration. 

Even as violence intensifies, there’s also concern about police tactics, with the police inspector general announcing Sunday her office had opened 17 investigations into police action against protesters. At least one case implicates “Brav-M,” or Motorised Brigades for the Repression of Violent Action, a special police unit whose officers have been accused of brutality after a 20-minute long audio recording emerged of several officers threatening and hitting a protester. 

France’s Constitutional Council, which evaluates laws on their constitutionality before they can be implemented, is now reviewing the pension bill and is unlikely to reject it. Macron sees the law going into effect before the end of the year. So, what can the protesters actually do at this point? 

Not much, according to Rouban. One more constitutional provision—a measure allowing legislators to force a national referendum with the right levels of both parliamentary and popular support—is a Hail Mary unlikely to yield results. 

But for all his tough talk, Macron has caved to violent protests before. The Yellow Vests managed to get a proposed carbon tax annulled, as well as prompt Macron to raise the minimum wage and launch a “Great Debate”—a national listening campaign meant to connect him to the issues facing ordinary people. Though it’s unlikely he backs down on this bill—on which he’s staked his own legacy—it’s possible unions try to win future concessions on elements of Macron’s remaining legislative agenda. 

“I think unions feel that they’ve got the upper hand at the moment, and that they’ve got a chance of turning the screw,” McPartland said. “Whether they can get him to back down on pension reform, I think most people think it’s unlikely, but he might have to give them something else.”

Yesterday, Prime Minister Borne announced she’d be meeting with union leaders and members of the opposition in order to “bring calm to the country in the face of these tensions.” The day before, she confirmed her government had ruled out using 49.3 for anything besides budgetary laws in the future. 

With another day of nation-wide strikes—the 10th since January—already underway today, disrupting public education, transportation, and other services, it remains to be seen whether this will be a death knell for a movement or if the protests rage on. At least running enthusiasts can rest assured: The organizers of the Paris marathon, set to take place Sunday, said the race will go on as planned. Just watch out for any loose trash. 

Worth Your Time 

  • In a thoughtful piece for Christianity Today, Paul Miller argues it’s a mistake for Americans to look to the government to sustain a Christian culture. “Supporting democracy is not the point of Christianity,” he writes. “It may be a happy side effect—after all, godliness ‘has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come’ (1 Tim. 4:8)—and so it is entirely plausible that Christianity has positive, unintended consequences that makes sustaining democracy easier. But Jesus did not become incarnate to make possible the First Amendment or inspire the US Constitution. Civic virtue is essential to sustaining an open society. But civic virtue is not the same thing as Christian belief, and Christianity is not the only source of it. Again, Christianity is probably good for democracy—social scientists have argued that the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience, the priesthood of all believers, and universal literacy were contributing factors to the rise of democracy in the past two centuries. But God’s common grace allowed non-Christians (like pagan Greeks) to discover and practice the principles of political freedom long before we did.”
  • We’re just 48 hours away from Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, but our minds are still reeling from the end of the World Baseball Classic a week ago. Ben Lindbergh’s, too. “The World Baseball Classic that concluded on Tuesday night can’t be topped by mere Major League Baseball,” he argues for The Ringer. “We savored an environment so raucous and intense that even buttoned-up baseballers who don’t normally play loud amped themselves up to match the emotions of their foes and fans. And all of the thrilling throat-clearing culminated in what almost seemed like scripted rising action, which ushered us from an incredible quarterfinal between Team USA and Venezuela, to an exquisite semifinal between Mexico and Japan, to a tight USA-Japan final—maybe the most-watched baseball game ever. The appointment viewing climaxed, improbably and perfectly, with a special-effects confrontation from the closing minutes of a Phase 3 Marvel movie: Shohei Ohtani pumping triple-digit heat and a scale-breaking sweeper past sometime-teammate Mike Trout in a pulse-pounding passing of the GOAT torch. Baseball can’t possibly baseball better than that. We have seen sports nirvana, and all it took to top the preceding several millennia of athletic competition was a 20-team global baseball tournament played in mid-March.”

Presented Without Comment  

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Kevin wonders whether (🔒) protecting the country from Donald Trump is a job for prosecutors, the Dispatch Politics team dives into the Chicago mayoral runoff and the efficacy of Trump’s attacks on Ron DeSantis, and Nick looks at (🔒) the two models of disruption available to GOP primary voters next year. “Republican voters crave disruption,” he writes. “But who is the candidate of disruption in 2024?
  • On the podcasts: David and Sarah discuss the constitutionality of a TikTok ban and the latest in Trump’s alleged hush-money case.
  • On the site today: Charlotte reports on the questions that still remain after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s postponement of his controversial judicial reforms, Audrey has an early look at a familiar face considering another Senate run in Pennsylvania, and Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller explain what’s behind Russian President Vladimir Putin sending nuclear warheads to Belarus.

Let Us Know

How should leaders like Macron take into account public protests and riots like the ones in France over the past several weeks?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.