Paris - After weeks of raucous parliamentary debate and public anger spilling onto garbage-choked streets, French President Emmanuel Macron has won his battle - for now - to raise France's retirement age from 62 to 64. But what happens next?
After Monday's defeat of two no-confidence motions, in the National Assembly, that would have toppled Macron's government - one short by only nine votes - opposition lawmakers and unions vow to repeal Macron's pension reform by other means, including ongoing strikes and protests that could paralyze the country.
"There is a massive opposition to that reform," says French political scientist and author Nicole Bacharan of the pension bill rammed through using a special constitutional measure. "The anger is growing and growing and growing. Nobody knows how far it will go."
More protests broke out in Paris and other cities following the no-confidence vote, adding to days of unrest. Police arrested dozens and put out fires smoldering on piles of uncollected trash. Garbage workers are finally getting back to work after a week-plus strike over the reform, but more than nine thousand tons of refuse continued to fester at last count.
A garbage truck sails by piled-up litter in Paris. Collectors have been striking for more than two weeks now. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
For their part, unions have called for another nationwide strike and protest on Thursday. Worker blockages in some refineries are also sparking fuel shortages in parts of the country.
Macron - who has remained largely silent amid the pension uproar - will give a televised interview Wednesday, his office says. He has chosen to address the nation at lunchtime, rather than during prime time in the evening.
He faces serious trouble convincing an angry nation.
"Can he still govern over four more years?" asked France-Info radio in an editorial, noting the president had lost his absolute parliamentary majority and faces slipping support from the center right.
A poll by popular BFMTV finds most French had hoped a no-confidence vote would pass. Another showed public disapproval of Macron and his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, had soared to 70%.
A private garbage collector is seen in northern Paris. Some city neighborhoods have been spared by the strike. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
For its part, the centrist government has downplayed the close outcome of the no confidence effort, blaming rebels from the conservative Republicans party - whose leadership promised to support the reform.
"They preferred to renounce their own ideas, their own campaign proposals rather than support the government," government spokesman Olivier Veran told RTL radio Tuesday.
Bigger tests ahead
The opposition vows to block the reform from becoming law by other means, including petitioning France's Constitutional Council.
Macron's government "is already dead in the eyes of the French," said Mathilde Panot, leader of the leftist France Unbowed coalition, calling on Prime Minister Borne to resign.
The government may face a bigger test on the streets.
Trash is piled up around overflowing bins in Paris' trendy 2nd arrondissement. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
The ongoing protests spilling into violence have sparked fears of rolling Yellow Vest-style demonstrations that swept the country a few years ago. Some observers also draw parallels with massive 1995 protests that forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppe to repeal a pension reform measure.
"What worries me is seeing violent demonstrations succeeding dignified protests and the possibility of an explosion," one leftist lawmaker told French media.
Macron made reforming France's generous and complicated pension system a central pillar of his presidency and campaign. He and his government argue the system risks going bankrupt as French age and fewer workers pay in. Currently, France enjoys among the lowest retirement ages in Europe.
His critics argue there is no immediate urgency and there are other ways to make the system sustainable, including taxing the very wealthy.
Trash clutters a bike lane in the city's 12th arrondissement. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Even more controversial, perhaps, has been Macron's method of pushing through his reform. He rebuffed negotiations with unions, then used a controversial constitutional lever - Article 49.3 - to ram the reform through without a lower house vote.
Far right the big winner?
"The accusation of isolation, out-of-touch, arrogance - it flies everywhere, including in his own support circle," says analyst Bacharan, citing conversations she has had with members of Macron's Renaissance party, including close allies.
Today's turmoil amounts to one of the biggest challenges of Macron's presidency. It's not clear whether he can recover, many analysts say - much less push through other reforms.
"No matter how Macron comes out of this crisis, he will be very, very much weakened; that's a sure thing," Bacharan says.
A poster against raising the retirement age is seen hung on a bridge in Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
Macron is "totally deaf to the aspirations of the French," said Marine Le Pen, head of the main opposition National Rally party, after the vote. She called for a referendum on pension reform action and a new government.
Observers believe Le Pen - runner up to Macron in the last two presidential elections - and her far-right party, could emerge the biggest winners from the crisis.
Strengthening their hand, Bacharan says, is Macron's apparent failure to turn his centrist movement that swept him to power in 2017 into a sustainable bloc.
"We are in a situation where the left in a way is irrelevant, the center will be gone - his party won't survive his term," Bacharan says. "And the far right is getting stronger and stronger."