WE have, of course, been here before. Anger among the French people with the policies of President Emmanuel Macron has almost become a raison d’être.

But as protests grip the country over Macron’s deeply unpopular pension reform there is a growing sense that this is a pivotal political moment.

In many ways, it feels very similar to the early phases of the “gilets jaunes” ­(yellow vest) movement back in 2018 when a proposed hike in the fuel tax unleashed weeks of often violent demonstrations.

The only difference this time is that it’s Macron’s intention of pushing a bill through parliament without a vote that would raise the retirement age by two years to 64 that has roiled the French public.

Under the French Constitution, the ­special clause 49.3 enables the ­government to pass laws without first facing a ­parliamentary vote and has been triggered 100 times since 1962.

But within the ranks of the electorate are a growing number who see the move not only as a “denial of democracy,” but as evidence of an irreparable disconnect between a high-handed, aloof president and political elite and the real desires of the people.

Some who voted for Macron in the last election out of a wish to prevent his far-right opponent from taking power ­argue that this is not the return they were due and that any sense of goodwill has been exhausted.

For his part, Macron has long argued that pension reform is necessary to ensure the viability of France’s pension system as the population ages. He has said too that he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the bill was “necessary” and “in the general interest of the country”. If ­finalised, the plan will raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and require people to work for 43 years to receive a full pension.

“There’s a form of disconnect,” ­Laurent Berger, the general secretary of France’s largest, and often regarded as ­moderate, ­labour confederation, the CFDT, was cited by The New York Times as ­saying. “There needs to be an end to this ­verticality where only a precious few are right and everybody else is wrong.”

Many who have taken to the streets of Paris and other towns and cities are of a similar mind.

“We’re fed up with a president who thinks he’s Louis XIV, who doesn’t ­listen, who thinks he’s the only one to know what’s good for this country,” said Michel Doneddu, a 72-year-old pensioner from the Paris suburbs who spoke with ­broadcaster France24.

He held up a placard that read, ­“Jupiter, the people will bring you back down to Earth”, a reference to a nickname ­commonly used by critics of Macron’s lofty, arrogant manner.

But Macron, far from listening, has to date only doubled down on his ­determination to push through the ­controversial bill.

On France’s streets, meanwhile, he is relying on the likes of the specialist CRS police unit, which has been prominent in Paris this week engaging in head-on clashes with demonstrators. Raised in December 1944 to protect the Republic against the possibility of a ­Communist ­insurrection the CRS were also ­deployed in 1948 as strike-breakers against ­miners, a confrontation that left several ­protesters dead.

Ever since the violence that ensued ­during the “gilets jaunes” protests of 2018-19, France has seen a policing ­recruitment drive launched last year resulting in new armoured vehicles being acquired and an elite unit formed in 2021, specialised in urban warfare.

The latest police response to people power this past week could not have been starker with riot police using methods some human rights organisations have ­described as unacceptably heavy-handed.

Maintaining order will not be easy, not least given that polls have consistently shown that more than two-thirds of the country oppose the pension overhaul. A broad majority of people have also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and rubbish collection, burying the streets of Paris under piles of stinking waste.

But even with Macron’s own ­approval having taken a hit, slumping to just 28% according to a French Ifop poll last week, there is no sign he will have to leave office.

The biggest fear, say many French ­political observers, is that barred under the constitution from seeking a third term, Macron will leave behind not only a rudderless ruling party but also a power vacuum that far-right leaders, including three-time presidential contender Marine Le Pen, are yearning to fill.

The National: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis  (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images).

Trump versus DeSantis about to enter more bitter phase

HE might not yet have entered the race for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but he is widely seen as Donald Trump’s biggest rival. Ron DeSantis, the right-wing Florida governor is not expected to formally declare he is running for president until after Florida’s legislative session ends this spring, but that has not stopped Trump from launching an onslaught of attacks against what he clearly already sees as a serious threat to his campaign to return to the White House.

But questions surrounding DeSantis continue to preoccupy both his allies and critics alike. Some believe he will need to walk something of a political tightrope in trying to appeal to Trump’s base while at the same time surviving the near-constant attacks from the former president.

But there are other concerns too about DeSantis highlighted by American broadcaster NBC News on Friday in a report that suggested the Florida governor “might be missing his moment”.

According to NBC, a number of DeSantis’s donors and allies are concerned that his recent performance suggests he may not be ready for a bruising political battle against Trump. They think too that his sluggish timeline to run for the GOP nomination needs to be “accelerated” if he has any chance of stalling Trump’s momentum.

Others, says NBC, even believe that DeSantis should sidestep Trump altogether and wait until 2028 to run.

Citing a group of 16 prominent Republicans, described as a mix of DeSantis backers and Trump “sceptics” who attended a charity ball in Palm Beach, NBC quoted one attendee as saying: “They liked him, many of them might even support him… but they thought on balance that his long-term future was better without him trying to take Trump head on”.

“He will get scarred up” by Trump, the person added.

Whether such a view is shared by other prominent Republicans remains to be seen.

DeSantis’s standing rose with the Republican grassroots after he cruised to re-election by nearly 20 points in November’s midterm elections, while other Republicans across the country faltered. Yet the latest polls suggest Trump has gained ground in recent weeks while support for DeSantis has softened. Sensing DeSantis’s faltering momentum, Trump has doubled down on his attacks on the rival – he has already coined a few nicknames for him, including “Meatball Ron” and “Ron DeSanctimonious”.

Trump’s campaign team is also said to have stated that anyone working for DeSantis either on his current book tour or in his campaign will not be considered for any federal job or position if Trump wins the race for the White House.

But some Republicans say things could quickly change this coming week with the expectation that Trump could be arrested any day now to face charges in the Stormy Daniels hush money probe, making him the first president in US history to face criminal charges.

Last week, workers began erecting barricades around the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse in preparation for this potential, unprecedented moment.

As one Republican observed last week, for now, DeSantis’s challenge remains one of navigating Trump’s attacks while he demonstrates how he’s different from Trump at the same time. The battle for the Republican nomination is set to become more bitter than ever.

The National: Gibraltar  Picture: Katie Hayward

Passport check row fuels tetchy UK-Spanish relations

IT’S been described as being stuck in post-Brexit limbo. I’m talking about Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory that currently finds itself at the centre of a standoff over who should check passports at the enclave’s airport. For many Gibraltarians, the prospect of Spanish police on duty at the airport, port and frontier is unthinkable. That though is now the proposal on the table after more than a year of demanding post-Brexit talks between Britain and Spain on Gibraltar’s status and relationship with the European Union and how to allow people to cross the three-quarters-of-a-mile border freely.

Madrid has now insisted that the price must be passport checks by Spanish police at its airport and port, but the UK is firmly opposed to Spanish “boots on the ground”, according to people involved in the talks.

Under a temporary deal the UK and Spain reached at the end of 2020, most people currently crossing into or out of Gibraltar are waved through by border officials, having flashed their passports or identity cards.

On average, some 30,000 people cross the border every day. For now, the UK is firmly against the proposed measure, with officials citing the move as unnecessary and claiming it’s just another episode in Spain’s past heavy-handed treatment of the territory.

The big fear is that if a deal is not reached and full and lengthy border checks are installed, it could grind movement to a snail’s pace and have huge implications for the Rock’s economy. Around half of Gibraltar’s jobs are filled by Spanish workers. “To have fluidity of movement between Gibraltar and Spain there have to be Schengen controls at the airport,” said a Spanish official involved in the talks, referring to entry into the EU’s Schengen free travel zone. “There is no doubt. It is the only way. The passport checks have to be done by the Policía Nacional,” the official was cited by the Financial Times as saying.

After a meeting last week, the UK foreign secretary James Cleverly and Fabian Picardo, Gibraltar’s chief minister, said that “robust plans” needed to be in place for all eventualities including a “non-negotiated” outcome.

The latest tensions come after a fallout in 2013 erupted after Gibraltar began work on an artificial reef in waters that Spain claims as its own and Spain then tightened border controls, leading to waiting times of several hours.

Once again, the status of the Rock finds itself at the epicentre of tetchy UK-Spanish relations.

The National: Benjamin Netanyahu

Security services ‘guardians of democracy’ against Netanyahu 


ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at Downing Street the other day to meet Rishi Sunak. In coming to the UK, Netanyahu left behind him a nation gripped by political turmoil stemming from his moves to press ahead with the bitterly contested judicial overhaul that has sparked Israel’s most serious constitutional and political crisis since its establishment 75 years ago.

Writing in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, columnist Carolina Landsmann reported on how the former head of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, said in a television interview that the country was “living in an upside-down world”, and reiterated the warning echoed by a long list of other senior Israeli security and military officials against Israel being turned into a dictatorship. With every day that passes, there is growing evidence of strong opposition in Israel’s security services to the kind of massive changes proposed by Netanyahu’s coalition.

Writing in the US-based Foreign Policy magazine recently, Amos Harel, also defence analyst at Haaretz, outlined how the leaders of the Israeli security services – the Israel Defence Forces, Mossad, Shin Bet, and the police “are now described as the guardians of Israeli democracy”.

Harel went on to say that “if push comes to shove and Netanyahu’s coalition succeeds in passing some of its proposed laws, many in Israel expect a direct confrontation”.

It’s a chilling sign of just how deep and dangerous this crisis has become and one outlined in some detail in the American-Jewish newspaper Forward.

“For those used to thinking of militaries as inherently conservative institutions and security-minded leaders as leaning to the right, Israel’s security establishment presents a puzzle,” the paper explained, outlining the reasons why Israeli generals and security chiefs tend to be less hardline than Israeli politicians on many issues.

Foremost of these is the Palestinian conflict, the Forward argues, given that “as the people responsible for planning and fighting wars security officials understand firsthand the difference between problems that have military solutions and problems that don’t”.

It goes on to note that for the majority of generals, there is no long-term success in the West Bank without figuring out how to “lessen Israel’s footprint”. This and the need for “societal cohesion” are crucial to Israeli security. Rarely has that societal cohesion been more fragile in Israel than it is right now and Netanyahu shows no signs of backing down.