As an exPat for the last nine and a half years, I encourage any of my readers and friends to chime in on this subject. It takes living in France a long time to understand the French.
One would have to be living in a bunker to not know what is going on in France. Transport strikes, garbage strikes, street protests, all in resistance to President Macron’s raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64 (at least that is the purported excuse though the french often don’t need much of an excuse to say they don’t like something).
Macron no longer has a majority in the Assemblée Nationale, so he enacted the new law by special powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. Last Friday, the Constitutional Council met to decide whether he was correct to do so and had France’s best interests at heart. As the sun set Friday, word came out that it was constitutional and the committee agreed with Macron 100%. He signed it into law within twenty-four hours.
People took to the streets in more protests. Monday night, Macron gave a pre-recorded speech meant to calm down the masses and urge everyone to move on. John Litchfield, who writes Opinion for The Local, an English language newsletter, had this to say on Tuesday:
“Yes, the pension reform is painful. But it was necessary. It’s all over now. Dry those tears. End the tantrums. We can move on to things you will enjoy.
Higher wages. Sharing of profits. Better schools. No queues in emergency wards. Expulsion of failed asylum seekers. Something for the Left of you and something for the Right.
Will it work? Probably not. The nationwide fit of shrieking and toy-throwing, some sincere, some synthetic and hypocritical, will continue for quite a while.
It is unlikely that President Macron will have much to show his wailing child at the end of the 100-day recovery period, ending on July 14th, that he promised on Monday night.
Superficially, this is just French politics as usual. France demands “change”. It opposes all changes.
France complains that it is slipping down the global league table of prosperity, influence and functioning public services. It refuses to accept that it should work longer or tax itself less to compete with its rivals and neighbours.
Superficially, we have been here before. All presidents for the last three decades have faced strikes and street protests against modest social reforms.
Some were withdrawn. Others such at retirement at 62 instead of 60 are now the “acquis” (status quo) which the new generation of protesters defend.
Others, such as the simplification of hiring and firing and reduction in pay-roll taxes, help to explain why joblessness in France has plunged from 9 percent to 7 percent in the last six years. Those reforms, started by François Hollande and continued by Macron, were opposed at the time by strikes, marches and scattered violence.
Surprise, surprise, no-one mentions unemployment much anymore.
But there has been something qualitatively different – almost existentially different – about the pensions reform protests of the last three months. The language is different. There is an edge of hysteria in the allegations that the modest move in the pension age from 62 to 64 is “brutal”, “unjust” and “autocratic”.
The government’s use of its special powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution to push through the reform was predictable and widely predicted. It has happened 100 times before in the last 65 years.
This time 49.3 was presented as “an assault on democracy , “a trampling of the will of the people”, an act of “violence which called for a violent response”.
Close to my village in Normandy someone has erected a cardboard sign with the scrawled message in felt-tip pen: “49.3 = 1789”. Revolution is in the air again, in the Gilets Jaunes rural heartlands, not just among the self-pleased, black-clad, young bourgeois anti-capitalists who smash shop windows and burn cars in Rennes or Lyon or Paris.
Compare and contrast this hysteria (I believe that the word is justified) with the unemotional language of the Constitutional Council’s ruling last week. The nine “sages” declared that the pension reform was reasonable and constitutional – and so was the manner of its enactment.
The Council said that the increase in the official retirement age to 64 by 2030 would “assure the financial balance of the (state pension system) and guarantee its survival in the light of the increase in life expectancy”. The government’s use of several special powers to hurry and then force a decision was “inhabitual” but not contrary to the Constitution.
Normally the pronouncements of The Sages are accepted without much comment. On this occasion, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the radical Left, said that it was a “violent” decision which would encourage a violent response.
Macron’s decision to sign the pension reform within hours of the Council’s decision was presented, even by moderate union leaders, as a “denial of democracy” and an “autocratic” refusal to listen to the voice of the people.
All of this can be dismissed as the sour grapes of bad losers. Mélenchon, who has been stirring violence for weeks, has little right to talk of democracy.
But those who believe – like me – that the pension reform is modest and justified must also now accept that something is happening here which goes beyond the recent French cycle of reform and protest. It is something that also goes beyond rampant Macronphobia of many French people.
Solenn de Royer in a column in Le Monde said that this has become a revolt not just against pension reform, but against the technocratic, top-down, diluted democracy instituted by Charles de Gaulle 60 years ago. There is much truth in that.
Emmanuel Macron claimed in 2017 to be a suited revolutionary. He was an impatient young man with many good ideas but he was no revolutionary. He was – and he was seen by many to be – the epitome of the kind of technocrat who used to stand behind presidents. Now HE was the president.
The father-knows-best tone of his 15 minute address last night – “dry your tears; lets move on” – placed Macron firmly in the Fifth Republic tradition of paternalistic semi-democracy. In the age of social media and the collapse of old political allegiances, that no longer works very well.
The Gilets Jaunes movement of 2018-9 already revealed a formless hunger for a new, more direct kind of popular control of decision-making. It also exposed how dangerous that desire can be.
If the French people want to have more direct control of their lives, they also need to move on. They need to grow out of the child, or teenage-like, modes of thinking which the top-down Fifth Republic has encouraged.
“The state (like mummy and daddy) is all-responsible and usually wrong. The state should do more but we should pay less taxes.”
In sum, the crisis over pension reform is both absurd and profound. It is both Macron’s failure and France’s failure.
A drum-beat is already starting suggesting that Marine Le Pe and the Far Right will reap the benefits in 2027. That is the subject for another column.
But I believe that, in four years’ time, the country may be more likely to revert to the unthreatening immobilism of the Chirac years: someone who promises to “listen” and then delivers little.”—-The Local
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5 thoughts on “What’s going on in France?”
It sounds like it’s long since past time for you to return to America, Sara. Wouldn’t you be much happier amongst people who are used to working more hours for more years, who constantly strive to pay fewer and fewer taxes, and don’t have to worry about a government that pays for healthcare, education and pensions?
Thank you, Sara. I’m sorry if this is an unthinking remark, but here goes. “Let them eat cake!”
Was Marie just out of touch?Unfeeling? Maybe not. Surely, I don’t know.
The age old money problem: increase income, spending less! But always have one’s wants met.
The working people feel the brunt.
Somewhat the same here in the USA. I do not know how any one can hold on to hope in this life without having our faith first in God.
Thanks for a very detailed and informative post. Having also lived in France in the 1960’s, and experienced Les Vestes Jaunes in 2019, I can only add “Rien ne change pas, les françaises sont les françaises, n’importe qui et n’importe quand, mais toujours intéressantes.
Wow – thank you for all the insight and context Sara. It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in France from
across the Atlantic.
For one American who has lived 20 years in France as French, Macron will win out because the changes are needed in the modern world! We still have one of the best social package in the world. The only binge is the 49.3 that is not democratic but then again the forefather knew of the French complaints ie strikes jejeje! Vive la différence! Salut