France on the Brink (Again)

14 mins. to read
France on the Brink (Again)

Vive la Revolution!

One cannot understand the outbreak of mass disorder that overtook France the week before last, nor the political importance which the Macron presidency invested in it, without understanding French history.

Fires were started in the streets of Paris, Strasbourg, Lille, Saint-Etienne, Nantes and Bordeaux as well as in the streets of smaller provincial French cities like Morlaix. Protesters clashed with police, who responded with baton charges, resulting in widespread injury; rubbish piled up in the streets. Strikes have abounded – not least by air-traffic controllers who are allowed to retire at 52. All of France’s trade unions, including the reformist CFDT and the communist CGT, are bitterly opposed to Macron’s pension reforms.

The state visit – his first abroad – by King Charles III was cancelled at the last moment, so that honour went to Germany, where the King was enthusiastically received. The word was that Macron could not risk the unfortunate optics of a royal banquet at Versailles while a mob pulsated at the palace gates. I can vouch for the fact that there was a whiff of revolution in the air on the streets of Paris the weekend before last.

This was all ostensibly about Macron’s pension reforms – his bill to raise the state retirement age from 62 to 64 − which would still be one of the lowest in Europe: in the UK it is currently 66, and in Germany 67. As I discussed recently, in 1945, life expectancy in France was 66; now it is 83. And state spending on pensions amounts to about 14 percent of GDP. There are now 1.7 workers for every retiree.

But the causes of unrest run deeper than pension reform. There are doubts about the legitimacy of a president who has rammed legislation through parliament without parliamentary support. Macron effectively overruled the Senate when his legislation failed to pass and imposed the new law by decree under Article 43.9 of the constitution of France’s Fifth Republic, crafted by General Charles De Gaulle in 1958. Macron’s government has used Article 49.3 11 times in nine months. In the previous 64 years of the Fifth Republic, it was enacted 89 times.

This action allowed the protesters to claim that French democracy had been subverted, even though the government of Macron’s prime minister, Elizabeth Borne, was subject to a motion of no-confidence in the National Assembly, which she then won. In fact, Macron was elected president twice (in 2017 and again in 2022) on a programme of pension and fiscal reform. Once again, the French voted to modernise – and then resisted the modernisation passionately when it became state policy.

On 25 March a massive protest (more accurately, a riot) took place in Deux-Sèvres in western France against a proposed new reservoir, during which about 450 members of the Gendarmerie and Police National were injured, some seriously. Mind you, they managed to injure quite a few protesters in return – you don’t mess with policemen in France without getting clobbered. It was claimed that thousands of professional anarchists had been bussed in from Italy – though I have not seen that corroborated.

Foreign commentators were quick to judge that France was plunging into chaos. The American Foreign Policy Journal opined that Macron’s pension reform “has sparked one of the most serious crises in French history.” That was over the top. Rather, the recent unrest conforms to a pattern in French political life. We have seen it all before.

Much the same thing happened in 2016, when François Hollande introduced labour-law reforms, making it easier for companies to lay off workers. And in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, there was widespread commotion. Not forgetting 2006, when Jacques Chirac made it easier to get rid of apprentices. Or 1995, when Chirac raised the retirement age for railroad workers, then set at 55.

One of the anomalies of the French pension system is that each category of worker has a different pension regime paid for by the state. When any one of those schemes is restricted, its beneficiaries take to the streets. It is a kind of tradition – no one is expected to take such reversals lying down. Nous avons lutté pour nos privilèges (we have struggled for our rights), a protester once told a French friend.

In each case, the government proclaims that failure to reform will result in fiscal disaster; and in each case, opponents histrionically proclaim that France’s social model will be irreparably damaged. Usually, the executive eventually wins, even if fine-tuning its proposals in a spirit of conciliation. As the French say: reculer pour mieux sauter (make a strategic withdrawal so as to come back stronger)

A Presidential Monarchy

The natural butt of public agitation is always the presidency. This is because the Président de la République, unlike any of his counterparts in the European Union, is both head of government and head of state – a status that in Europe, Macron shares only with Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan and Belarus’s Lukashenko.

The presidential Fifth Republic was inaugurated as a reaction against what was seen as the excesses of a parliamentary system under the Third Republic (1971-1940) and the short-lived Fourth Republic (1946-58). The Third Republic, created in the aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war, was designed to circumvent the royalists who wished to restore the monarchy. This regime came to an end in the humiliating armistice with Nazi Germany in June 1940. For nearly five years France and its considerable empire was effectively wiped off the map of the world.

The Fourth Republic, during which France outdid post-war Italy with 21 prime ministers in 12 years, ended in the quagmire of the Algerian war and with the real threat of civil war in metropolitan France. Nevertheless, it was under the Fourth Republic, despite its political instability, that France became a modern industrial powerhouse. Until the eve of the Second World War, most French people still lived in the countryside. In stark contrast, England ceased to be predominantly rural about a century earlier. In the post-war years there was a massive influx of people into France’s towns and cities. France’s economic growth was amongst the highest in the world, running at around 10 percent per annum in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

De Gaulle, the last prime minister of the Fourth Republic and the first president of the Fifth Republic, assumed that a monarchical presidency would act as a unifying force on the disputatious people of France and would ensure political stability. Early on, he amended the constitution so as to elect the president – previously chosen by a conclave of “notables” – by universal suffrage, as in the US.

But De Gaulle was a war hero who embodied French greatness, and also happened to be a master of the French language and a brilliant writer. It was said of him: “Il gouverna par le verbe.” (He governed with his words). Macron, however, despite his obvious intelligence and vigour, often comes across as a slightly tetchy technocrat who is disappointed by his fellow countrymen and women. He is said to have violent rages in private followed by bouts of melancholy. Once he makes a political judgement, he brooks no opposition. He comes across as elitist. But then the French have sneaking admiration for elitism − until it collides with their core principle of egalitarianism. The slogan of the revolution of 1789 – Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité – is still deeply embedded, and is emblazoned on virtually all French public buildings.

The people on the streets were not just protesting about the principle of the state making them work for two additional years. Many women were protesting at the prospect of retirement benefits inferior to those of their male colleagues.

History Matters

In the Place de la République, Marianne, the female embodiment of the French Republic – akin to Britannia in British iconography – presides. During the recent disturbances someone spray-painted “F**K Macron” across her plinth in red paint. (Yes, in English).

Around the base of her statue, we can recall the pivotal moments in the glorious history of the Republic. Much of French history has been decided on the streets, including in July 1789, of course – when the Bastille, an ancient fortress which had come to serve as a place of incarceration for political prisoners under the ancient regime, was assailed by an angry mob.

Then again, in 1791, when the unfortunate King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were guillotined, and the First Republic was proclaimed. Next, we see a frieze that commemorates the revolution of 1830, when Charles X, the last Bourbon monarch was deposed, only to be replaced by King Louis-Philippe of the House of Orléans. Louis-Philippe’s prime minister, François Guizot, had a catchphrase: Enrichissez-vous! (Get rich). This was the time recalled in the great novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Louis-Philippe, in turn, was felled by an uprising in the summer of 1848 when all of Europe experienced popular agitation. Then came the Second Republic, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president and subsequently declared himself Emperor Napoleon III…

My point is that all French leaders must heed the lessons of history embodied in their public monuments. When Charles de Gaulle was confronted by mass protests in May 1968, 10 years into his presidency, (10 years is enough, the protesters roared), he briefly fled to a military base in Germany. Many supposed that he was going to lead the army back to France to retake Paris. In the event, he returned to the French capital and resigned a year later, returning to internal exile in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in eastern France where, shortly after, he died.

One can understand why Macron did not want to tempt fate by inciting the mob at Versailles. That said, there was an orderly transition after De Gaulle’s departure and France’s monarchical presidency has persisted for over six decades now. No French opinion leader, as far as I am aware, is arguing for a return to a purely parliamentary system.

Macron’s Future

Under the constitution, Macron cannot stand for a third term in 2027, unless he resigns beforehand. My understanding is that he could legally run again in in 2032 – although French people I speak to seem unsure about that. (Napoleon counselled future rulers of France to keep constitutions vague). He has recently made much in the media of the fact that this is not about him – a politician on his way out – it is about the future of France.

Many suppose that once Macron leaves the Elysée he will be succeeded by either of his arch nemeses – by Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) or by Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Marxist-inclined La France Insoumise(France Unbowed). Le Pen is riding high in the polls – not least because she promises to take the pension age back to 60. And Mélenchon is permanently on television – though he is often compared to Robespierre.

Macron came out of nowhere (almost nowhere – he had briefly been a junior minister under François Hollande), in 2016-17 and created a new centrist party called En Marche (note the initials – EM), now called Renaissance. His political party will probably disappear with him. What makes France’s political future even more uncertain is that the established parties of left and right under the Fifth Republic – the Socialists and the Republicans – appear to be in decline.

And yet, since the Second World War and the horrors of the Nazi occupation and the Vichy State, thus far, the left and right have repeatedly cancelled one another out in France, thus producing successive essentially centrist governments, sometimes leaning to the left and sometimes to the right. Since the revolution of 1789, the only extreme authoritarian governments to hold sway in France have emerged after catastrophic military defeat – as in 1799, 1870 and 1940. Happily, these authoritarian governments have all been short-lived.

It’s too early to say who will emerge as the front-runner for the presidential election due in May 2027. But do not underestimate France’s capacity to surprise.

Fiscal Challenge

The word “entitlement”, used in British English to denote the automatic expectation of abundant benefits provided by the state, does not really come close to describing the prevailing mindset of most French people. They enjoy excellent health care, generous state-funded pensions and innumerable perks. Over-65s in France can expense half of their gardeners’ fees to the state. Naturellement. There are effectively no prescription charges. The workers taking to the streets last month are amongst the most affluent and privileged in Europe.

The French national debt is running at around €3trn – that’s around 113 percent of GDP. State spending accounts for 59 percent of GDP – the highest in Europe. Yet on new 10-year state debt issued this week, France will have to pay 2.77 percent – that’s only 17 basis points more than Germany.

France is not yet broke. It has 25 ‘unicorns’; the Paris stock market is heftier than London’s with a roster of world-class companies; inflation is lower than the UK (the government controls energy prices); and the European Commission estimates that France will grow this year by 0.6 percent. That’s feeble – but at least France will avoid recession.

France In Europe And The World

Macron aspired to be not just the leader of France but of post-Merkel Europe too. He has always seemed more comfortable on the international stage than on the domestic one. It now looks clear that Macron’s attempts to mollify Putin in the early stages of the Russia-Ukraine war were hopeless. The mantra that “Ukraine must win” but “Russia must not be humiliated” does not amount to a strategy. But there is another reason why the Jupiterian president has not captured the European agenda: the new German Realpolitik.

The German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was a most reluctant recruit to the new Cold War against Russia. One recalls the moment just before Putin invaded Ukraine when the RAF had to fly around Germany to deliver material to Kyiv. And when the Germans, after much deliberation, sent a consignment of helmets. That hesitancy is now gone. The UK and Germany – as King Charles reminded the Bundestag last week – are the largest European suppliers to Kyiv and are now on the same page.

The Germans, post-Merkel, are more Franco-sceptic than they were. They keep putting the skids under French plans. Just last week the German automotive giants succeeded in lobbying Brussels such that the ban on the sale of new internal-combustion-engine-powered cars has been put back from 2030 to 2035. Someone once said here that the EU was constructed for the benefit of French farmers and German toolmakers.

Moreover, under Macron, France is losing its grip in francophone Africa. Mali and Burkina Faso have kicked out the French army, even while permitting Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries to operate within their territories.

Macron, riding tandem with EC President Ursula von der Leyen, is in Beijing today, where he hopes to influence China’s supposed peace plan for Ukraine – and to pep up Franco-Chinese trade. Even the right-leaning Le Point doubts this morning whether Macron will have much influence on President Xi.

France hopes to showcase herself (the French state is always feminine) to the world next year at the XXIII Olympiad (26 July – 11 August 2024). But will the police and security services cope? Paris is the most visited city in the world, though it is not the safest. I suspect that the 2024 Paris Games will be spectacular – though I wouldn’t want to go myself.

The Unlamented Demise Of Paris’s e-Scooters

When I was in Paris last week I twice almost succumbed to injury by e-scooter − ridden wackily by beaming young eco-warriors at around 30 kilometres per hour. Moreover, three people were killed in Paris last year riding e-scooters. They are everywhere and they have colonised Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ubiquitous cycle lanes, careening along the elegant boulevards like eco-missiles.

The argument for the e-scooter (trottinettes, as they are known locally) is that they are a climate-friendly form of transport favoured by the young and agile. But during the unrest they were used as flaming missiles. Nothing burns so prettily – and with so much stench – as an electric battery. Many of these devices now lie at the bottom of the Seine.

I was therefore gratified to learn that the great citizenry of Paris had voted in a referendum, last Sunday (2 April) to ban these dangerous contraptions altogether. One up for French local democracy.


Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

Traditional English proverb.

Christmas occurs almost when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere – the choice of 25 December was probably a papal error. Easter, a moveable feast, is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. This is the season of renewal, as symbolised by eggs.

For Christians, Easter is the feast of the Resurrection – the empty tomb, the spine-tingling encounter of Mary Magdalene with a figure she first thought was a gardener…Whether you think the Resurrection was an actual physical event, a metaphor for man’s spiritual ability to overcome death or just theological hocus-pocus (and I have held all three perspectives over the course of my life), we feel compelled to celebrate the efflorescence of spring after the rigours of winter.

The evenings are longer. Spring flowers are out. The greengage was in blossom when I returned to Norfolk, followed a few days later by the plum tree – the apple trees are still biding their time. I mowed the grass yesterday for the first time this year. But there’s no fresh mint yet to serve with the roast lamb on Sunday.

Wishing all my readers – including those in the southern hemisphere – a felicitous renewal.

Comments (2)

  • Tolle says:

    Plus ca change … Ps I think it was de Gaulle who brought the retirement age down from 65 to 60. Incroyable … It used to be higher than now …

    Plus ca change ….


  • Judith Gough says:

    Excellent article, thank you.
    Happy Easter

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