Postcard From Paris

Photograph Source: Palácio do Planalto – CC BY 2.0

That was the week that was.

“For over two years we’ve been hearing about this pension reform! Two years of ‘consultations,’ which, cross our hearts, were to be full to the brim with transparency, intelligibility and instruction. Two years enshrouded in a haze – not to say a dense fog – of a strategy which, playing for time with contradictions, altered estimates and impossible-to- reconcile positions, end up with a strike that looks set to last. Two years supposed to reassure us but which, au contraire, have only caused anguish and sent diverse age groups and trades not among the first concerned with the reform down to the street.” That’s Erik Emptaz in Le Canard Enchaîné on December 11.

But that week was mere prelude. This week is when things exploded.

In short order, talks between the government and the transport unions broke down, the Prime Minister managed to turn everyone against him, government messaging went haywire in a welter of contradictory announcements about ‘progress’, the intensity of Tuesday’s countrywide demos caused the government to recoil and the president to flee to Africa. Last but not least over this tumultuous week, the High Commissioner of Retirement, the man at the table every morning, Jean-Paul Delevoye, was forced into early retirement because of disagreeable little omissions on his financial declarations. Also known as the Haute Autorité pour la transparence de la vie publique, Delevoye lasted a mere three months before his ritualized public seppeku and must pay back 140,000 €, making him one of the first victims of pension reform.

The disappeared President, who many French regard as a King-in-waiting, is maybe not enamoured of the criticism he’s getting for his strategic blunder. Even the insiders are taking swipes: Julien Dray, an intimate from the Hollande days, writes that Macron “finds himself naked in the face of a social protest which he, if you ask me, imagined he could stifle without understanding either its scope or its depth.” With friends like that.

Discussion of the government’s latest version of its Point-Based System is enough to make anyone’s eyes roll. Better if we stay on safe ground, as the American and English press do with their copy and paste articles about French labor law and the famous 42. “ The government argues that unifying the French pensions system – and getting rid of the 42 ‘special’ regimes for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to lawyers and Paris Opera staff – is crucial to keep the system financially viable as the French population ages.” I’m sure I read that paragraph at least three times in the last ten days in the Guardian. Never a thought that a complex, technological society demands detailed consideration for different professions in its pension arrangements. Better a points-based system in which we’re all in competition and everyone is in the dark.

Poor Edouard Philippe, abandoned by his boss – off to greener fields in Africa – the Prime Minister is left to wander the halls of the Palais Elysée and Matignon and dig himself in a little deeper every day. His chic beard is rapidly turning white in odd patches while his hair retreats faster than a government negotiator. The latest gag making the rounds about the technocrats is the Simulator, the on-line machine that will calculate any French person’s pension, a delicate question given that predicting the total is subject to fluctuation in parameters such as the person’s metier, economic forecasts, health or hardship. Apparently Philippe really did demand to have the machine up and running by the 18th.

Things have become so unhinged that Laurent Joffrin at Libération called the tall, elegant Prime Minister a meathead. “What a tour de force. Edouard Philippe gives a great speech in an attempt to appease the movement against pension reform: he succeeds in mounting everyone against him. He wants to lower the tension at the SNCF, he increases its intensity. He wants to divide the métro drivers, they are more united than ever. He wants to reassure teachers, they become even more worried. He wants to deal with hospital staff separately, so they join the movement. He needs the liberal professions on his side so they join Tuesday’s demonstrations. He excludes the police from the reform, they want to ‘harden the movement’.” And so on. Joffrin concludes that the Prime Minister has exchanged his white flag for a torero’s red cape. (Edito, Libération, December 12.)

For the moment any chance of a breakthrough in talks are out of the question. Tout bloqué. A real Mexican stand-off, the kind of ‘existential’ crisis the French do so well and Americans, used to blustery executives getting their way, find a little too messy. You have to like a bit of chaos and appreciate age-old antagonisms to enjoy it. The plan to merge the current 42 pension plans into a universal points system is overwhelmingly rejected by the unions, and the ‘pivot age’ – the magic number for full benefits – is still a fantasy, unacceptable to unions like the CGT and Force Ouvrière.

The talks are going nowhere, traffic is a nightmare, tourists have fled and the Seine is rising precipitously. Everybody’s tuning up the bike and turnout at demos is breaking box-office. It’s a social occasion : even the ballerinas from the Opéra are getting in on the act. Every morning on my way to work I pass the CGT workers blaring their horns at the strike breakers and stop for a coffee. If I’m lucky there’s a bit of wine left when I cycle back in the afternoon. Of all the posters in the various manifs, my favorite is the simplest: Manu Ciao. Don’t get your hopes up just yet.

James Graham lives and breathes the rotten air of Paris. You can yell at him at

James Graham lives in France, where he sometimes assists Edouard Perrin in getting the news out about tax evasion and assorted financial skullduggery. (See the documentary Dans la peau d’un lanceur d’alerte.) His new novel is Rue des Cascades.