Is it still possible to make a government back down, to defeat a decision taken by those in power? Until quite recently, the answer in France was not in doubt. When confronted with sustained, determined and organised social movements that brought huge crowds onto the streets, the government would sometimes retreat. And thereby demonstrate that people could make their voices heard outside elections, which should not be the sum total of democratic life. A whole range of projects have been consigned to oblivion in this way: laws limiting the autonomy of private schools (1984) and increasing selectivity in universities (1986), the ‘professional integration contract’, which sought to pay workers under 26 less than the minimum wage (1993), the Juppé plan for welfare cuts (1995)… Sometimes the advocates of an unpopular reform were even forced to resign, such as higher education minister Alain Devaquet in 1986 and minister of national education Claude Allègre in 2000.
But nothing similar has happened since 2006 and the successful challenge to the CPE (contrat première embauche), which would have made younger workers easier to fire. No matter how big the demonstrations, no matter what the strategy (peaceful or rowdy marches, sit-ins, university occupations or spectacular stunts), there has been a succession of failures to force government U-turns: the struggle against granting universities greater autonomy in 2007, the battle over pensions in 2010, the mobilisations against labour laws in 2016 and 2019, and against Parcoursup, software that selects students for higher education, introduced in 2018.
Now, the Thatcherite model prevails: those in power are not for turning. Even with rising piles of uncollected rubbish, empty petrol stations, cancelled trains, closed classrooms and blocked roads. They reconcile themselves to disrupted underground services and weekly or even daily demonstrations. And if the situation becomes untenable, they requisition and repress. This harshness has even become an attribute of power in France, with ‘resisting the street’ apparently a mark of statesmanship or political courage.
Thus former prime minister Édouard Philippe could boast to students at a business school in 2021, ‘You never know which straw will break the camel’s back … In 2017 we created the labour ordinances. And I thought it was going to be terrible. Because I remembered the labour law from two years before: huge demonstrations, maximum tension. But we created the labour ordinances and they went through. We reformed the SNCF, making its workers private sector employees rather than public servants, and opened it up to competition, and we expected complete blockades. But there weren’t that many – there were some strikes and then they blew over. The idea of entering universities, higher education, on the basis of selective course choice – if you’ve followed the news of the last 20 or 30 years, you know what a minefield that is. We did it: some universities were occupied, but we cleared the protesters out and it passed’ (1). But then the Gilets Jaunes movement showed that these things don’t always blow over.
Champion of the free world
So Emmanuel Macron has stuck to his guns, hoping that, once again, the turbulence would pass. He imposed his pension reform brutally, ignoring a protest movement whose size and determination he should have been able to grasp. On nine occasions, responding to calls from an unusually united intersyndicale (inter-union committee), millions of people have marched in large cities – and in small towns that had never seen such mobilisations. Opinion polls, which the Élysée normally loves, put opposition to the reforms at 70% – or even 90% when the sample is economically active people – figures which have increased as the government has tried to ‘educate’ people and as citizens have debunked ministers’ lies. No, the reform is neither necessary nor fair, nor protective of women, and no, it doesn’t guarantee a minimum pension of €1,200 for everyone. It’s risky trying to make people work two additional years: they do their homework, they check the facts.
Pension reform concentrates most of the mechanisms now identified by political science as feeding social resentment, which itself feeds the populist parties of the radical rightBruno Palier and Paulus Wagner
Macron, who has been submissive to the European Union, which has recommended this reform but has proved incapable of convincing the French and their parliamentarians of its merits, chose simply to enforce it. He has used every conceivable weapon to curtail parliamentary debate (article 47.1 of the constitution), shut down discussions on an article as soon as ‘at least two speakers with different opinions have intervened’ (article 38 of the senate’s standing orders, used for the first time since it came into force in 2015, which allowed the issue of raising the retirement age to be fast-tracked), and to oblige senators to speak on the reform as a whole, not article by article (article 44.3).
Ultimately, on 16 March, prime minister Élisabeth Borne’s government invoked article 49.3 of the constitution, enabling it to dispense with a parliamentary vote. This is an unusual tactic for a president who prides himself on being the champion of the free world and has criticised at length ‘autocrats’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’, in which the people’s views don’t count and there’s only a rump parliament, with the opposition reduced to silence.
In the end, his pension reform, which will affect the lives of the French people for several decades, was only voted through by senators, who are not directly elected and who took care to protect their own special entitlements at the same time as abolishing those of others. The two additional years of work, imposed without the National Assembly’s approval, thus rest solely on the legitimacy of an institution dominated by a party (Les Républicains) which got less than 5% of the vote in the last presidential election, and in which two of the main parties (the Rassemblement National (RN) and La France Insoumise (LFI)) have no representation.
Macron’s presidential manifesto
Macron can’t see what the problem is: the pension reform was in his presidential manifesto, and he won the election, ergo the French people approve of it. The ‘crowd’ has ‘no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives’, he said on 21 March. A year ago, during the first round of the presidential election, the issue of pensions was barely discussed – especially since Macron refused to debate with his challengers as he had done five years earlier – and was instead given less priority than immigration, the war in Ukraine, economic insecurity… And in that first round Macron won the backing of just 20.7% of those registered to vote.
In the second round, his victory came largely from receiving votes by default, as he himself acknowledged on election night (24 April 2022): ‘I know that many of our compatriots voted for me not to support the ideas I represent, but to block the far right … I’m aware that this vote places obligations on me for the years ahead. I’m the custodian of their sense of duty, their attachment to the Republic and their respect for the differences that have been expressed in recent weeks.’ A commitment that was forgotten as soon as it was made.
Since his election, Macron has been intent on ignoring or crushing any form of opposition. In his first term, the National Assembly was reduced to a rubber-stamping chamber where the president’s majority voted in lockstep for any government project. Issues as important as the war in Ukraine, arms deliveries to Kyiv and sanctions against Russia were not subject to serious debate or put to a vote. The 2023 budget was imposed by using article 49.3 (no fewer than ten times), the unemployment benefit reform was subject to an accelerated passage, and controversial measures have been introduced stealthily by decree… As soon as disagreement arises, Macron resorts to force, ignoring checks on power to power, not even deigning to meet the unions campaigning against the pension reform, despite their repeated requests.
This arrogance can only fuel disillusionment with democracy and strengthen the feeling that the political game is inaccessible to most, playing into the hands of the Rassemblement National. The pension reform concentrates ‘most of the mechanisms now identified by political science as feeding social resentment, which itself feeds the populist parties of the radical right,’ say researchers Bruno Palier and Paulus Wagner (2). It will hit the lower middle class and people in tough physical jobs hardest – two reservoirs of votes for the far right. It also illustrates the arrogance of ‘elites’ when confronted with popular anger, and their propensity to deceive, lie and conceal to achieve their ends, while at the same time revealing institutional decay. Marine Le Pen will be all too happy to deploy these arguments when the right time comes.
The politics of contempt
As well as benefiting the far right, the politics of contempt encourages voters to simply withdraw. Because why vote? Especially for a National Assembly that has been reduced to mere shadow puppets and whose legitimacy is questionable: in the second round of the June 2022 parliamentary election, more than 53% of registered voters abstained. Some didn’t even know an election was taking place. ‘If you add the 5-6% of people who’re not registered to vote to the 53% of abstainers, it means six out of ten French people no longer vote in parliamentary elections. We’re in a situation where, at best, the majority camp in parliament has been chosen by a third of the French people, or even a quarter,’ according to political scientist Jean-Yves Dormagen (3).
And, he continues, those who do go to the polls have a distinct profile: ‘Older people and graduates have an 80% likelihood of voting, whereas young people with few or no qualifications have an 80% likelihood of not voting.’ But the upper-middle class, graduates and pensioners account for the core constituency of the president and the right, while young people, non-graduates and residents of working-class neighbourhoods tend to favour the RN or LFI. Macron can afford to encourage this ‘democracy of abstention’: it benefits him. And too bad if the gulf between elected representatives and citizens widens, or if the legitimacy of parliament is eroded, or political mistrust grows to the point that some MPs now request police protection.
In 1922 the Communist International went so far as to demand that ‘nine tenths of the electoral posts placed at the disposal of the party be occupied by workers, and not just workers who have become party officials, but workers who are still in the factory and the field.’ Those who represented the people had to share ‘their morals, their conceptions, their habits’. A century later, France’s National Assembly has only five people from the working class among its 577 deputies, less than 1% of the elected members, though this social group represents 16% of the population. Over 60% of the presidential majority (Renaissance, MoDem, Horizons) consists of senior managers and highly qualified professionals, compared to only 2% of salaried workers and no one from a working-class background.
The majority of these MPs – lawyers, consultants, bankers, company directors, doctors, entrepreneurs – have only a remote knowledge of reality in France. Secure in the knowledge that their old age will be funded through supplementary pensions and plentiful savings, they have been incapable of seeing the anger that pension reform would provoke in a population already suffering the effects of inflation and health, geopolitical, energy and climate crises…
This was a fatal mistake: unlike the hermetic world of parliament, the mobilisation against raising the legal retirement age is striking for its pronounced social diversity. What do students, often from comfortable backgrounds, and hospital cleaners have in common? Or refuse collectors in big cities and the research sector? Or railway maintenance technicians and private doctors?
In all their eyes, this reform, like so many others, symbolises the irreparable division between leaders determined to drag society backwards and the deep aspirations of the people to protect – and improve – the institutions that make a happy, decent, reasonable life possible. Yet here, suddenly, it’s the whole fabric of economic life that the government is unravelling at their expense. Because forcing workers with fewest qualifications and, in particular, women, to work two more years inevitably prompts the question: what work are they doing, why, and for whose benefit?
Six out of ten French people no longer vote. We’re in a situation where, at best, the majority camp in parliament has been chosen by a third of the French people, or even a quarterJean-Yves Dormagen
For women who provide essential services in education, health, cleaning and care work, this means adding 24 months of exhaustion to careers characterised by staff cuts, the callousness of management obsessed with performance indicators, and the rapacity of private or public contractors who are happy to organise end-of-life care for the elderly in undignified conditions while simultaneously recommending care workers receive more training in ‘humanitude’.
Other workers – in the transport, energy, electricity and telecommunications sectors, and in large, formerly state-owned companies that used to make up the infrastructure of Western countries and who, as such, benefited from special entitlements that have been obliterated one after the other by so-called reformers – will have to witness and even participate in two more years of the destruction of any collective utility in work now focused on ‘creating shareholder value’ or balancing the books.
Glacier water at €11 a bottle
Thus, the wave of protest caused by the government’s use of force may be a sign of the importance of the issues underlying the law and the way it’s been imposed. The contradiction was bound to erupt between an economic regime that flourishes by selling glitzy mobile phone covers, the right to pollute, or melted glacier water at €11 a bottle and, on the other side, a population which is increasingly sickened by politics being reduced to a choice between different ways of perpetuating a failed model. Though opting out, leaving a ‘bullshit job’ to begin anew elsewhere, requires resources and ultimately resolves nothing, the extent of the ‘great resignation’ observed on both sides of the Atlantic, including among graduates of top universities, indicates the system is running out of steam and that there is a need for hope. In 2018 the Gilets Jaunes were the standard bearers of this hope. The anger aroused by the pension reform has expanded and generalised this revolt.
Comparisons already abound. ‘For 284,000 Gilets Jaunes, at the height of their mobilisation, Emmanuel Macron blew €13bn, simply because there was violence,’ says French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) secretary-general Laurent Berger (4). ‘The police say there are 1.5 million of us on the streets, non-violent and dignified, but nobody will condescend to talk to us!’
‘Our members are asking us questions,’ said Cyril Chabanier, president of the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC). ‘Do we have to resort to violence to be heard? We get three times as many people on the street as the Gilets Jaunes and we’re not heard. Do we have to start smashing things up to get what we want (5)?’
The protests aren’t fizzling out. They’re redoubling, growing tense, and no one knows how this will end. The Constitutional Council is due to rule on the validity of the pension reform in April. But whatever it decides, these events will leave their mark. Eighteen years on, millions of French people still remember the referendum of 29 May 2005 on the European Constitutional Treaty and how the government and parliamentarians rejected their vote. ‘According to several people close to him,’ we are told, Macron has ‘no scruples, no regrets’ (6). No scruples, that’s for sure. But no regrets? We shall see.
Translated by George Miller.
(1) Address by Édouard Philippe at the ‘Essec Tuesdays’, 18 May 2021.
(2) Bruno Palier and Paulus Wagner, ‘Les lendemains politiques d’une réforme contestée’ (Political consequences of a contested reform), La Grande Conversation, 15 March 2013, www.lagrandeconversation.com/.
(3) Quoted in Le Figaro, Paris, 14 June 2022.
(4) Interview in Journal du dimanche, Paris, 12 March 2023.
(5) Quoted in L’Opinion, Paris, 10-11 February 2023.
(6) Le Monde, Paris, 19-20 March 2023.
This essay first appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.