Protest, like cruelty to animals, is an essential aspect of French national life. Yet last December seemed intolerable even for a people accustomed to the theatre of disruption. Emmanuel Macron’s decision to overhaul France’s pension system brought half a million enraged citizens into the streets. Christmas became a casualty of nationwide strikes. Trains halted. Trucks piled with produce and goods sat still on clogged highways. Parisian restaurants overflowing with a surplus of supplies for the festive season scrambled for staff and diners. Department stores on Champs Elysees registered losses. Office-goers took expensive taxi rides to work or walked for hours, leaving home early and returning late. Garbage accumulated on the pavements. Anger erupted on the roads. Scooter and bicycle collisions surged by 40 per cent. The police grew habituated to bloodying demonstrators with truncheons and hurling gas grenades at them.
Macron, two years ago the great hope of Europe, sealed himself in the Elysees Palace as the most potent domestic challenge to his presidency intensified beyond its gates. Édouard Philippe, his prime minister, told parliament that the government was not going to back down. Its determination to revamp pensions, Philippe declared, was “total”.
Macron’s winnowing band of admirers claim to be flabbergasted by the president’s decision, after being bruised by the Gilets Jaunes uprising triggered by soaring fuel prices, to expend his shrunken political capital on something as combustible as pensions. But it’s far from surprising that he elected to have a showdown with France’s formidable unions in pursuit of a cause that exhausted his predecessors.
The race to reform is animated by a triad of Macronian fixations. The first is vanity: he wants to succeed where others failed. The second is the financier’s obsession with balancing the books: a deficit of about 3 billion Euros which he wants to plug by altering the entire system. The third is the president’s messianic belief that he alone can impart discipline to what he calls a nation of “slackers”.
The existing disparities in the pension system created an opening for Macron to brand his move as a fight for fairness—and he exploited it breathlessly. French workers and employers make mandatory “pay as you go” contributions towards retirement plans managed, for the most part, jointly by representatives of both parties. There are private options on offer, but they do not grant workers a say in the handling of their contributions. The system, having grown intractably complicated over seven decades, now has forty-two pension programmes. Some, allowing early retirement, are more generous than others. Employees of France’s state-owned railway company SNCF, for instance, are able to retire between the ages of 52 and 57.
Macron cast them as chief villains in his campaign to replace the existing regime with a points-based system which will raise the age of retirement of workers. The man who won office in 2017 by rhapsodising about hope resorted to inciting mass resentments and pitting workers against each other. And having given a generous tax cut to the richest families in France in his inaugural budget—and made up for the loss of revenues with spending cuts—he scoffed at the “privileges” of the French working class. From Asia to Europe, the tragedy of labour unions and workers’ movements is the ease with which they have crumbled under the burden of such tactics. The French, to their credit, resisted. Macron’s plan to foster division among workers did not work.
The fact that the unions have not alienated the general public in spite of incessant strikes may be the result partly of the suspicion the president evokes in people. A millionaire former investment banker, Macron appreciates the minutiae of the financial system in a way others cannot. And he exhibits the kind of exasperation that comes naturally to people who believe they have figured everything out. Two years ago, when a young gardener explained to Macron his difficulty in finding work, there was no presidential empathy on offer. Not even a perfunctory look of sympathy seized Macron’s features. Instead, he blamed the gardener for his misfortune. “I cross the street and find you a job,” he told the man.
Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, was a big part of the reason he looked like a fount of hope in 2017. But strip away the slick rhetoric and ignore the extremely useful foil supplied by Le Pen, and Macron is, at his core, a technocratic fiscal conservative with a penchant for showmanship who became an unlikely beneficiary of a peculiar moment in history when an electorate repeatedly betrayed by France’s traditional political parties was faced with the choice between the coherent bigotry of Le Pen and the abstract alternative offered by Macron. The young people who marched under the standard of Macron’s En Marche knew what the movement was not: it was not right wing and it was not left wing. What it actually was nobody knew.
After the election, the hauteur of the high-achiever, powered into office by platitudes, mutated into hubris. His presidency hasn’t halted the rise of France’s far-right. It has accelerated the disillusionment of the French electorate. To Le Pen, Macron is the last gasp of a dying old order. She has rebranded her party—environmentalism is now a key plank of National Rally—and the obliteration of the old parties by Macron has removed the conventional obstacles to her ascent. Left-wing voters who could always be counted on to vote for right-of-centre candidates in order to keep out the far-right, now orphaned, are ripe targets for Le Pen. She is labouring hard to lure them in the same manner that Boris Johnson enticed traditional Labour voters. Le Pen, animated by conviction and hungry for power, listens to the voters. Macron, emitting banalities and immersed in self-adoration, condescends to them. She is soaring in the polls. He has the worst approval of rating of any president other than Hollande.
A quarter of a century ago, similar protests seized France. Alan Juppé, the prime minister at the time, was set on pushing through reforms to pensions. He had the support of his boss, president Jacques Chirac, who refused to backtrack and announced he had not been “elected to organise the decline of France”. It was Chirac’s mentor, Charles Pasqua, who tempered his hot-headed protégé’. “The government tells our people that the only objective is to fight against deficits and debt,” Pasqua said. “But you cannot run this country as you would run a board of directors. The French need dreams, they need hope, and they need passion.” Chriac had the wisdom to withdraw. Macron, an interloper in politics, cannot bring himself to do that. Despite minor concessions by the government in recent weeks, Macron’s MPs are deserting him in the National Assembly. Even his prime minister has floated a campaign to be elected mayor of the northern port city of Le Havre—an insurance policy that bespeaks the perils of investing hope in personality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 28, 2020 under the title ‘Disenchantment in Paris’. Komireddi is the author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
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