Reviews | France is furious
FOS-SUR-MER, France – “This government just doesn’t listen to us,” said Renald, a 50-year-old electrician at the port of Marseille, as his colleagues set up a barricade this week on the road leading to a depot fuel. “There is deep anger here.”
That anger is unlikely to have been assuaged by President Emmanuel Macron’s TV interview on Wednesday. Breaking his near-silence on the pension reform that has plunged France into strikes and protests, he defended the legislation as an economic necessity. The vote of no confidence he narrowly survived in the National Assembly on Monday clearly did little to instil penance. Faced with a majority of the population, opposed to the reform which would raise the retirement age from two years to 64, the president is stepping up his efforts.
Some still hope the bill could be stopped. After all, there is precedent for the French government to withdraw an unpopular law in the face of mass protests, as happened in 2006. And the reform has yet to survive scrutiny by France’s Constitutional Council, the highest jurisdiction of the country, which can ask questions about the dubious way in which it was made.
Still, if the government gets its way, as seems likely, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. The damage of the last few weeks cannot be repaired. Mr Macron cut ties with potential allies, poisoned relations with potential negotiating partners and rallied a majority of French public opinion against him. Judging by Thursday’s wave of strikes, which hit everything from oil refineries in Normandy to public buses in Nice, the discontent is going nowhere.
Quite simply, it will now be harder for Mr. Macron to govern. Without a majority in the National Assembly, his Renaissance party has relied heavily on support from right-wing Republicans since legislative elections last summer. But this week, 19 Republican lawmakers backed the no-confidence motion. After such an act of unquestionable defiance, it is hard to imagine the party joining forces with the Élysée on major reforms anytime soon.
More importantly, the president has lost the trust of the French public, draining what goodwill he had left after his re-election by ignoring – once again – that millions of people voted for him out of a desire to prevent his opponent from extreme right to take power. Thanks to his pension reform, Mr. Macron’s approval rating has fallen below 30%. Calls to clean up the garbage on the streets of the capital may inflame the president’s wealthy urban base, but they have fallen on deaf ears for most of the country, which has little to do with wealthy Parisians.
Today’s political moment bears a strong resemblance to the early stages of the Yellow Vest movement in 2018, where a proposed fuel tax hike sparked weeks of protests. Then there was also seething anger from households struggling to make ends meet, widespread support for disruptive protests and a startling distancing from officials. As at the start of this dispute, Mr Macron went weeks without publicly addressing the pension battle at length, forcing his Prime Minister to take the heat instead. His first major speech on the subject since the protests began was slammed by critics as tone-deaf and condescending.
“There is a form of disconnection,” said Laurent Berger, general secretary of the country’s largest trade union confederation, the CFDT, which prides itself on its ability to negotiate and compromise. “We must put an end to this verticality where only a few are right and everyone else is wrong.” This stubbornness has pushed France into a political crisis – a crisis that raises questions about the very architecture of the Fifth Republic and the extensive power it bestows on the head of state. How is it possible for a president without a parliamentary majority to impose such an unpopular policy?
With Mr. Macron ignoring calls to hold a referendum or hold new legislative elections, calls for the reform of French political institutions could grow louder. One remedy, as historian and political scientist Patrick Weil has suggested, could be to lengthen the time between presidential and legislative elections. This would allow French voters – as they did before 2002 – to influence the president’s term through de facto midterm elections. The demand from France Unbowed, the left-wing populist party, to create a Sixth Republic that would limit the power of the presidency might start to look more appealing.
Meanwhile, the protests are becoming increasingly disruptive: activists have blocked road traffic, descended on railroad yards and staged night marches. Mr Macron’s camp has complained about confrontational tactics, while the president has even drawn parallels with the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. It’s a fanciful comparison. The protesters are responding to a government that has repeatedly ignored public opinion, appeals from moderate unions and large conventional street demonstrations. And as the French know from their own history, from 1789 and 1968 to the Yellow Vests, direct action with a popular mandate often gets results – even if it’s loud and unruly.
Renald, the mechanic, said it best. “This government doesn’t want to negotiate,” he told me outside the fuel depot. “Well, at some point, they’re going to come up against people who don’t want to negotiate either.”