The latest French way to get mad at the pension law: pans
Spread out on a motorway so that no car could pass, around 100 protesters banged pans in a deafening din that echoed across this remote valley in eastern France last month. They were walking towards a nearby castle where the French president was due to arrive, determined to get in his way and create a cacophony around the visit.
Suddenly, a helicopter carrying President Emmanuel Macron appeared overhead, the sound of its blades briefly drowning out the din. Although vociferous protesters did not stop the French leader’s visit, the scene was a heartbreaking reminder of the fury that has dogged his government since it enacted a wildly unpopular pensions overhaul this spring that raised the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 years old.
For weeks, opponents of change have harassed Mr Macron and members of his cabinet by banging pots and pans on official trips. In a country with no shortage of cooking utensils, the protests, known as “casserolades”, from the French name for saucepan, have disrupted or halted dozens of visits by ministers to schools and factories.
Like the 2018-19 “yellow vest” protest movement that began over fuel prices and then spread to include multiple grievances, the fist bump has also become a symbol of wider discontent in France after months of massive street protests that failed to get the government to back down on pension changes.
“The drive to muffle and respond with noise reflects a sort of discrediting of political discourse,” Christian Salmon, French essayist and columnist for online publication Slate, said in an interview. “We are not listened to, we are not heard after weeks of protests. So now we only have one option left, which is not to listen to you either.
Mr Macron’s decision to raise the legal retirement age is based on his belief that the country’s current pension system, which relies on payroll taxes, is financially unsustainable. Because asset-backed retirees live longer, people also have to work longer, he says.
The pensions law was passed using a constitutional provision that avoided a full parliamentary vote. Mr Macron defended the decision in a television interview on Monday as an act of responsibility, noting that key government decisions in the past, such as building France’s nuclear force, had used the same mechanism.
The casseroles began a month ago during a televised address by Mr Macron who wanted a way out of the pension upheaval. Determined to continue the fight, protesters gathered outside town halls across France to blast pots and pans. In Paris, many residents joined in their apartment windows, filling entire neighborhoods with metallic notes.
The culinary war cry spread quickly. Before long, members of government were greeted by a cacophony of cooking utensils on official trips across the country.
“We want to show them that we are not giving up the fight,” said Nicole Draganovic, a protester who was hitting a pan on the motorway in La Cluse-et-Mijoux in eastern France last month.
Around her, amid red union flags, echoed the sounds of a myriad of typical French kitchen utensils: sieves, lids and frying pans banging in time with metal and wooden spoons. Potless protesters stalked the metal fences that lined the highway.
“It’s like a symphony,” Ms. Draganovic said.
Several people involved in the weeks of protests said the main message was anger at the government’s decision to push through the pensions overhaul without the backing of a majority of voters or unions.
“It’s a total denial of democracy,” said Stephanie Allume, 55, who was banging a stainless steel saucepan during a May Day protest in Paris. “When it is no longer possible to dialogue with our government, we cover their voices with the noise of our pots.”
The casserolades – the latest stage of a protest movement that began with peaceful marches that drew millions to the streets and then spawned “wild protests” marked by intense vandalism – also reflect a centuries-old tradition of protest in France.
According to Emmanuel Fureix, a historian at the University of Paris-Est Créteil, pot-banging dates back to the Middle Ages in a custom called “charivari”, which was intended to shame ill-matched couples. The tradition then took on a political twist in the 1830s, under King Louis Philippe I, with people banging pots and pans at night under the windows of the houses of judges and politicians to demand more freedoms.
These casseroles, Mr. Fureix said, were “an everyday object, an instrument that embodied the voice of the people” in an era of political misrepresentation — a theme echoed in today’s casseroles. “The revival of gestures that belonged to an undemocratic era, the 19th century, is precisely the symptom of a democratic crisis,” he said.
Mr Macron was visibly annoyed by the pan banging, saying “it’s not the pans that will take France forward” — to which Cristel, the French cookware maker, replied on Twitter: “Mr. President, at @cristelfrance we make pans that help France move forward!!!”
The French leader also strongly rejected the idea that the country has reached a democratic crisis, noting that the pension law was passed in accordance with the country’s constitution. In Monday’s TV interview, he tried to top the controversial reform by announcing tax cuts valued at 2 billion euros, or about $2.2 billion, for the middle class before the end of his term. .
“The country is moving forward,” Mr. Macron said.
But unions have called for another nationwide day of protest early next month, and the government’s response to the pandemonium speaks to the unease.
Many ministers are now announcing their travel plans at the last minute for fear of being surprised by pan crackers. And police used anti-terrorism laws to ban several protests and on one occasion confiscated protesters’ pots and pans after local authorities banned “the use of portable audio devices”.
Mr Fureix said the government had been “trapped” by the casseroles, just like Louis Philippe I in his day.
“If they suppress, they make a fool of themselves,” he said. “That is the case today, as it was in the 19th century when trials turned into political platforms for opponents. If they do nothing, the phenomenon amplifies.
And he grew.
A website created by a union of tech workers now ranks French regions for casserolades based on the level of cacophony and the importance of the official concerned. At a recent protest in Paris, protesters held up a giant cardboard pot and spoon, instantly providing surrounding crowds with a mascot to rally around.
The omnipresence of pots and pans was such that Mr. Salmon, the essayist, drew a parallel with the demonstrations of the “yellow vests”. Both, he said, are objects “onto which each can project their own meanings” and claims.
At the May Day protest, Ms Allume said she saw great meaning behind the pans, including the struggle to put food on the table and the desire to vent her anger. She said her own pot that she banged had once been used to cook pasta and then melt depilatory wax.
“He’s had many lives, and now he’s ending in a protest,” she said.