March 27, 2023

Five years ago, the only roundabout in my nearest town in Normandy was seized by people in yellow hi-viz jackets who had never joined a demonstration before and, in some cases, had never bothered to vote. Last Thursday, several French cities were laid waste by marauding gangs of young people in black hoodies – many of whom were not old enough to vote. My town in Normandy was completely calm.

In both cases, the principal focus of the anger was President Emmanuel Macron, accused of being arrogant, monarchical, aloof, cruel, sinister, brutal and unjust. Between the two revolts, Macron became the first French president to be re-elected for two decades.

The two rebellions inevitably tell us something about the young French head of state. To preside over one revolt may be regarded as a misfortune; to provoke two in the space of six years looks like carelessness. And yet the present crisis in France is not just Macron’s crisis. It is the culmination of a failure of French governance over four decades. It exposes the child-like refusal of the majority of French people, and most political parties, to confront simple demographic and economic truths.

The postponement of the state visit of  King Charles III, which was supposed to start last night, is not just a humiliation for the President. It is a serious blow to France toute courte. One of the world’s largest and richest countries could not guarantee a safe visit by the head of state of its neighbour and ally because of an incendiary row over a modest reform.

The twin rebellions of the Macron era — the Gilets Jaunes revolt of 2018-9, and the pension reform revolt of 2023 — have different origins but the same underlying causes. The Left-Right pattern of French politics has broken down and debate has been hystericised. The country has a political system and culture which at once demands, and detests, a supreme leader.

The protests in both cases have been piggy-backed by a tiny, violent minority of the priggish ultra-Left which seeks to overturn the state by injuring “flics” (cops) and smashing bus-shelters. The violence on Thursday night — 903 acts of arson in Paris, 441 police injured nationwide, 1,500 young, black-clad rioters — was significant. But not motivated by the prospect of working two years longer in the 2060s for a state pension.

The pension revolt is more conventional in its origins and its protagonists than the Gilets Jaunes rebellion as well as being more threatening and more dangerous — and not just for Macron. The Gilets Jaunes protests began as a violent awakening of a peripheral, rural and outer-suburban, France which demanded “change” because it felt ignored and despised. They detested all politicians and political parties and all trades unions. The tone was Poujadiste or populist Right-wing — anti-elite, anti-government, anti-state, anti-parliamentarian, anti-tax.

The pensions revolt is a more typical, latter-day French revolution: a conservative Left-wing rebellion against change by people who constantly demand Reform with a capital R but resist all reforms. It has been led by all eight trades unions federations and by the political parties of the Left. Marine Le Pen’s Far Right opposes the reform but remains cynically silent, hoping eventually to benefit from the chaos.

The one thing that does unite the rebellions is an exaggerated contempt for Emmanuel Macron. His predecessors — Messieurs De Gaulle, Giscard, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande — were detested in their day. There is, however, something about Macron which provokes a deep and unreasoning hatred among many French people.

He is accused of being both an elitist and an upstart; a president for “the rich”; an autocrat; someone who despises ordinary people and has no understanding of their lives and how to speak to them. But every French president for half a century has failed. Macron has failed less than most of the others. He has reduced unemployment from 9% to 7%. He has started, tentatively, the re-industrialisation of France after two decades of rapid decline. The French economy recovered from the Covid pandemic more rapidly than almost all other rich nations.

The President’s insistence on pension reform, at a time of war in Europe, soaring inflation and Post-Covid exhaustion, was ill-advised. His decision to override a normal parliamentary vote to impose the reform (though perfectly constitutional) was courageous — but, in the circumstances, foolish. His reform, though, is neither. It is modest and sensible.

France’s life expectancy is among the highest in Europe. It works less – in terms of average hours worked by all adults – than other large industrial nations. The country has not balanced its state budget for half a century. Its accumulated public deficit of 113% of GDP is well above the eurozone average at a time when interest payments are surging.

The state pension system — actually 42 different regimes — is supposedly funded by the monthly payments of workers and employers. Its permanent deficit in the state sector is disguised by a 30bn euros a year “bung” from general taxation. And it is unjust. Generous early retirement schemes for rail, Metro and other state workers are co-funded by taxes paid by private sector workers who retire later on poorer pensions.

Macron argues that pension reform is the “mother of all reforms” — a first step towards increasing France’s capacity to generate wealth and to fund its generous welfare state without permanent, swelling deficits and debt. But the Unions and Left-wing parties and Marine Le Pen’s Far Right – and an opportunist section of the supposedly fiscally responsible centre-right – describe it as “brutal”.

Brutal? If the reform goes ahead (as it may) the official French retirement age will rise from 62 to 64 by 2030 — it will still be lower in seven years’ time than it is in most European countries now.

Unfortunately for Macron, democratic politics is not about being the cleverest boy in the class. You must not only have the right answer but also convince a majority of people that the answer is right. Macron and his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, have failed to sell their reform. They have alternated between saying that the changes are “just and fair”, and saying it’s a painful necessity to prevent the state pension system from collapse. Only recently has Macron confronted the French with the most urgent reason for reform: the need to give France’s international creditors proof that deficits and debt are under control.

The UK Right will hate the comparison, but there is much of the Margaret Thatcher about Emmanuel Macron. He has set out to reform the country for its own good and against its will. Thatcher, admittedly, had much of the media and the House of Commons on her side; Macron, however, attempted to impose pension reform without a parliamentary majority and with little support in the French media. (The centre-Right Le Figaro is an exception.)

It is doubtful whether Thatcher — or Abraham Lincoln or Cicero or John the Baptist — could have convinced the French public that it needs to work longer to preserve its social model and its way of life. But Macron’s failure is striking all the same. In January, 66% of the public opposed retiring at 64; according to recent polls, the figure is now 73%.

That is Macron’s failure but it’s not just Macron’s fault.

There is a systematic refusal by a large part of the French public to accept that the country is living beyond its means. Macron reinforced their illusions by spending “all that it takes” to sustain businesses and individuals through the Covid pandemic. He spent another 100bn euros on softening the impact of energy inflation last year

The French economist, Philippe Crevel, says: “The French seem convinced that public expenditure has no limit. If Macron can spend 100bn euros on defence, why can’t he spend the same on pensions?

This irresponsibility has been reinforced by the break-down of the old Left-Right framework of French politics. There is now an unstable, three-way division between a reformist centre, a populist-nationalist Right and a radical, anti-capitalist Left (incorporating the Greens). The parliamentary elections last June split almost precisely along these lines, giving Macron the biggest bloc of seats but no overall majority.

Both the radical Left and Le Pen’s far Right have incoherent economic programmes. Both campaigned last year for the official pension age to be reduced to 60. The Left believes all can be solved by “taxing the rich” and “taxing business” in one of the most taxed countries in Europe. Le Pen wants simultaneously to spend big, to reduce taxes and to cut deficits. All will be made possible she says, by spending less on migrants.

Macron and Borne had planned to push through their pension reform with the help of the rump of the centre-right Gaullist party (Les Républicains or LR). They might have succeeded. They constantly altered their reform to suit centre-Right demands. The party leadership promised its support. But in the end, almost half the 61 LR deputies refused to go along, motivated by opportunism or fear of their constituents.

Macron had to then use his constitutional power to impose the legislation without a “normal” vote. This special power under Article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic constitution has been used 100 times since 1958 by governments of all persuasions. So why the outrage and outbreak of violence?

Partly because imposing the vote fits the “autocratic Macron” narrative. Partly because leaders of the radical Left have been encouraging — and then partially disowning — violence for weeks. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the biggest Left-wing party, La France Insoumise, spoke of defeating the pension law by “force”. Another radical Left leader compared Macron to the Emperor Caligula (whose interest in Roman state pension systems has yet to be confirmed).

The worst street violence in France comes from the shadowy “black blocs” of the ultra-Left but its dynamics are curious. Mélenchon and other leaders on the Left vaguely condemn it, but delight in the sense of national crisis that it creates; governments condemn it, while hoping that it will scare the peaceful majority and reduce turn-out at demonstrations.

Violence — from the black blocs, from a radical wing of the Gilets Jaunes and from the police —  eventually ruined the Gilets Jaunes movement. It may also deflate the pension protests but defeating them will be much harder.

Macron could see off the Gilets Jaunes because they had no leaders and no clear demands. The anti-pension reform movement, by contrast, is well-organised and has a single clear objective: to kill the reform. In the past couple of days, moderate unions have offered Macron a route of honourable retreat. If he “pauses” the reform for six months, they will enter negotiations on wider reforms, including pensions.

Macron is unlikely to back down. If he did, the remaining four years of his mandate would probably be (international diplomacy apart) a wasteland. If he persists, it may also be a wasteland but at least he will have achieved his pension reform.

But, truce or no truce, the real French crisis will not be over. The underlying causes of Marcon’s twin rebellions will remain. The French political system is distrusted; there is no majority in the country for any clear course of action; the people are unwilling to be accept even a modest degree of pain or sacrifice to confront reality.

That is not just Macron’s failure. It is France’s failure.