March 30, 2023

The French have taken to the streets, and some foreign commentators are having the vapours. Last week, Foreign Policy suggested that President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform “has sparked one of the most serious crises in French history”. Nicholas Vinocur wrote in Politico that “anyone looking at France right now could be forgiven for thinking the country was on the edge of a revolution”.

Please. While the current crisis has worrisome elements, for the moment it still fits squarely into a pattern that has prevailed in French political life for decades. Protestors against Macron’s raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64 have staged large-scale strikes and demonstrations and engaged in some theatrical violence, starting fires in the streets, and clashing with police. But very much the same thing happened in 2016, when the administration of François Hollande introduced labour law reforms, making it easier for companies to lay off workers. It was the same story in 2010, when the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. And also in 2006, when the administration of Jacques Chirac eliminated certain labour protections for young workers. And in 1995, when the Chirac administration introduced a slew of reforms, including raising the retirement age for railroad workers (then set at 55).

Each time, yes, there has been the potential for the confrontations to escalate into something greater. But there is a reason that the great sociologist Charles Tilly called one of his books The Contentious French. To a certain extent, this is simply how contemporary French politics works. In each of the cases just mentioned, the Government insisted that without reform, France would slide into fiscal disaster and economic calamity. In each, the protestors insisted that the reforms would leave France’s vaunted social security net irretrievably shattered. Both sides were in fact engaged in the classic French tactic known as the surenchère — roughly, “overbidding” — and the dire consequences they predicted failed to materialise. In some of the cases, such as in 1995, the administration retreated. In others, such as in 2016, it persevered. French life has gone on. In recent days, the numbers attending the protests have apparently diminished, and it looks more likely than not that Macron will succeed in securing the pension reform.

The contentious pattern of the past few decades can largely be explained by the structure of France’s current Fifth Republic. The republic’s founder, Charles de Gaulle, created a powerful executive that would supposedly exist high above the political fray. In theory, the president would serve as a source of national unity, bringing the people together for the common good. In practice, he has more often acted like an irritable schoolmaster, preaching to the people about what is good for them. It does not help that he is surrounded by cadres of elite technocrats from the so-called grands corps de l’état, who are generally confident that they know better than anyone else how to manage economic and social development. Indeed, for all but seven of the past 30 years, the president has been a graduate of the super-elite École Nationale d’Administration, which finally became such a lightning rod for criticism that Macron, himself a graduate, closed it in 2021.

Macron is the platonic ideal of this type: supremely well-educated, hyper-intelligent, arrogant, and largely tone-deaf to the concerns of his fellow citizens. At the beginning of his first term, in 2017, he boasted that he wanted to preside over France in “Jupiterian” fashion. He and his technocratic advisors convinced themselves that raising the retirement age was crucial for the fiscal health of the French state — though not all analysts agree — and have insisted on pushing the reform through, regardless of the extent of opposition.

The President’s “take your medicine” paternalism has especially rankled because of the way it collides with a widespread egalitarian sensibility that has much deeper roots in France’s republican political culture than the current constitution. Significantly, the arguments that have done the most to galvanise the current protests put less emphasis on the generalised hardship of having everyone work an additional two years, than on the unfairness of asking underpaid workers — especially women — to work extra years for the same inferior retirement benefits. In addition to women, the protests have drawn particularly large numbers in smaller, poorer provincial cities like Morlaix in Brittany, where close to a quarter of the population have turned out for some marches.

The most worrisome thing about the current crisis is not (yet) the degree of violence or the damage caused to the economy by repeated general strikes. The Fifth Republic has weathered worse crises, including the far larger strikes and protests that briefly sent President De Gaulle fleeing to a military base in Germany in the spring of 1968, as well as horrific Islamist terror attacks in 2015, and the Covid pandemic (not to mention an attempted coup d’état in 1961). The biggest danger stems from the fact that by obstinately insisting on pushing through this reform without serious consultation, Macron has thrown away whatever popularity he still enjoyed after his re-election last year and virtually guaranteed that he will not be able to achieve anything substantial in the remaining four years of his presidency. To make things even worse, he pushed through the retirement reform by using a constitutional provision that allowed him to enact a law without approval by the National Assembly, further enraging the opposition while cementing his reputation for arrogance. Younger protestors, for whom retirement remains on the distant horizon, have cited the use of this provision as a principal reason why they have turned out in large numbers.

Macron’s approval rating has not yet fallen into the single digits, as his predecessor Hollande’s did, but it is heading in that direction. Meanwhile, his own election and re-election have accelerated the decomposition of France’s two major political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans (the descendants of the Gaullists). Macron’s own party, now called Renaissance, remains essentially a personal vehicle that is unlikely to outlive its creator’s political career (he initially called it “En Marche”, and the initials “E.M.” were no coincidence). On the French political scene today, it is two figures from the extremes — Jean-Luc Mélenchon of “La France Insoumise” on the Left, and Marine Le Pen of the “Rassemblement National” on the Right — who enjoy the most consistent support. When Macron leaves office in 2027, as he must (he cannot serve more than two terms), the populist Le Pen may finally grasp the prize that she, and her father Jean-Marie, have striven for since the Eighties. In 1988, Jean-Marie received 14.4% of the first-round voting. In 2022, Marine made it into the runoff round, and got 41.45%. Après Macron, le déluge?

Perhaps, but here again, the historical record suggests some caution. France enjoys a reputation for ideological extremism, but in the 234 years since the start of the French Revolution, genuinely radical governments, of either the Left or Right, have held power for less than 20 of them. For far more time, the country has been governed by what the historian Pierre Serna has called the “extreme centre”: regimes, some of them nakedly authoritarian (such as those of Napoleons I and III), that posed as unifying and even apolitical. And while France enjoys a reputation for political instability, it is worth remembering that in nearly all cases, professedly centrist French regimes have only collapsed in a context of military crisis or defeat, from the First Republic trying to stave off the Second Coalition in 1799 to the Fourth Republic during the Algerian War in 1958.

Absent such a crisis, the odds are against the Fifth Republic coming anywhere near the brink of the abyss over the next few years, even if Macron continues to provoke strikes and protests. More likely is the continuation of the current, familiar political theatre. And while a Le Pen victory in 2027 is certainly not impossible, for the moment it seems more likely that yet another ephemerally appealing centrist candidate will pop up, as Macron himself did in 2017. And French life will go on.