March 21, 2023 - 10:24am


Macabre references to beheadings have dominated the latest crisis in French democracy. “Decapitate Macron” graffiti is commonplace, as protesters compare the President of the 5th Republic to an ancien régime monarch fit only for the guillotine. 

They are furious at the way he bypassed a parliamentary vote on raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 last week, and instead pushed through the hugely unpopular measure by emergency decree. Even when opponents of Emmanuel Macron’s government attempted to bring it down with two no-confidence votes on Monday, both failed — the principal one by only nine votes. This was despite opinion polls showing that close to 70% of the country is against the reform, and multiple MPs receiving death threats advising them not to support Macron.

Constituents reacted with more of the rioting which first broke out on the Place de la Concorde — the largest square in Paris, and the place where Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed at the height of the French Revolution. 

“Of course, people are angry — the parliamentary system isn’t working,” a 19-year-old protester told me as he made his way through the city with a gang on Monday night. “Macron thinks he’s the king and can do whatever he likes, despite nobody agreeing with his policies.”

Gatherings have by now been banned on Concorde, so the fast-moving protesters were destroying building sites nearby, setting fire to bins, and chanting “Rise up Paris!” Convoys of police vans were in pursuit with sirens blazing, all of them full of riot control officers preparing to engage the citizenry with batons and tear gas. In all, 234 arrests were made in the capital last night.

While youngsters inevitably spearhead the disorder — many are students who can outrun plodding police wearing body armour — there are plenty from older generations who join in. They include manual workers approaching retirement — those who feel that Macron, a former merchant banker and tax civil servant, represents a soft financier class with little idea about what real labour entails.

Demonstrators are trying to replicate the success of the Gilets Jaunes — the Yellow Vest movement that regularly rioted from November 2018, in the early months of the Macron presidency. They caused millions of euros worth of damage, and turned many upmarket areas of Paris into battlegrounds every Saturday, their designated protest day.

The Gilets Jaunes had a great deal of political success too: following an early uprising on the Champs-Élysées that saw the Arc de Triomphe itself sacked, Macron scrapped green taxes on fuel. Such U-turns are relatively common when the street speaks in France, including over the vexed issue of pension reform.

In 1995, then-President Jacques Chirac tried to change the universal retirement system, but dropped all his new measures following three weeks of paralysis, including widespread rioting. Subsequent heads of state, notably Nicolas Sarkozy, also saw many of their liberal economic policies — once aimed at balancing budgets and reducing reliance on the state — foiled by mob dissent. In this sense, concerted expressions of ferocity can and do work, especially when parliament fails to reflect the views of the population. 

The 5th Republic favours an overwhelmingly powerful presidential government: it was founded in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle, who wanted an “elected monarch” to dominate rather than a National Assembly and Senate wracked by division and intransigence. Disorder comes when this republican king (there has never been a female president of France) is perceived as becoming too aloof and disconnected from the wishes of ordinary people.

Beyond hiding away in the Élysée during the current crisis, including making convenient trips abroad, Macron has been preparing for a state visit to Paris by the British monarch, King Charles III, which starts on Sunday. Plans include a glittering state banquet at Versailles — one that will do absolutely nothing to reduce the allusions to monarchical executions being aimed at the man once hailed as the new Sun King.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.