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Why the French Strike

Why are the French protesting this time? Emmanuel Macron is imposing deeply unpopular reforms, and it’s one of the only ways left to check an arrogant and tone-deaf president. 

May 2023

By Moshik Temkin

A common chestnut in Anglo-American analyses of French political life is that the French love “taking to the streets,” that protesting or even rioting is a sort of national pastime they engage in perhaps for fun or lack of anything better to do. Foreign commentators are often bemused by the raucous scenes in French cities and wonder why there is so much public rage in a relatively wealthy country whose economy is the second-largest in Europe (behind Germany’s) and the seventh-largest in the world. Like many other clichés about France, this one stems from a lack of understanding of French history, politics, and society — and especially the preference among elites, both liberal and conservative, for cultural explanations of political phenomena. We see this now in coverage of the political crisis that has engulfed France since President Emmanuel Macron circumvented an unsupportive parliament to impose his signature pension reform bill, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, against the clear preference of the overwhelming majority of citizens.

French workers, students, and others are regularly on strike or protesting in the streets because in the existing French political system, and especially given the sort of political leadership the country now has, strikes and street protests are probably the most meaningful check on presidential power left to the public and sometimes the only way the people can have a voice in political and economic decisionmaking. This is a feature of the system, not a reaction to it. Thus the reasons for the strikes and street protests are straightforward: Macron has forced through his deeply unpopular pension reform in a way that, while not unconstitutional, is widely perceived as authoritarian. The strikes have been disruptive and the protests have been angry, to be sure. Making matters worse, the government has been dealing with the protests in a manner reminiscent of authoritarian states. Even the May Day marches, which are a tradition, were essentially criminalized and attacked by police forces, sometimes before they could even get started.

The legislation itself was not a surprise. Macron told voters before last year’s presidential election that this bill would top his agenda. His argument is that as the French live longer and the number of retired citizens swells, the state will not be able to afford their retirement pensions. Technocrats worldwide take this sort of policy for granted. As the IMF puts it (in a piece describing how well France is doing), Macron’s reform “aims to balance the pension system and increase the employment rate of older workers by moving the effective retirement age closer to the EU average.”

But not all experts in France find this convincing. By the most conventional metrics, France’s economy is doing well and its prospects are bright, even compared with other Western nations. Many mainstream economists believe the bill is far from necessary. And critics on the left point out that it will be the poorest and most vulnerable people, especially women — who work the at the most menial jobs for the lowest pay over the greatest number of years — who will bear the burden of the bill with two extra years of work. Moreover, for the many people at or near retirement age who cannot find work at all, the pension reform spells more years of unemployment, which will reduce the pensions they receive.

But there is more to the story than the pension-reform bill. That move came on the heels of fiscal-policy changes that Macron enacted during his first term — lowering the tax rate on corporations from 33 percent to 25 percent and creating a 30 percent flat tax on capital gains. These tax reforms, which broadly favor the rich and are supposed to boost the economy and promote the free market, will potentially deprive the French treasury (which Macron claims will lack sufficient funds for pensions) of billions of euros in revenue. At the same time, thanks to years of neoliberal austerity going back to the 1980s, state-funded services, especially public education and healthcare, have been suffering.

In general, Macron governs like an overconfident and tone-deaf young man who has just discovered 1990s-era neoliberalism. Part of his problem is that most French are fully aware that the money saved by raising the retirement age two years will not be enough to solve any long-term fiscal problems France might have. They also see that Macron, a former investment banker, refuses to make policies that could bring in enough money but would affect the bottom line of the people and sectors that he favors.

Macron seems unaware (or prefers to ignore) that his policy proposals and overall program have little to do with why he was reelected in 2022. Certainly he did not win because he is beloved by the public; outside his loyal base (older and wealthier voters, many of whom already comfortably retired, and those in the corporate and financial sectors), he is not. After receiving just 27 percent in the first round of voting, Macron went on to defeat Marine Le Pen in the second round, as he had in 2017, mainly because enough voters who deeply dislike him dislike the idea of Le Pen becoming president even more.

So, for the second time in a row, left-wing voters (younger, less wealthy, union members) came to the rescue of la république and the neoliberal order by helping to keep the extreme-right candidate, Le Pen, out of power. And for the second time, Macron responded to his victory (58.5 percent of the second-round vote) by pretending that he had a sweeping mandate to push through an economic agenda that is despised by the left and intolerable to the unions. In the National Assembly elections two months later, voters made clear their dislike of Macron’s political program by denying his party, La République En Marche! (LREM), a majority and, thus, Macron a rubber stamp for his proposals.

Historically, when the president’s party does not have a majority, the president appoints a prime minister who is acceptable to parliament, a situation that the French call cohabitation. The most famous examples of this were in 1986, when Socialist president François Mitterrand appointed UMP leader Jacques Chirac as prime minister (head of government), and in 1997, when Chirac, then president, appointed Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin as prime minister. But that was in an era when political power veered back and forth between a center-right and a center-left that saw eye to eye on the important issues. This time around, there would be no cordial cohabitation. LREM representatives complained that without a parliamentary majority the president would not be able to govern. The idea that he could take seriously the views of his opponents, rethink his most unpopular proposals, and actually keep his immediate postelection promise to be a “president for all,” never really occurred to them.

Macron appointed loyal technocrat and LREM member Elisabeth Borne as prime minister. Contrary to custom, Borne did not submit her government to an approval vote in the National Assembly, and since then relations between Macron and parliament have been broken. The National Assembly currently consists of four blocs that mostly hold each other in contempt: Macron’s center-right party, the extreme right, the “traditional” right, and the left, which has been battling Macron bitterly and openly. The extreme right is generally content to watch Macron flail; the “traditional” right sit on the fence, with just enough of its members voting to protect the government from motions of no-confidence. Macron’s party lacks a majority, and the opposition is not unified and never will be. Gridlock was inevitable. In response, Macron decided to proceed with the reform bill without parliament, sending Borne to the podium to scold members for not cooperating with the president’s agenda.

Macron decided to use Article 49.3 of the French constitution, a complex provision that allows the president to propose laws to parliament while forcing opposition members to vote on a motion of no-confidence, thereby eliminating a discussion of the bill and pressuring parliament to avoid a government collapse. This article, introduced in 1958, in the era of Charles de Gaulle and the bitter conflict over the decolonization of Algeria, is considered an emergency measure to be used sparingly. Macron has used it more times than any other president — and for far less consequential and urgent matters than ending a bloody colonial war.

With his popularity sinking, Macron has turned increasingly to foreign affairs — where he has failed to rein in Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine (a tall order from the start) and has angered the United States by seemingly cozying up to China. At home, Macron, now largely estranged from most of the public beyond his base, has minimized public appearances and press conferences on domestic issues, exhibiting what the moral philosopher Marc Crépon calls “une démophobie” — an allergy to the people — which he and other intellectuals see as degrading the democratic spirit in the Macron era.

Despite the supposedly overall good economic outlook, Macron’s approval ratings are at a record low, somewhere between 23 percent and 30 percent, depending on the poll (Borne has similar numbers). Given that this is Macron’s second and final term, he is essentially a lame-duck president with no more political capital to spend. And given how badly he has damaged the reputation of his own party and political camp, observers increasingly believe that he is simply and indifferently greasing the wheels for the eventual triumph of the extreme right and the arrival of Le Pen at the Elysée Palace as president (she would be France’s first female head of state) — the very thing that Macron’s presidency was meant to avoid; though by now, much of the French public, especially the young, see little daylight between him and the far right, and it is hard to blame them. And even by his own neoliberal standards, at least in the short term, Macron’s pension reform seems to be a failure: The credit agency Fitch downgraded France’s credit rating, an embarrassment for Macron, since this is the one thing that he is supposed to be good at. It does not help that several of his ministers appear extremely unserious. It is not encouraging, for example, for the public to see the economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, who is supposed to be occupied with their economic welfare, doing a media tour to promote a mediocre quasi-erotic novel that he somehow found the time to write.

The country is now experiencing what Bloomberg (which is not exactly L’Humanité) calls a “Vibecession,” an economic downgrading due solely to the social and political unrest following Macron’s reforms and to his governing style, which has turned much of the public against him and created the sort of political condition that investors dislike. This signifies to many that, in the end, Macron’s ongoing war against the unions, parliament, and much of the public wasn’t about the long-term health of the welfare state, or the economy, or even about pension reform. It may have started that way, but for Macron it seems to have become a war of principle and pride, no matter the cost to his own popularity or the country’s overall well-being. And that, it is unavoidable to state, has the feel of authoritarianism, or at least an imitation of it.

Moshik Temkin is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His books include The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2011) and Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X (2023).


Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Kiran Ridley via Getty Images




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