Friday briefing: How French pensions protests reached new heights last night
Good morning. Since Emmanuel Macron forced through his plans to raise the pension age in France last week, public dismay over the change to a fiercely protected feature of French social policy has been bubbling. Last night, at the end of the ninth day of nationwide protests since January, that anger reached boiling point.
The most visible symbol of the tensions came in video from Bordeaux, where the doors of the city hall were set alight after a day of intensifying action on the streets. The blaze was quickly put out by firefighters. But all over the country, the unpopularity of Macron’s plans was plainly visible. The authorities put the number of people on the streets at 1.1m, while unions said it was about 3.5m. Either way, the severity of the clashes between protesters and the police – and scale of the wider movement – suggest that the fight against the reforms is far from over.
Today’s newsletter takes you through what happened yesterday, the debate over the reforms, and what the events of the last week mean for Macron’s – and France’s – future. Here are the headlines.
Five big stories
Care homes | Taxpayers have spent close to half a billion pounds buying beds in the worst care homes in England in the last four years, driving profits for private investors while residents suffer unsafe treatment, a Guardian investigation has revealed. In 2022 one pound in every five spent buying residential elderly care went on homes in the poorest categories.
Coronavirus support | Just 1% of the estimated £1.1bn lost from the government’s Covid business support programme in England as a result of fraud and error has been recovered so far, the public spending watchdog has said in a report urging ministers to learn lessons from the scheme.
TikTok | The chief executive of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, was forced to defend his company’s relationship with China, as well as the protections for its youngest users, at a testy hearing in Washington on Thursday. The hearing came amid a bipartisan push to ban the app entirely in the US over national security concerns.
UK news | A council leader who has been embroiled in a row after ordering the felling of more than 100 trees is to resign. Richard Bingley, the leader of Plymouth city council, signed an executive decision to remove the trees to make way for a £12m regeneration scheme, a move which angered opponents who called it “environmental vandalism”.
Media | The BBC has said it will not resume filming the latest series of Top Gear after co-presenter former England cricket captain Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff was injured in a crash last year. The broadcaster said there will be a health and safety review on the motoring show.
In depth: ‘The protests are transforming into anger about our democracy’
On Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron made a live TV appearance to defend his plan to raise the official retirement age in France from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote – and if any of his opponents were hoping for a message of compromise, they were sorely disappointed. Macron ruled out any change to the deeply unpopular policy, and also rejected calls for a reshuffle of his government or the resignation of his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne. He said he had only one regret: “That I have not succeeded in convincing people of the necessity of this reform.”
That was one of the triggers for the scale and intensity of yesterday’s action – but the protesters’ anger is not limited to Macron’s management of the situation, or even the pension reforms. One protester told the FT (£) yesterday: “We’ve been going to protests since January and originally it was against the pensions reform. Now it’s transformed into anger about our democracy.”
Here’s a summary of the situation in France, and where it might go from here.
Yesterday’s protests | An optimistic mood – then vandalism and teargas
The protests since Macron pushed through his pensions policy have been on two tracks: on the one hand, an optimistic, sometimes festive spirit during union-organised daytime marches, and then a darker mood during unofficial actions at night.
Yesterday followed that pattern again, with largely peaceful marches during the day, including one in Paris with an attendance estimated by police at 119,000, and unions at 800,000. Later, the BBC reported, “as soon as police showed up, it’s all kicked off”. As well as the fire in Bordeaux, there were clashes in the capital, Kim Willsher reported, with casseurs (smashers) in masks wrecking bus shelters and newspaper kiosks, breaking windows, and throwing stones at police, who used teargas to disperse them. In Rouen, a woman reportedly had part of her hand blown off by a teargas grenade.
The two sides predictably disagreed on who was ultimately to blame for the escalation. French interior minister Gérald Darmanin called the casseurs “thugs” and blamed “mostly young” protesters on the “far left”. But Marylise Leon, deputy secretary general of the CFDT union, called the trouble “a response to the falsehoods expressed by the president and his incomprehensible stubbornness” and added: “The responsibility of this explosive situation lies not with the unions but with the government.”
Yesterday’s protests were seen as particularly significant in part because they were the first measure of how effective Macron’s attempt to assert his authority had been. Even the government’s tally suggested that more people were on the street than at any point since he enacted the policy, and the total was the largest since a nationwide rally on 7 March. One quick index of the breadth of the anger can be seen in this Le Monde map of the demonstrations across the country – which is a sea of blue dots.
The pensions plan | Why Macron says it is necessary – and why the public disagree
Macron’s policy of raising the pensions age is not his first attempt to reform the French system: he abandoned a broader effort to change France’s hugely complex pensions infrastructure during his first term after huge street protests and as the coronavirus pandemic hit. This time around, he has taken a simpler approach, and instead of merging the country’s 42 separate pension schemes, is arguing that asking people to work two years longer can make the system sustainable in the long term.
Macron, who cannot run for office again anyway, insists that the changes – which were part of his second-term manifesto – are crucial and worth the sacrifice of his already-diminished popularity. Supporters point out that French men retire two years earlier than the EU average, and French women a year earlier. They reject tax increases as an alternative model, saying that France already has an unusually high tax burden, and say that demographic changes make some kind of reform inevitable: while there were 2.1 workers per retiree in 2000, the ratio was 1.7 in 2020 and is expected to reach 1.2 by 2070.
But the French public is fiercely protective of a system “seen as the cornerstone of the country’s cherished model of social protection”, Angelique Chrisafis wrote in this explainer on the debate last week. They are proud of the fact that French pensioners are less likely to live in poverty than those in most other European countries.
While a deficit in the system is expected over the next 25 years, independent analysis by the Pensions Advisory Council says that the figures “do not support the claim that pensions spending is out of control”. That leads critics to argue Macron’s approach is too combative and stark – and claim that he is instead prioritising tax cuts for businesses even as he tries to get the national deficit below an EU target of 3%.
Versions of the current debate in France are likely to be reproduced elsewhere over the coming years. The World Health Organization predicts that the world’s over-60 population will double by 2050. And the Group of 30 consultancy expects pension shortfalls to be the equivalent of 23% of global output by the same year, Bloomberg reports.
What happens next | Deep unpopularity of plan suggests no rapid resolution
Poll after poll suggests that the protesters are not out of step with French public opinion, with big majorities against Macron. Two-thirds of people support the protesters, while Macron’s approval rating is just 28%. 82% of voters oppose the decision to force the plan through parliament without a vote, and 65% want protests to continue even if the proposals become law.
Nonetheless, amid calls for a public referendum and moves by opposition lawmakers to rescind the new law before it is implemented, Macron has shown no sign of backing down, though some believe he may remove prime minister Borne once the immediate crisis has abated. Protests are likewise expected to continue, with the next key flashpoint expected on Tuesday (when King Charles is making a state visit).
The president and his allies are likely to use the sporadic violence of yesterday’s demonstrations as a way to drive a wedge between the protest movement and the rest of the French public. But most observers believe opposition to the plans is too baked in for that tactic to succeed – and that, even if he prevails on this policy, he is likely to be hamstrung for the rest of his presidency.
One likely beneficiary: the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has said she would overturn the changes as part of her “de-demonisation” strategy – and is viewed as the public figure who best embodies opposition to the reform.
What else we’ve been reading
Simon Hattenstone’s interview with tech titan Jaron Lanier is illuminating as he demystifies artificial intelligence. Lanier (above) stresses that to him “the danger isn’t that a new alien entity will speak through our technology and take over and destroy us”, rather it is “that we’ll use our technology to become mutually unintelligible or to become insane”. Nimo
Katy Balls hears from Conservative MPs about their reaction to Boris Johnson’s evidence to the privileges committee. The verdict is bald: “Johnson’s appearance is seen by many in the party as a nuisance to get through rather than the beginning of a pathway to a comeback.” Archie
Katherine Marsh is fascinating in the Atlantic (£), as she examines a growing problem in the US: fewer and fewer kids are falling in love with reading. Marsh expertly unpacks why this is, and the problem it seems, is far bigger than iPads. Nimo
As Austrian director Michael Haneke turns 81, Peter Bradshaw rates his finest films. If you can steel yourself sufficiently, it’s a hell of a watching list. I definitely can’t handle about half of them. Archie
If you have ever felt bad about staying in instead of going to a big exciting concert, take a moment to read Mike Gayle’s piece on missing a Prince gig because he and his wife were too tired. “Yes, it would have been a logistical nightmare, and we’d have had to consume our body weight in Red Bull to stay awake, but at least we would have been there,” Gayle laments. Nimo
Football | Harry Kane became England’s all-time record scorer with a penalty as England secured a 2-1 Euro 2024 qualifier win against Italy. England went 2-0 up in an impressive first half and clung on despite a late red card for Luke Shaw.
Athletics | World Athletics has voted to ban transgender women from elite female competitions if they have undergone male puberty, in a decision the governing body said had been taken to “protect the future of the female category”. World Athletics president Seb Coe also announced a working group to review fresh research, saying: “We’re not saying no for ever.”
Football | Concerns are growing among some parties in the Manchester United sale that current owners the Glazers might have “played them for months” – and intend to either push up the price to create leverage for a loan, or offload a minority stake to a hedge fund. Suspicions were raised after an extension to the deadline for the second round of bidding for the club.
The front pages
On this Friday 24 March our Guardian print lead is “Councils spend £500m on beds in worst care homes”. The Times says “Council tax tops £2,000 as rates rise for 11th time”. The public finances are also the day’s lead in the Daily Telegraph: “Labour plots tax raid on savings and investments”, while the i has “No tax cuts in 2023 as interest rate climbs to 14-year high”.
The Daily Express says we might be “finally over the worst … Here’s hoping! Bank chief’s optimism for UK economy”. The Daily Mirror’s top story is a “New football scandal … Why is Prem star still playing after rape and assault claims?”. “Fury at woke barristers refusing to prosecute eco warriors” – so much fury in that Daily Mail headline. The Metro’s front-page picture is Nicola Sturgeon’s departure as Scotland first minister; its splash is “Harvest of horror” about the verdict in the landmark organ trafficking case. Lastly the Financial Times: “TikTok chief struggles to fend off US ban in front of hostile Congress”.
Something for the weekend
Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now
Race Across the World (BBC iPlayer)
Partly a nod to Jules Verne (but mainly inspired by the urgent need for humankind to stop flying), Race Across the World sees contestants (above) complete an epic trip as quickly as possible. In this third run, the race takes place in Canada, and the resulting spectacle – a messy celebration of human foibles, resilience, diversity and generosity – is a gameshow, travel show and reality show all in one. Jack Seale
Jpegmafia x Danny Brown – Scaring the Hoes
Appearing at Austin’s SXSW this week with his fellow dweller on hip-hop’s left field, Jpegmafia, Danny Brown announced that he was entering rehab. He also apologised for having written “so many songs about doing drugs” – a category which could presumably include their track Fentanyl Tester, which doesn’t so much punch through the mix as obliterate everything else. Not for everybody – but it wields a strange power. Alexis Petridis
Brandon Cronenberg serves up another slice of that luxury vacation fear-porn that we’ve had on TV’s The White Lotus, or Triangle of Sadness in the movies. Part body horror, part folk horror, it features a tremendous turn from Mia Goth, currently ruling our cinema screens elsewhere in Ti West’s shocker Pearl. There are some intriguingly nasty ideas, along with nice performances from Goth and Alexander Skarsgård.
Terri White: Finding Britain’s Ghost Children (BBC Sounds, episodes weekly)
Journalist Terri White fights the corner of children who are missing from school in her hard-hitting podcast. As a survivor of childhood abuse, White documents the killing of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and investigates the cost of locking vulnerable kids out of their safe place – school – during the pandemic. Hannah Verdier
Today in Focus
Trafficked: the closed door – part two
Julia, a Ukrainian woman who escaped modern slavery in the UK, tells the journalist Annie Kelly about the years she was shipped between brothels
Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
Nikki High first came across the work of writer Octavia E Butler when she was in high school in the 80s, and the author has been a staple in her life since. Last year, her love for Butler’s work manifested into a bookshop called Octavia’s Bookshelf – the first black-owned bookshop in Pasadena, California, the home of both the writer and High herself. The shop is both a homage to Butler, a physical reflection of her values as a writer, as well as a space that specialises in selling the work of writers of colour.
The bookshop has been 10 years in the making. Its existence was steeply accelerated after High tweeted about her efforts to start Octavia’s Bookshelf. The post instantly went viral and people donated, raising $22,000 on GoFundMe – High said that without the generosity of strangers online it would have been a lot more difficult to open her shop.
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