The Observer view on the protests in France against Macron’s pension plans
France’s relationship with monarchy has rarely run smooth. The guillotining of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, in 1793 was an early attempt at levelling up. Emperors, more kings and assorted republics followed. In 1962, Charles de Gaulle created an elected presidency with regal powers. To his many critics, Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent, behaves like a latterday Sun King – le Roi Soleil – in the style of Louis XIV.
It may have been the prospect of Macron hosting a sumptuous banquet for King Charles at the Sun King’s Palace of Versailles this week that finally prompted France’s embarrassing, last-minute decision to postpone the British monarch’s state visit. After weeks of furious, nationwide protests against Macron’s drive to raise the state pension age to save money, the optics would have been truly terrible. Yet still today’s sans-culottes cry: “Off with his head!”
Pension reform has never been popular. Macron tried it once before. No longer facing re-election, he is trying again. With national debt at 113% of GDP (compared with Germany’s 67%), and with a shrinking workforce – there are 1.7 workers for every pensioner, down from 2.1 in 2000 – Macron argues France cannot afford a retirement age of 62. Raising it to 64, as he proposes, seems relatively modest. In the UK, it’s 66, in Germany, 65.
But most of the public (and some independent financial analysts) do not agree and Macron admits he has failed to win them over. Yet he insists on having his way. His use of executive powers to force the change through without a parliamentary vote provoked more fury and street violence. Fears for the future of French democracy were added to existential angst. Polls suggest two-thirds of voters oppose the pension change. Over three-quarters object to this perceived abuse of power.
Why are the French so unhappy? Present turmoil recalls the 2018 gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests over fuel prices and, like them, speaks to a deeper malaise – what one observer has called a permanent state of rage. It would be interesting to have the take of Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus on this phenomenon. In their absence, various theories are advanced. One is that the Fifth Republic’s constitution is not fit for purpose and that the all-powerful presidency should be replaced by a Westminster-style parliamentary system.
It’s true Macron won the presidency, twice, because the only other second-round choice was the far right’s Marine Le Pen. It’s true French governance is centralised to an extraordinary degree. State spending accounts for 59% of GDP and pensions alone for 14%. It’s claimed that a self-perpetuating, technocratic elite, of which Macron is the ultimate exemplar, does not grasp how France’s social contract works: acceptance of high taxes and ubiquitous state regulation in return for free healthcare, free education, a 35-hour working week, early retirement – and decent pensions.
Rage about a lack of well-paid jobs and economic security in a post-industrial age. Rage about relative powerlessness in a world France once proudly bestrode. Rage about shifting cultural contours, about the fragmentation of national identity. Camus, in L’Étranger, wrote of the “ecstasy of rage”. Yet the French, like the British, are a fortunate nation. They are better off than most, they inhabit a beautiful land, they haven’t been invaded lately. Are things out of proportion?
Macron has become a lightning rod for a restless people, which is in a sense his job. There will be no revolution, no guillotines this time. Yet while protests will eventually fade, underlying discontent will not. As Sartre said: “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”