It was almost a year ago when Emmanuel Macron won re-election as France’s president for a second and final term. In doing so he broke a curse that had kicked his two immediate predecessors out of the Elysees Palace, providing an occasion for celebration. The Marseillaise was played and the champagne bottle smashed but the ship didn’t launch.
Macron had mused about lofty goals: reforming the ailing European Union, providing leadership for Western democracies, defeating Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, creating a European army and last but not least, reforming the French state pension laws that threaten to bankrupt the republic within the next decade or two.
Just weeks before the first anniversary of his second term Macron was reminded of one of the key facts of the French political life according to which governing means rolling a boulder up the hill only to see it roll down again at double the speed. The best you can do is to doge the boulder and light a Gitane for consolation.
Macron’s pension reform scheme was modest in the extreme. It suggested that the age of retirement be increased from 62 to 64 years. Even then the increase would affect only six out of 10 French workers. Those six, too, could benefit from a variety of exceptions including earlier retirement for those who start work before the age of 18. Because of expanding life expectancy, slated to be around 84 years and slated to reach 90 within the decade, the two year increase should not have provoked a tsunami of public anger especially when people in all other European member nations already work longer than their French counterparts.
But it did, Slogans such as “stealing 2 years of your life” and “ 2 more years of slavery” appeared on the walls while the usually divided trade unions banded together to launch a series of strikes complete with secondary picketing and flying pickets to paralyze the country.
Sporting a moustache that would dwarf that of Stalin, Philippe Martinez, leader of the Communist General confederation of Workers (CGT), himself retiring at 62, invited younger workers to remain on strike until their retirement age arrived.
Initially, Macron tried to hide behind his Prime Minister, the admirable technocrat Elizabeth Borne. But within days Ms. Borne was as worn out as someone emerging from a bout of sumo with a walrus. The French Republic being a presidential monarchy, the angry crowds began to demand the head in the top hat.
The turmoil that France has gone through with sporadic black or brownouts, petrol stations as dry as any teetotaller, schools and kindergartens shut or blockaded, supply chains disrupted because of road blocks on motorways, and uncollected rubbish dressing Parisian walls in smelly haute-couture are symptoms of deeper problems of the French “model” that pretends to be a cocktail of absolutism and anarchy.
An old adage says that democracy is a system in which decisions are made and actions are taken in places that have roofs, places such as ministries and parliaments unlike anarchy where things happen al fresco in streets, squares and road roundabouts of which France has built more than any other country. Not long ago it was in such locations that the Yellow-Vest (Gilets-Jaunes) movement that imposed its will on “authorities” operating under roofs including those of the Elysees.
But why is that? One reason is that French collective memory is partly shaped by the four and a half revolutions that the nation has experienced in the past two centuries. In every case, the street initially won against the palace either by chopping the top head or by driving it into exile. In May 1968, the half-revolution mentioned, General De Gaulle simply fled to West Germany where his best troops were stationed. In every case, however, the street didn’t know what to do once it had forced the people of the roof to flee.
In May 1968, the street could have simply marched to rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and seized control of the Elysees. Had there been a handful of Kronstadt sailors, the street could have entered the Palais Bourbon, site of the French national assembly, and filled the seats whose elected occupants had fled. It didn’t because all it knew was to invent jazzy slogans and dig trenches against a non-existent adversary.
The French political lexicon is full of pseudo-military terms: combat, siege, resistance, action, blockade, fight (lutte), un-submission, uprising, solidarity, united front, operation, strike etc.
Outside observers such as this writer may find the French system puzzling. Why pose as revolutionaries when all you really want is to prevent change? Why simulate direct democracy when you have the highest turnout of any Western nation in elections for a representative democracy?
France, still organised on the principles established by Jean-Baptiste Colbert in the 17h century is the most centralised and authority-based state among Western democracies. Thus, here we have a Siamese twin of order and disorder engaged in a love-and-hate tango.
Macron may end up doing what all his predecessors, at least in the Fifth Republic, did: go for a pirouette to keep the appearances while throwing enough sops to silence the pack in the street. Presidents De Gaulle, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac all backpedalled on major reforms in the face of the street. Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande did even better by attempting no reforms and sailed through their respective five-year tenure in relative calm.
Classical revolutions such as the first big one in 18th century France were led by the semi-privileged in the name of the underprivileged and against the highly privileged. Today’s pseudo-revolutions in France are supported by the semi-privileged who represent the majority of the population while the underprivileged suffer in silence and the highly privileged watch things with a mixture of amusement and disapproval.
In his book “French Democracy” Giscard d’Estaing claims that France has invented a new model of governance based on a balance between freedom and authority. In an interview with a French magazine in 2020 Macron lamented the fact that the Great Revolution has created “a vacuum” at the top of the French political system.
Both would have done well to study British Prime Minister James Callaghan’s description of democracy as “a system that functions on the edge of un- governability.”