Is France broken?

IssueJune - July 2023
Radical trade unionists from the syndicalist Solidaires federation take part in a demonstration against Macron’s pensions reform, Boulevard Voltaire, Central Paris, 11 February. PHOTO: Roland Godefroy via Wikimedia Commons (CC-by-SA 4.0)
Feature by Marc Morgan

France is experiencing extensive violence and a seemingly broken political system, with increasing numbers of people feeling left behind or left out. There is a lot to feel unhappy about – while also trying to look for the positive signs which can emerge from times of crisis.

The immediate cause of the current political turbulence in France has been the government’s pensions reform plans, which are being passed into law despite widespread opposition.

Such turbulence is not new in France. The pre-COVID gilets jaunes (‘yellow jackets’) revolts are still fresh in everyone’s minds, and prime ministers from Alain Juppé in the 1990s to François Fillon in 2010 have had to back down or make significant concessions in the face of popular opposition to pension reform plans.

Some features of the present crisis are new, however, and throw up in sharp relief questions around the democratic exercise of power, the power of the markets as against that of the people, and the use of force both by protesters and by the police.

The strength of feeling and the calls for change are not a minority phenomenon, restricted to any particular class, protest group, or embattled section of society. Mass protests have flared up across France, in towns large and small, in traditionally conservative areas (such as the Bordeaux area, Nice and Provence) as well as in traditionally militant ones (such as Brittany, Lille and the North). Notoriously, street demonstrations on this scale are particular to France. A long tradition going all the way back to the French Revolution makes the street itself the ultimate arbiter when key decisions are to be made.

This can be seen as political immaturity and as both an expression of and a factor in the democratic deficiencies of the heavy-handed, potentially- authoritarian Fifth Republic political system established in 1958. The street protests are a challenge to the system – and a measure of the system’s failure to invest authority more properly in the representatives of the people and in the people themselves.

“Mass protests have flared up across France, in towns large and small, in traditionally conservative areas as well as in traditionally militant ones”

A legitimate reading of the protests sees them as an act of defiance against a system perceived as unfair, with its rewards reserved for the better-off, and for capital rather than labour. Opinion polls regularly show more suspicion of capitalism in France than in other countries, even among those who do not support La France Insoumise (‘France Unbowed’) or other left-wing parties. For example, an opinion poll commissioned by a pro-business group in 2021 had 62 percent of people giving a negative rating for capitalism, against 37 percent giving a positive rating.

The protests of the past few months, and those of the gilets jaunes revolts of four years ago, have been marked by violence on a scale unseen since the student protests of May 1968. Extreme groups on both the right and the left have resorted to violence for many years in France. Until recently, however, they were an extremely small minority, whereas the recent protests have seen a significant increase in acts of violence, involving a far greater proportion of protesters.

Without condoning the violence, politicians, particularly within France Unbowed, have appeared to excuse it, presenting it as a legitimate response to the general violence inherent in the system, and to the specific violence embodied in the autocratic political processes and decisions which have sparked the latest revolts.

The use in mid-March of Article 49.3 of the Constitution to force through the new pensions law without a parliamentary vote, triggered a significant increase in the level of violence, in what were until that point mostly peaceful protests. As France Unbowed deputy Mathilde Hignet put it: ‘From the start, the protests were taking place in a good spirit, people were calm but, since the autumn, they have been hearing about the 49.3, and they know it constitutes a denial of democracy. Unfortunately, they have now shown that they understand this by resorting to violence.’

Police violence

It is not just the politics which have inflamed passions, however. French policing tactics, never very subtle, have taken a sharp turn for the worse in recent years. There was no inevitability to this. The French Revolution set up the first forms of police and codified the principle that the police were servants of, and were answerable to, the citizenry. This has played out unevenly in practice over the centuries but the trend was progressively to make the police accountable and for the police to have to justify their own use of violence.

However, since the early 21st century – with the G20 riots in Gothenburg in 2001 representing a turning point, according to some experts – violence has increasingly accompanied both national and international protests in the Western world.

Different countries have responded to this in different ways. The police in some countries – the Nordic countries in particular – have responded with what they called a ‘firm but fair’ approach, seeking to engage in dialogue with protesters and to distinguish very clearly between peaceful protesters and violent ones, separating the two and containing violence when it occurs.

The French police been slower to evolve in their thinking and strategy on the management of violent protests, even as protest movements have become more violent.

As an example of this, we may cite the ‘GODIAC’ initiative (’GOod practice for DIAlogue and Communication as strategic principles for policing political manifestations in Europe). Supported by the European Union in 2010 – 2013, this brought together the police forces of 12 different countries in an attempt to refine their strategies on the policing of protests. The initiative reflected on the need to communicate clearly on police actions during the course of demonstrations; to distinguish and separate violent protesters from nonviolent ones; and to facilitate peaceful expression by the latter.

France did not take part in the GODIAC initiative, a mark of arrogance on the part of the French authorities, suggesting a claim to have a better understanding of how to handle riotous and violent protests.

The policing of street riots in recent years, and in particular of the most recent ones that have followed the triggering of Article 49.3, has shown such arrogance to be woefully misplaced.

The police approach has been one of presuming that anyone present at a demonstration which turned violent – or where some participants had a clear violent intent – was themselves guilty or potentially guilty of violence. Instead of containing violence, this has inflamed it.

The vicious spiral, and the tension increasingly surrounding any large protest, are made worse by the fact that the French police use repressive instruments officially or unofficially banned in other countries, such as the infamous LBD, lanceur de balles en défense. These are pistols which shoot short-range rubber bullets, supposedly non-lethal but which nevertheless have killed at least one person and seriously injured dozens more since they were introduced in the 1990s.

“The protests have been marked by violence on a scale unseen since the student protests of May 1968”

The spectacle on the street has been distressing. In the words of two leading human rights campaigners, Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch, and Jean- Claude Samouiller, president of Amnesty International France: ‘Countless accounts and images circulating on social media or disseminated by the mainstream media suggest that law enforcement officers have resorted to a seemingly excessive, disproportionate, and indiscriminate response during recent demonstrations in France.’

In this atmosphere, the serene confrontation of opposing projects, perceptions and interests which is the true mark of a democracy has become difficult or impossible. Such mature discussion as there was tending towards a solution to the crisis has degenerated into a sterile hardening of positions, with the government associating protest against its unpopular reforms with sedition and unruliness.

The ‘reform’

Returning to the basic facts of the case, president Emmanuel Macron, his Renaissance political party, and their centrist allies, have passed a law usually described as ‘raising the retirement age from 62 to 64’. (Renaissance used to be known as ‘La République en Marche’ until last year.) Unable to secure a parliamentary majority for this move, despite the support of most of the right-wing Les Républicains party, Macron has forced the law through without a parliamentary vote, using Article 49.3 of the constitution.

The new law does not actually straightforwardly raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 (which is how it is described in the foreign and in most of the French national press). In fact, there is no automatic right to retire at 62 in France. It’s just that 62 is the earliest you can get a state pension.

In France, there are no private pension schemes, so everyone except the very rich depends entirely on the state pension in retirement, which is why this is such an emotive topic. The UK state pension is currently about £9,600 a year. In France, the state pension is not a flat rate payment, but is based on average income while working, and is therefore more than £9,600 for many people. The French state pension is a minimum of 37.5 percent and a maximum of 50 percent of average annual earnings (taking into account only your 25 best earning years).

“According to an independent body, the pensions system is not currently in deficit, nor is the threat to it immediate”

To get a full state pension, and leaving aside further complications which penalise or favour certain categories of workers, you need either to have contributed to the state pension system for 167 quarters (413⁄4 years) or to have reached the age of 67. In other words, if you started work before you turned 21 and you contributed to the state pension system continuously until you retired at 62, you would currently qualify for a full state pension at that age. If you had contributed for less than 167 quarters, you would receive the state pension at a reduced rate at 62 or you would need to wait till you were 67.

There is a clear if only partial redistributive effect to the dual requirement both to work till you are at least 62 and to work for 167 quarters: blue-collar workers typically start working earlier, and are therefore more likely to have worked 413⁄4 years than white-collar and more formally qualified workers. On the other hand, white-collar workers also on average live longer and therefore benefit more from the pension system. Many white- collar workers work to 64 already (the average retirement age in France is actually approximately 63.5) and hence will not be affected by the new law. In this and other ways (for example, owing to technicalities, in its effect on women), the new law is actually regressive.

What of the financial arguments ?

According to the government, the new law is necessary to save the current pensions system, whereby future generations pay for the pensions of those who have retired. The government claims the estimated annual savings of €17bn made possible by the new law are essential.

It is true that at nearly 14 percent, France spends a higher proportion of GDP on pensions than most comparable countries. It is also true that the French – like most people in the industrialised West – are living longer (in 1970, pensions took seven percent or just half as much of GDP).

However, Macron’s arguments have failed to convince. Many workers aged under 62 are already unemployed in France or (still) benefit from various increasingly squeezed pre- retirement schemes. Raising the state pension age may superficially make the public finances look better but is likely at the same time to increase unemployment. Macron (and the previous socialist government) have had some success in reducing unemployment; the new law may reverse that achievement and is likely to involve transferring state obligations from one fund – the pension ‘pot’ – to another – unemployment benefits.

Moreover, according to the Council for Orientation on Pensions, an independent body, the pensions system is not currently in deficit, nor is the threat to it immediate. Moreover, a country should be free to choose its level of spending on pensions – and also the means of financing them. 38 leading companies listed on the ‘CAC 40’, an elite French stock exchange listing, reported combined annual profits of well over €140bn for 2022; those of TotalEnergies alone topped €19.5bn, more than the savings claimed by Macron for his reform.

In other ways too, the defacto squeeze on pensions raises questions concerning the French government – and French society’s – priorities.

France is already one of the most militarised and militarily active countries in Europe. The new Loi de Programmation Militaire, a five-year exercise in planning spending on ‘defence’ due to be passed this summer, foresees a 40 percent rise in France’s spending on its armed forces, its weaponry and of course its (to French governments) sacrosanct nuclear deterrent. Overtly and in full conscience, Macron promotes the idea that France needs to be ‘ready for the next war’ as one of the main lessons of the Ukraine crisis. As Communist party leader Fabien Roussel tweeted: ‘Macron promises 413 billion for weapons and for the army... but cannot finance our pensions or our health system.’

Much is made of the fact that France is contesting reforms which have passed almost without a murmur in neighbouring countries. The retirement age is indeed higher – and set to rise more – in Britain (66), Germany (65), Italy (67), and so on.... But how are we to judge the French as they resist pensions reform? As lazy or undisciplined,  which is the caricature? Or as standing up collectively, more or less consciously, for a fairer distribution of wealth and of the dividends of increased productivity, and for a change in society’s priorities?

E Macron. PHOTO: The White house via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)
Emmanuel Macron. PHOTO: The White house via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

Undermining democracy

Macron himself has made the new pensions law a test of his authority and, above all, a badge of his reforming zeal. Not all within his party are sold out to capitalism, and the concerns of some regarding the sustainability of the pensions system are sincere. However, because of the injustices inherent in the new law, and because perhaps of an underlying yearning for change, it is striking how singularly the government has failed to persuade the wider public of the need for these reforms. The use of Article 49.3 has come to symbolise the divorce not just between the president and ‘the people’, but between the president and large sections of the political class.

“France, already one of the most militarised and militarily active countries in Europe, is planning a 40 percent rise in military spending”

Macron claims to have a mandate for his reforms inasmuch as pensions reform was a key part of his manifesto during last year’s presidential election. But, in view of the strength of opposition to the reform – over 80 percent are against it, according to most opinion polls – and with millions from every shade of society demonstrating against it, such a winner-takes- all approach to majority voting clearly contravenes elementary democratic principles. It is common knowledge that Macron’s 59 percent – 41 percent victory against the far-right presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, was based more on rejection of the latter than on any allegiance to Macron himself or to his programme.

The left has responded with parliamentary disobedience, using process to impede substantial parliamentary discussion of the proposed law; this is true to the spirit of the largest left-wing party, the France Unbowed party, who claim to be resisting autocracy, elitism, and the power of the markets.

The true political victors however are Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National – formerly the National Front. Playing their cards astutely, they have managed to criticise and oppose the reforms implacably, while appearing to rise above the turbulence which the reforms have provoked. The turbulence in short has played well to their strategy of presenting themselves as a ‘serious, responsible’ party, even as their policies are racist in inspiration, populist, and narrowly nationalistic.

Macron’s claim was to occupy the centre ground of French politics in order to stave off threats from the extremes. In tilting the centre ground towards the right, in widening the divorce between the French and their ‘elites’, he may find that he has paved the way for a collapse of the centre in favour of yet more sinister and divisive forces.

Topics: Democracy