“You might be Brazilian or Malian or Singaporean, it is remarkable the world over to watch the French explode into the streets of dozens of cities and towns to protest the imperial president residing in Élysée Palace. It is altogether singular to follow the demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron as an American. The French are still citoyens and take to their streets and public squares. Americans long ago cashed in their citizenship to live as consumers—and take to their sofas no matter how abusively political elites treat them, no matter how many wars they start, no matter how corrupt the financial system, no matter how many people live in poverty, no matter how grotesque the “defense” budget, no matter how poisoned the environment, no matter… let me not go on.
Please pass the Fritos and turn on the big game.
They burned city hall in Bordeaux last week. The Place de la Concorde, where the French protested the monarchy in 1789, is again shoulder-to-shoulder every day and night. Video footage records fires, barricades, appalling confrontations with baton-wielding CRS, the French riot police. Uncollected garbage is everywhere in the capital. The luxury shops along the grand boulevards have boarded up their windows.
This started, of course, as a protest against Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 as part of a sweeping reform of the pension system. I have heard many Americans ask, “Two years? What’s the big deal?”
It is telling enough that Americans would pose this question, missing all the reasons why Macron’s plan is a very big deal. The French work to live, as they like to say, while Americans live to work. Pushing up the retirement age had a semiotic meaning from the first, signaling the creeping incursion of American neoliberalism into French society.
There is the choice Macron had. I don’t think too many people dispute the demographics and fiduciary numbers at issue. More older French are reaching retirement age while fewer younger French are advancing into the workforce. This is a reality in France as in many other developed nations, though not the near-term crisis Macron made it out to be. Macron’s choice lay between raising taxes on the wealthy and the corporations or pushing the problem on the shoulders of the working class. He made the wrong choice.
Remember, Macron was a merchant banker before going into politics. Early in his first term he was nicknamed “the president of the rich.” He failed to understand that serving as a national leader meant leaving behind the merchant banking in favor of the common good. So he made himself a sort of comprador, an import agent introducing Anglo–American neoliberal orthodoxies into a society that has long, long stood outside the Anglosphere. For the French, the English Channel and the Atlantic are wide.
On March 16 Macron made his wrongest choice. Unwilling to risk a vote in the National Assembly, he resorted to a provision de Gaulle wrote into the Fifth Republic’s Constitution in 1958, which allows the president to pass legislation without parliamentary approval under certain defined and rare circumstances—emergencies, in a word.
So has Macron turned a big deal into a big, big deal and now a big, big, big deal.At this point the pension reform crisis has jumped the levee to become something far broader. Now demonstrators tip over into protesting the war in Ukraine, U.S. hegemony, NATO, and, on the domestic side, de Gaulle’s constitution. As Roger Cohen reported in The New York Timesthe other day:
Those huge protests have shifted in character over the past week. They have become angrier and, in some cities, more violent—especially after nightfall. They have been less about the fury felt over the raising of the retirement age to 64 from 62, and more about Mr. Macron and the way he rammed the law through Parliament without a full vote.
Finally, they have broadened into something approaching a constitutional crisis.
Cohen then quotes Laurent Berger, who heads the 875,000–member, middle-of-the-road CFDT, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor:
We have moved from a social crisis on the subject of retirement to the beginnings of democratic crisis. Anger is rising, and before us we have a president who does not see that reality.
Macron is now behaving like a sequestered monarch such that King Charles III had to cancel a planned visit with Macron last week because “the optics” were so hideously ill-suited to his isolation and the mess he has made.“Patrick Lawrence: French Streets and American Sofas” — by Patrick Lawrence — T.D.D. News
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