“When Paris sneezes, Europe catches a cold”. This quote by Chancellor Metternich, commenting on the Paris uprising of July 1830, sums up quite well the thoughts of European leaders as they watched the images of mass demonstrations, barricades and fires in the heart of the French capital.
In the role of Charles X, the deposed king of the July revolution, Emmanuel Macron is a president more alone than ever. Through the pension reform he is trying to impose by authoritarianism and violence, he has managed to turn a social discontent into a major political turmoil that borders regime crisis.
There are various reasons to explain the current situation. The first is the lack of political legitimacy of Macron and his government. Elected with less than a third of the votes in the first round, Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election only because he was competing Marine Le Pen and her post-fascist party. His narrow electoral base and victory as the lesser of two evils should have prompted Macron to adopt a consensual and prudent policy.
This did not happen, of course, because of Macron’s megalomania, the disconnection of the power apparatus from social reality and the constitution of the Fifth French Republic, which was designed to give full and unchecked powers to the President, in contempt of Parliament and the people.
Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister thought they could put the entire burden of funding the pension system on the shoulders of workers by raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 without asking for a single cent from employers. Without a majority in Parliament, they were counting on the right-wing opposition Les Républicains to support this reactionary reform.
But the government quickly became mired in its lies and contradictions. The so-called social measures supposedly included in the reform proved to be a decoy. For example, ministers kept repeating on television that all pensioners would have a minimum pension of EUR 1200, which turned out to be completely false. The same applies to women, those in heavy occupations and those who started work early, who are particularly burdened by the bill.
The debate on pensions thus quickly turned into a broad discussion throughout French society about the deterioration of working conditions and the loss of meaning of labor in the context of neoliberal capitalism. On the streets and on social media millions of people expressed their indignation at the intensification of the exploitation they suffer every day, at the absurd managerial orders, at the loss of meaning they feel in the workplace. This catalytic debate resulted in the massive rejection of the reform by public opinion and the firm and majority support of the social movement.
The government’s contempt for trade unions, including the more reformist ones such as the CFDT, also contributed to this. The result was a united trade union front and a base in turmoil, with multiple grievances in the context of inflation, rising poverty and the accumulation of untold wealth for a small elite benefiting from huge tax giveaways. Indeed, the Paris stock market index has exploded in recent years and dividends paid to shareholders have reached record levels.
There is therefore plenty of material for Macron’s political opponents, and in particular for the left-wing alliance Nupes that brings together Mélenchon’s friends, the socialists, communists and ecologists. While the political apparatuses of these parties tended to be divided over tactical issues, thus calling their alliance into question, the social movement against Macron reunited and galvanised the opposition of the left, which promptly and loudly expressed popular discontent in Parliament.
To this conjuncture we must add deeper structural factors. The first is linked to the emergence of a generation which, faced with the social, political and ecological deadlocks of capitalism, is becoming more radical. These young people no longer believe in the values of individualism, consumerism and personal enrichment that formed the basis of neoliberal hegemony. They reject ‘Macron and his world’, as a successful slogan goes. In other words, they are not confining themselves to a criticism of the government or specific measures, but are opposing the dominant ideology and values that have structured the economy and society over the last forty years. As a result, youth organisations such as Revolution Permanente, activist groups and networks that now explicitly demand the end of capitalism are proliferating in the country and that feed and structure the current movement.
At the same time, in the face of the mass rejection of the dominant ideology by public opinion, the ideological apparatus is cracking. The old reactionary pundits who dominate the TV sets seem to be completely out of touch. The population’s distrust of the mainstream media is growing at the same time as free public expression on social media is re-politicising large sections of French society and allowing for spontaneous coordination, as happened with the Yellow Vests movement four years ago.
Thus, after the government’s use of article 49.3 of the Constitution and the adoption of the pension reform without any vote by Parliament, the cup of anger was overflowing. The social movement is taking a political and radical turn. In addition to the demands for social justice and the rejection of the reform, there is now a demand for real democracy. French society can no longer tolerate being governed in an arbitrary manner by an elite cut off from the social fabric that is incestuously reproduced in the posh salons of power and big capital
This democratic impasse in the current context obviously poses an important danger, because can potentially prepare the ground for the rise to power in France of a xenophobic and authoritarian extreme right. In this respect, the current movement is a godsend for the left, because it is putting forward a political agenda that favours it and, at the same time, reveals the ambiguities and hypocrisy of Marine Le Pen. Now, we must first throw all the social forces into the battle to achieve victory, that is to say, the withdrawal of this reform. And then we must turn this victory into a political outlet for this social anger in order to change the political balance of power, in France and in Europe.