King Charles III arrived in Germany this week for what was supposed to have been the second stop on an official European tour – until raging street protests forced him to cancel the French leg of his trip. The prospect of two monarchs – one real, the other pretend – fiddling at Versailles while Paris burned left French President Emmanuel Macron with no choice but to cancel the royal visit.
The movable feast that was once the Paris of Hemingway novels is these days a literal (rather than literary) garbage dump, after weeks of rotating strikes by sanitation workers. The rotting refuse has fattened the city’s rat population and provided a handy accelerant for demonstrators, who set almost nightly bonfires to protest Mr. Macron’s move to raise the French retirement age.
Or at least that is the official reason millions of French citizens have been taking to the streets since Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne tabled pension reform legislation in January. But what started out as a union-led movement to force Ms. Borne to halt an increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64, and lengthen the time it takes to qualify for a full pension, has since ballooned into an increasingly violent and open-ended revolt against all forms of authority, starting with Mr. Macron himself.
No one is really surprised. Mr. Macron was taking a huge risk when he decided to push ahead with his long-promised reform of France’s financially unsustainable public pension system without his Renaissance party holding a solid majority of seats in the National Assembly. When Ms. Borne failed to win over enough centre-right opposition députés to pass the pension bill, she rammed it through on Mar. 16 by invoking a clause in the French constitution that allows the government to bypass the legislature, provided it can survive a subsequent non-confidence vote.
The government survived that vote – barely. But the use of the override clause only fuelled the protesters’ outrage. For weeks they had been telling Mr. Macron that his reform was unjust, unfair and, well, un-French. He responded with let-them-eat-cake indifference to the public mood.
The defiant Mr. Macron seems determined to win this latest battle against la rue after previous French presidents were forced to withdraw lesser reforms. He does not want to be remembered as one of them. Term-limited, he will not be on the ballot in 2027 and wants to build a legacy before then.
Mr. Macron’s reform must still pass muster with France’s constitutional court, which is to rule on the matter by mid-April. If the court does not strike down the reform outright, opponents are hoping it will authorize their request for a country-wide referendum to repeal it.
Almost anywhere else, pension reform would not be this controversial. But for the French, who work to live rather than the other way around, what Mr. Macron is doing amounts to sacrilege. The protesters depict this reform as an assault on workers by capitalist elites. Do not try to tell them that France’s retirement age would still be the lowest in Europe and its public pensions among the most generous even after the reforms are fully implemented; that only gets them angrier.
They are being egged on by a far-left Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale, or NUPES, the coalition that holds the second-largest bloc of seats in the assembly, and whose anti-capitalist screeds are a hit on the country’s university campuses. The cohort of NUPES députés first elected last year sees the uprising in the streets as a necessary condition for the revolution they are seeking, and the creation of a Sixth French Republic. They denounce the current Fifth Republic that began in 1958 under Charles de Gaulle as a “presidential monarchy” that concentrates power in the hands of Mr. Macron’s acolytes.
Even so, the biggest political winner to emerge during this French spring of discontent is Marine Le Pen. Though the leader of the far-right National Rally (RN) opposes Mr. Macron’s pension reform, she has steered clear of backing the protesters. The RN blames Mr. Macron for causing the chaos, promises to repeal his reform and restore order to French streets. A Monday Ifop poll showed the RN at 26 per cent support, up seven percentage points from last year’s legislative elections that saw Ms. Le Pen’s party win a record 89 assembly seats. Mr. Macron’s party was down five points to 22 per cent.
The poll poured cold water on speculation that Mr. Macron might dissolve the assembly and call early elections in the hopes French voters, repelled by the chaos in the streets, would back him up. The most likely result of an early legislative vote would be a hung parliament.
Amid the piles of garbage and grabuge in the streets, Mr. Macron has appeared unfazed. He may be the only person in France who thinks that is a good thing.