There is no sign of an end to the protests that have spread across France against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms. Joseph Downing writes that serious questions must now be asked about the response to the protests and the future of French democracy.
A picture emerged last week of nonchalant Parisian diners having dinner against the backdrop of burning streets in Paris. Yet, the characterisation of France as strike and protest prone should not distract us from the magnitude of current events, underlined by the decision to cancel a state visit by King Charles due to the ferocity of the protests. This crisis is unlikely to be a flash in the pan and highlights some long standing, and unfortunately for Macron intractable, political and social problems for both French politics and society.
A key problem in diffusing the current crisis lies in the leadership style and personality of Macron himself. The French president took the controversial step of passing his pension reforms by decree and bypassing the French parliament. Article 49.3 enables the executive to pass a bill without consulting the legislature, which has resulted in two no confidence votes that Macron has survived. However, this approach says a lot about his leadership style that does not bode well for his ability to tackle such a crisis.
Macron has been widely condemned during his political career for being aloof, arrogant and distant from the French population, and has made several gaffes in this vein while on the campaign trail. It is unclear how this leadership style will enable him to get protesters off the streets as he is seemingly unable to compromise and change course.
He has raised the spectre of greater profit sharing for workers and taken a shot at the “excessive profits” of large companies, but these measures are unlikely to be enough to satisfy workers nor do they do much for this image. His recent gaffe of removing a luxury watch on live TV makes him seem disingenuous and further re-enforces his image as a president for the rich.
Social and mainstream media has been awash with photos of the violent repression of demonstrators in France. The Council of Europe has condemned French repression of demonstrators and their “excessive use of force” in this round of demonstrations. Police brutality has long been a touchy subject in France, as seen during the Champions League attacks on Liverpool fans, with Macron himself promising action on police brutality.
However, this has not translated into a more conciliatory approach from the police during the recent protests. History suggests that violently repressing demonstrations can rebound on political leaders. While France is not quite at the point of a political revolution yet, the cycle of violence developing between police and demonstrators is clearly worrying.
A second coming of the yellow vests?
The current protests have parallels with the widespread unrest associated with the yellow vest protests Macron experienced earlier in his presidency. The yellow vest protests began in 2018 and were sparked by opposition to Macron’s proposal for a green fuel tax. While they went away at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the general sense of discontent at rising inequality in France remains. This is something that has fuelled both the far-right and the far-left.
It is important to note that Macron cannot run again for the presidency and that his past two election victories have relied to a certain extent on ‘negative voting’ against Marine Le Pen to keep the far-right out of power. Given the perception of inequality and injustice for workers is unlikely to disappear in the near future, the possibility of a far-left or far-right president in 2027 now appears very real.
All of these factors have combined into a worrying impasse where Macron cannot back down, and protesters are unlikely to change their position on Macron’s pension reform. Although Macron’s government has narrowly survived the no confidence votes that have been held, he is going to find it much harder to regain the confidence of the French people.
Macron himself may not be that concerned about regaining the trust of the public as he is not seeking reelection and has tied his legacy to a reformist agenda. But we are unlikely to see the unrest stop any time soon, and reform from the top and growing inequality from below have the potential to do substantial damage to the French centre, further empowering the fringes on the right and left.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Jules* / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)