The crowds now gathering and protesting in Paris are smaller; last week they were down to a “mere” 450,000, compared with 800,000 previously. Strikes have closed Versailles and the Eiffel Tower, but at least the mountains of trash that have clogged the city for weeks are receding.
Estimates are that there are now only around 7,000 tonnes of detritus. All this can be seen as a boost for the beleaguered government of President Emmanuel Macron, even if he faces another national shutdown this week. But if one was to surmise that all is well in the French Fifth Republic, one would be wrong. Things have gone very far awry.
The recent bout of protests was triggered by Macron’s determination to push through what he argues are essential pension reforms, extending the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Lacking the votes in Parliament, he decided to use the infamous clause 49.3 in the French Constitution which allows the executive to override Parliament and pass laws without a vote, throwing petrol on the proverbial flames. Macron has already used 49.3 10 times in the past 10 months.
But to attribute these recent protests solely to the pension reforms would be misguided; the dissatisfaction goes far deeper. France was in turmoil before these protests, roiled by a winter of near-continuous demonstrations. The pandemic was the only thing that could put a pause to the anarchist and nihilist gilets jaunes which embroiled the country during Macron’s first term as president.
Source of the rage
In a country which is one of the wealthiest in Europe, with some of the most lavish social welfare benefits on the planet, where, one might ask, does this fury come from? According to Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times, it is simply about the very essence of what the state represents. French anger transcends pensions and Macron’s arrogance. There’s a generalised, long-term rage against the Fifth Republic and its embodiment, the president.
The Fifth Republic was declared in 1958 by President Charles de Gaulle, amid the Algerian War and fears of a military coup. The Constitution created the strongest executive of any Western democracy. As De Gaulle explained, “The indivisible authority of the state is entrusted entirely to the president.” Another former president, Jacques Chirac, was even less sanguine on the concentration of powers in the presidency. “There is no room for two crocodiles in the same pond,” said Chirac.
The deal was that the French would hand over substantial taxes to a centralised state and omnipotent presidency in exchange for free education, healthcare, pensions and often even subsidised holidays.
For 30 years of breakneck economic growth, from 1945 to 1975 — “Les Trente Glorieuses” — it worked. But since then it has come unstuck. First, the economy is simply not productive enough to afford the lavish benefits. France spends more on pensions, as a proportion of gross domestic product, than all the other 26 EU states except Greece and Italy. Government spending in 2021 was 59% of GDP, the highest in the OECD.
The French state has run annual budget deficits every year since the 1970s. Public debt has risen steadily from 20.8% in 1980 to more than 110% of GDP today. In the shadow of 18th century France, this is a slow-burning crisis of public finances, with each successive government failing to get to grips with the problems.
Second, and evident from the national pastime of often violent protests, are social tensions. According to Guillaume Duval, writing in Social Europe, “For 40 years, successive governments have been asking the French people to accept ‘reforms’ reducing social rights. These have degraded public services in health, education, transport and so on, while eroding purchasing power and worsening working conditions… The French are fed up.”
‘Abandoned and scorned’
Willy Pelletier, a sociologist at the University of Picardy, says that French people in rural areas and small towns feel abandoned and scorned.
Finally, there is the profound sense of a broken political system. The all-powerful Jupiterian president as envisaged by De Gaulle is out of date, and compounds existing political tensions. The state’s autocratic nature explains why the French are so angry despite living relatively well.
According to Kuper, “You could describe the republic’s workings without mentioning the almost irrelevant Parliament. France today has three branches of government: the presidency, the judiciary and the street. If the president decides to do something, only the street can stop him — by stopping the country through protests and strikes. Street and president rarely seek compromise. One wins, one loses.”
Europe and the West need a strong, democratic France. At this rate, Macron’s heavy-handedness may well result in a far-right Marine le Pen presidency. Who knows what this might mean for the West and Europe? It is in everyone’s interests for France to be more realistic about the reforms that are needed to reimagine its state. It is time to consider a Sixth Republic. DM