By Charlie Taylor
Art by Jemima Storey
France gears up for a political showdown over its future.
Paris was tense on election day. Just outside a polling centre in in Le Marais voters tore down photos of incumbent president Emmanuel Macron. Elsewhere, devil horns had been placed atop posters of right-wing Rassemblement National candidate Marine Le Pen. In Montmartre, a historical bastion of radical politics, Jean-Luc Mélenchon prints were pasted up on walls everywhere.
Following Macron's success in becoming the first president of France since 2002 to win re-election to the Elysée, political tempers have barely cooled. As he begins to put his legislative agenda into action the fault lines in French politics continue to be ever entrenched: between an ever ascendent right, and a left which clambers to turn its foothold into more stable ground within the Assemblée Nationale.
Macron’s promise to transform France into a pro-business utopia has led to increasingly existential questions over the future of wider French society. Should it lie, as Macron suggests, in making France a European hinterland for low taxes and direct foreign investment, through cutting social welfare and government spending? Or is it, as the left argues, instead a turning point for France to reposition itself as a leader in fighting inequality and climate change?
France, however, seems to be rejecting Macron's centrist vision. Last summer’s Assemblée Nationale elections saw Macron’s party, Le Republique en Marche, fail to gain a majority. Unlike in the presidential race where many begrudgingly supported Macron to stop far- right candidate Marine Le Pen from taking power, the left had regrouped to fight the Assemblée Nationale elections on a unified programme of social and climate justice.
An editorial in Le Monde the day after the election was far more bleak about Macron's future. Editor-in-chief Jérôme Fenoglio reflected on the failed second terms of de Gaulle, Mitterrand and Chirac, and the growing sense of an inability to move away 'from the abyss' within French political life, questioning how far a second Macron term would be able to stem the tide.
It’s hard to see how En Marche, and Macron himself, have not had roles to play in provoking these tensions which now play out in France. Macron's pro-EU technocratic image, turned into an asset when presenting voters with a transformative package of reform, increasingly makes him appear out of touch with the public,
more like a republican monarch than a newly re-elected president.
As a result, controversial ministers lost out in the elections. Jean-Michel Blanquer, former education minister and critic of ‘Islamo Lefitism’ within French culture (and former Les Republican politician) lost his seat, as well as former interior minister Christophe Castaner, one of the major figures behind the police response to the Gillet Jaune’s protests in France in 2018.
Facing a hostile uphill legislative battle, the new year has left Macron’s reformist ambitions on precariously thin ice. A tenuous alliane with Les Republicans, France's traditional centre-right party, has not made progress any easier. Their own political agenda to reain political ground, since being emblazoned in corruption scandals in 2017, sees them continuing to make a workable alliance out of reach.
Similarly, Macron remains unable to shake off the image of being a 'president of the rich', a nickname which has stuck since the 2017 election for his unpopular policies in lowering corporation tax and abolishing France’s wealth tax. In response, opposition parties have capitalised on pension reform as emblematic of a governmental logic which privileges business over people.
The battle over pension reform has become, for Francois Ruffin a member of La France Insoumise, 'a moment to fight for the kind of society we want' not just a country where 'capital crushes labour and people are just consumers'.
The history of pension reform in France has seen repeated pitched battles between government reform to cut costs and critics who wish to protect a key social right. In 1982, socialist president Francois Mitterrand brought down the retirement age to only 60, requiring 37 years of work contributions before receiving a full state pension. A contract effectively existed between the worker and the state, with the promise of a lengthy retirement a reward for a lifetime of work.
Yet since the 1990s changes have been made to raise both the contribution age and the retirement age itself. As a sign of what’s to come, controversial changes to the scheme under President Sarkozy, who raised the retirement age to 62, were met with major street protests and trade union strikes in 2011.
The pension reform, unveiled by prime minister Elisabeth Borne in January this year, seeks to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64 as well as increasing the minimum contribution period from 42 to 43 years. Macron had made this a key part of his election campaign; in his new year’s address he mentioned that France 'must work longer' and has latched the policy to his continued transformist ambitions.
In France, state pensions are guaranteed to all workers and are extremely generous, financed by pay-slip contributions from workers to fill a national pot from which pensions are then granted at the age of 62. From the government's perspective reform is needed since French people are living longer, and those in work are decreasing, meaning pensions will have to increasingly rely on government borrowing to fill gaps in the system.
However, critics have suggested that the real reason for the reform is as part of a supply-side shock to push down taxes through balancing French debt and lowering state borrowing. La France Insoumise denigrated the change as guided 'by a productivity logic which is archaic and unjust', burdening the most precarious
workers while removing key rights to retirement.
Likewise, the French state's consultation into the retirement system, the Conseil d'orientation des retraites, criticised the government's economic argument. Michael Zemmour, in Jacobin, has argued that the narrative from the government is itself self-replicating, the idea that 'the system is in financial danger' has been leveraged to push reform, while avoiding raising taxes to plug current and future gaps.
The plans have provoked major controversy in wider French society. In response to the announcement in January, Fabien Roussel, head of the Parti Communiste Française, wrote 'I think they are laughing at us, don’t you?' Trade unions in France responded immediately with a set of strike dates against the government. In a joint press release France’s eight major trade unions, united for the first time in 12 years, spoke against the 'brutal reform' which would 'hit all workers hard' especially during an inflation and cost of living crisis.
Instead, the left has promised that taxes levied on the super-rich would be a far more effective way to plug deficits in the retirement system, arguing that since France’s debt to GDP ratio is so low compared to other countries, it makes sense to raise taxes to pay for the reform. A clash is deepening between Macron’s projected image as a president for business, versus an increasingly hostile social movement against reform.
From the 19th of January these grievances have blossomed into street protests. Just nine days after the unveiling of the proposed pension legislation some one million people went out in protest from Marseille to Paris. The projected reforms have cut deep, particularly in areas of France which feel that they have been left behind by Macron’s projected technocratic future. The same dynamics which mobilised the Gillet’s Jaunes protests are repeated.
Those outside of prosperous metropolitan areas feel left behind by low incomes and a decline in public service provision. Deep in rural central France the town of Guéret, a place reliant on public jobs as a local administrative centre, saw 4,300 residents out of a population of 13 thousand come out in protest. According to one local, more came out to protest the reform than to watch France play football in the World Cup. Rural areas in the North and South West of France, some of the most hard hit by these changes, have seen massive mobilisations. Far from radical Paris leading the way, it's far more likely provincial France will topple the reforms.
In the wake of renewed calls for major rolling strikes into March and increasingly large turnout at protests across France, projected to continue until the reform is scrapped, public support has dropped as low as 35%. What is at stake is not simply the reform itself but a wider image of the life and right of retirement. Is France to be a country which prioritises economic growth or key social rights? In the past, state retirement benefits were acknowledged as a generous reward for a life of work, a time for leisure, travel, and relaxation. Yet now they have become a political battleground over the kind of society.
CHARLIE TAYLOR reads History at Christ Church. In his spare times he ponders many Orb's.