You’ve almost certainly read or seen something about the political chaos in France at the moment. It’s not only important in itself, it’s important as a potential leading indicator for what might happen in other countries as well. Here’s how to understand what’s going on: the situation is not simple, but this explanation includes the stuff that’s usually left out.
To start with, what would you say is the biggest problem facing France at the moment? You might think of inflation, of the sharp rise in the cost of food, and the vertiginous increase in fuel prices that is forcing some restaurants and shops to close, and makes it increasingly hard for people to stay warm. You might think of unemployment, poverty, factories closing, jobs sent abroad, corruption in political life at all levels, the effects of uncontrolled immigration, the catastrophic decline of the education system and the collapsing health service. Oh, and you might include global warming, the continued effects of Covid and the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
That’s not a complete list of course but it will do for now. So, of all of those, which subject or subjects is the main priority of France’s President, Emmanuel Macron? What keeps him awake at nights, and what subject is he prepared to stake his reputation and even political survival on?
Well, if you’ve been paying attention you will know that the correct answer is “none of the above.” Macron’s obsession, since well before his second coronation in 2022, has been with making poorer French people wait several years longer before they can collect a pension.
Given the amount of acrimony, conflict and even violence that this proposal has already caused, as well as the political crisis that is unfolding even while I’m writing this article, it seems worth trying to explain, not just what the short-term issues are, not just how we got here, but also what the consequences might be: because what is happening in France today might well happen in your neck of the woods tomorrow.
So let’s start with a bit of history. The political crisis in France today is the product of a political system which is now terminally dysfunctional, and it’s probably true to say that if the immediate cause had not been pensions, there would have been another cause instead.
Politics in France since the Revolution was traditionally binary and dualistic. First, Republicans vs. Monarchists; then within the Republican fraternity Liberals vs. Socialists, within Socialism, Marxists vs. non-Marxists. And since the broad triumph of Republican principles after World War 2, the fundamental cleavage has been “Left” versus “Right.”Now notice that this is not the same thing as allegiance to particular parties. There were families with long traditions of voting for the Communist Party, for example, and others for the Socialists, and there were intermediate organisations like trades unions, explicitly linked to one party or the other. The Church had links with certain right-wing parties. But French political parties change, decline, die, are reborn elsewhere, split and sometimes combine, changing their names all the time, which is why I’m talking about groups rather than names here. The average older French person today, if you asked them, would be likely simply to say “I am of the Left” or “I am of the Right.” The exact party for which they voted would depend on the circumstances of the time.
French politics is highly personalised, and most “parties” are in practice collections of factions. For example, Macron’s “party” in the National Assembly is actually a coalition of several groups, collectively known (this week anyway) as “Ensemble.” Macron’s party, “Renaissance”, originally baptised “En Marche” after his initials, then subsequently “La République en Marche”, joined with “Horizons”, a party led by Eduard Philippe, a refugee from the Right who was his first Prime Minister, and a couple of other parties of the Centre-Right. There’s nothing unusual about this: the sizeable majority that the Socialists had in 2012 derived from a regroupment of a whole series of parties, some big, some tiny.
This has two consequences that may not be obvious to the casual observer. First if parties from the same part of the political spectrum oppose each other in the first round of an election, they can effectively prevent each other from qualifying for the second. This is what happened in 2002, when disunity in the Centre and Left meant that Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front squeezed into the second round, just ahead of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. Second, because parties are, in the last instance, coalitions, they can be fragile, and their members can change affiliations. (Jean-Yves Le Drian, Defence Minister in Hollande’s 2012 government, was elected as a Socialist in 2017, but quickly changed to Macron, to become his Foreign Minister.)
Until about a generation ago, the system nonetheless worked well enough. The first round would see a profusion of parties broadly of Left or Right, the second round would see the party that had done best in each grouping carry the standard alone. This didn’t always work—in the notoriously complicated local elections, for example—but on the whole, a binary political system in a binary culture, usually produced a clear result. More recently, the system has started to break down, and Macron is both the result, and the the agent of its further decline.
The case of the Left is best known and best understood. The mighty French Communist Party, which was a kind of parallel government in parts of the country, and could count on up to 20% of the votes in Presidential and legislative elections in the 1950s, has withered away to almost nothing (less than 50,000 members by the last count.) The Socialists, who could have hoovered up this vote, instead turned their backs on it and transformed themselves into a vaguely socially-progressive party of the urban middle class. Yet as late as a decade ago, they retained a lot of traditional instinctive support, and when the scandal-ridden Nicolas Sarkozy tried to get himself re-elected in 2012, the uncharismatic François Hollande, in the face of a Red Scare campaign of a size and viciousness unseen since the 1980s, managed to squeeze out a win. At that point, the Socialists controlled the Presidency, they took control of the National Assembly and dominated the local government scene Their victory was complete and they could have done anything. They did nothing. Most of Hollande’s time was spent laboriously managing his fractious alliance, and throwing bones to various interests groups in the form of social legislation. Nemesis duly arrived in 2017 when the Socialist candidate for President was eliminated in the first round with 5% of the vote, and Nemesis reserved a second kick in the goolies for the 2022 elections, when the candidate couldn’t even make 2%. The “Left” in the National Assembly is now an unstable grouping of parties with about 20% of the seats, and little in the way of a common identity.
So much for the Left. The history of the Right is if anything even more complicated ( here is a simplified version, which doesn’t seem to have an English translation) and the “Rights” as French scholars prefer to call them have included everything from neo-monarchists to Christian Democrats to Anglo-Saxon style liberals, via dozens of other tendencies. After the shock of Le Pen’s entry into the second round in 2002, there were attempts to unify the Right in France, to stop the same thing happening to them. This succeeded to an extent with the creation of the UMP in 2002, but the political differences and the poisonous personal animosities that have always characterised the Right made it difficult to sustain, and the traditional Right has been in decline also, just not as publicly.
By 2017, the corruption and cynicism of the Sarkozy years and the abject failure of the Holland Presidency had produced a mood of impatience and anger with the political class such as had not been seen before under the Fifth Republic. Now, the normal tendency in French politics could be described as the unfulfilled dialectic: from thesis to antithesis, back to thesis again, with little in the way of a synthesis. Changes in French political life accordingly tend rather to be sharp and discontinuous when they do come. So under normal circumstances, the Right would have expected to return to power in 2017, and indeed this almost happened. The reasons why it didn’t have a lot to do with the origins of the current crisis.
Much of the French electorate felt disenfranchised. The implosion of the Socialists meant that much of its working-class support went to Marine Le Pen, whose party, the National Front (now National Assembly) is best understood simply as the only party in France that talks about things that matter to ordinary people, whatever you think of its policies on them. It also meant that its middle-class support defected to the Greens, or to the erratic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and often vacillated between the two. On the Right, some voters were also tempted by Le Pen, others decided not to vote at all. It was into this confused and divided political landscape that Emmanuel Macron entered.
Retrospectively, lazy commentators have talked about Macron “sweeping into” power. The reality was quite different. With huge amounts of money and the majority of the media behind him, he was the protest candidate of the middle classes, as Le Pen was the protest candidate of the popular classes. With the Left mostly out of the game, and with Le Pen effectively unelectable, Macron’s real objective was to squeeze into the second round ahead of the candidate of the Right, François Fillon, after which he would be assured of victory against Le Pen. Normally, Fillon would have beaten off Macron’ challenge and become President, but he became enmeshed in a sordid little corruption investigation, in which he was eventually convicted. This cost him the few percentage points that enabled Macron to squeeze through, and to go on to an expected victory against Le Pen, though turnout was low by French standards and there was little positive enthusiasm for him.
There were quite a lot of French people who were prepared to give Macron a chance. Yes, he was a pure product of the French establishment, but on the other hand he was not an established figure from the widely-disliked political class. But people became disillusioned very quickly with a young, inexperienced technocrat who fumbled things and seemed to have little idea about the lives and problems of ordinary people. The outburst of protest which became known as the Gilets jaunes episode in 2018/19 was directed not just against Macron personally, but against a whole globalised, anglicised, liberal good thinking, job-destroying establishment which Macron, in spite of his protestations, was an almost caricatural representative of.
In power, and with a party created in his own vague and fluid image, Macron set about destroying any opposition by offering jobs to politicians of Left and Right to detach them from their parties, and so weaken those parties. Slowly, like a black hole, he began to attract much of French politics towards him.
Macron survived the Gilets jaunes, as he survived Covid. Running for re-election last year, his platform consisted of not being Le Pen, and his strategy consisted of ensuring that he fought the second round against her. The traditional Left was still in pieces, and the traditional Right had been gravely weakened. The Presidential elections in 2022 were therefore a fight between three candidates (Le Pen, Macron and Mélenchon) who claimed to be from “outside” the system. Macron won against Le Pen (though not by as much as in 2017): he would also have beaten Mélenchon had the latter been able to make up the few percentage points by which he trailed Le Pen. The second round confrontation between Le Pen and Macron was one which the vast majority of French voters said they didn’t want. They got it anyway, because of the weakness of the French political system and the dizzying decline of the traditional parties.
The final piece in the jigsaw was the 2022 National Assembly elections, which produced a confused result where Macron’s party was the largest, but did not have a majority. Opposition came from broadly equal contingents of the Right, Le Pen’s party, and a loose left-wing electoral alliance, but there was no single united opposition.
What this (very simplified) trot through recent history shows, I hope, is the extreme fragility and disorganisation of the French political system at the moment. Disgust with the traditional parties is not necessarily stronger in France than in, say, the US or the UK, but the lack of a strong two-party system makes it much more obvious. It’s quite a thought that, even if you include the Greens, the “traditional” political parties in France can scarcely muster a quarter of the vote between them. Of the rest, Le Pen will forever be frozen out of power, the unstable coalition (rather than party) presided over by Mélenchon will not long survive his departure, and Macron’s own party has no future after he leaves power in 2027. There is no sign of a renaissance of the Left, and the Right is split and getting weaker, caught as it is between ideological support for many of Macron’s nastier ideas on one hand, and fear of being taken for granted as just an appendage of Macron on the other.
There is thus a gaping hole where the French political system should be. Macron inherited a bad political situation and will leave it a field of ruins. A political system and its media parasites that have for twenty years preached the need to create a “barrage” against Le Pen have now contrived a situation where in 2027 she will lead the only united and disciplined party in the country with a chance of taking power. Clever, that. And indeed, whereas the Right has been feuding publicly, and the parliamentary tactics of Mélenchon’s party have alienated many voters, Le Pen’s party has been a model of discretion and good behaviour in recent months.
So the French political system is in some danger of collapse between now and 2027, even without the pensions “reform.” Macron’s parliamentarians will begin to panic quite soon, as they realise that they could well be out of a job in 2027. No-one has any idea what they will do then. The Right will go into terminal decline unless it can differentiate itself from Macron, but that means voting against things like pensions “reform” which they actually support. If the present system survives until 2027, the most likely result is a new National Assembly in which Le Pen’s party is the largest single group, but does not have a majority, and is faced by anything from five to ten other groups with nothing uniting them. In a word, chaos. Who would win the Presidential election is simply impossible to say.
So with the structural problems I‘ve briefly outlined here, and all the other social, economic and international difficulties I mentioned at the start, the French system is in deep trouble, and doesn’t need highly controversial and unpopular initiatives that just make things worse. But that’s exactly what it’s got. Let’s now look briefly at the whole pensions fiasco, and what it means.
Firstly, though, it’s not disputed that the pensions system in France is a bit of a mess. As with many things in the country it grew up incrementally over generations, and is confusing both to use and to operate. Everything depends on which sectors you worked in and who pays you and when. Most French people have at least two pensions, and four is quite common. If you worked for a few years in the private sector before becoming a teacher, and also worked as a private tutor in parallel for a few years, you could have six. In some ways (as with the welcome introduction of income taxation at source a couple of years ago) there could have been a sensible, low-key initiative which would have been quite popular, and could have been handled by some nerdy junior minister.
But instead, and from early in his career, Macron is obsessed with making people wait longer to receive their pensions: the current age is 62 (from 60 before 2010) and his original intention was to raise it to 65. But because Macron’s parliamentary group doesn’t have a majority, he was obliged to give way to the Right, and reduce the age to 64. And since then, there have been a series of other concessions on detailed points that we can pass over here. But nonetheless, with mulish insistence, against the opposition of three quarters of the nation and in spite of worries from his own supporters, in spite of now eight days of strikes and demonstration, Macron has steamed on, finally resorting to a Constitutional measure to pass the necessary laws without a vote, which he would quite possibly have lost. At the time of writing, there are spontaneous demonstrations, occupations, blockages and strikes happening all over France. So two obvious questions arise. Why are people so concerned about the measure, and why is Macron sticking so doggedly to it? Let’s take them in turn.
First, the government has hardly deigned to defend the initiative at all. There have been mumbles about people living longer, about fewer contributors to pensions schemes, and anyway everybody else is doing it. But that’s about it. The government seems to believe that ordinary people are just too stupid to understand the need for the “reform,” which to them and their supporters is just self-evident. This is all froth, of course; pensions are just another item of government expenditure, and a government that is showering money on Ukraine and which said that it would spend “whatever it took” to defeat Covid is hardly in a position to deny people who’ve worked all their lives a dignified retirement.
Next, the “reforms” essentially target the poor. Lawyers, politicians, CEOs, doctors, journalists, bankers … such people are in no hurry to retire. But nurses, HGV drivers, care workers, agricultural labourers, construction workers, rubbish collectors … such people are as worn out by manual work as they ever were, and look forward to retiring. Indeed, one of the ironies of the situation is that the measure won’t save much money, because a lot of working-class people of about 60-62 are either unemployed (since the young are cheaper to employ) or are on long-term invalidity benefit, worn out by a lifetime of work. A report just today pointed to the significant increase in early deaths and long-term invalidity over the last decade when the pensionable age was raised to 62. And since no-one has yet worked out how the measure can actually increase the total number of jobs available, the result will be to increase unemployment among the young. But then the young don’t vote.
It’s for this reason that the initiative is not about, and understood not to be about, making people “work longer.” Rather, it’s about making them wait longer to collect a pension in the hope, brutally, that they will die. What to do with an increasingly elderly population more and more confined to institutions, is a problem that no French government has yet faced up to, so why not just help them to die earlier, and so reduce the size of the problem?
The arrogance and brutality of this measure, finally, are just the latest in a long series of assaults on the French people, by a President who openly despises them, their country and their history and culture, and regards being President of France as just ticking another box on his way to becoming President of Europe, or whatever. Much as the increase in fuel taxes in 2018 was the final straw, unleashing the anger that launched the Gilets jaunes, so this pointless and provocative initiative, combined with the disdainful attitude of the government to pubic opinion, and its shameless use of procedural devices to ram the necessary law through Parliament, has tipped France over into furious, and increasingly random and disorganised protest—a point I’ll return to. After all, government legitimacy in France has historically rested on much more than just doing better than anyone else in an election.
Now any normal, rational, politically-astute government faced with this level of resistance from voters, and doubts even from its own supporters, and on an issue which is frankly marginal, would have said, stuff it, let’s do something else. But Macron (and it’s him personally) has rammed the measure through, defying even Parliament in the process. What on earth is going on?
Well, first, Macron is a weak individual with a poor sense of politics, and is wildly detached from ordinary life. He’s a representative of a new generation of politicians, with a technocratic mind-set but very little technical knowledge, for whom senior political office is just another job on their CV, bringing in money and status, and the chances of profiting from it afterwards. There’s little or nothing in Macron of the traditional French President: he makes the obligatory noises, but his contempt for his fellow-citizens isn’t even really disguised. Like most of his ilk, he didn’t really expect to have to confront genuine, traditional political problems, and has little idea how to do so. His personal performance during Covid, for example, was pitiful, but his touch in political crises generally has been poor as well. So he’s decided that this issue, trivial as it may be, is one he’s going to win on, and show who is the boss. It’s an exercise in looking determined and statesmanlike, and things have reached such a point now that he cannot back down without being badly damaged politically. He could have withdrawn the draft law when it became clear that it would probably not be passed by the National Assembly, which would have been the sensible and professional thing to do. But instead he used special powers to ram the measure through, thus making the situation worse.
On the other hand, this is an issue that Macron, sort of, understands: the kind of scenario they taught when he was at ENA twenty years ago, the kind of thing that management consultants think they know how to handle. Cutting things, saving money, letting people suffer and die pointlessly, helping the rich and harming the poor, obeying abstruse economic superstitions: it’s all there. It doesn’t require any real specialised knowledge or understanding, and it doesn’t have the intellectual complexity and challenges of most of the other problems facing the country.
And unlike many of the other problems, this is an entirely French one. There is no international dimension, no sudden developments beyond French control, no international treaties and agreements, no allies to worry about, no genuinely difficult and complex issues, no positions of other countries that have to be taken into account, only some clever ways of presenting numbers to make it look as though there’s a problem. As always in politics, it’s easier and more attractive to address small, easy, problems than large complex ones. This is, after all, an issue on which “victory” is actually possible.
So, where are we now? Well, there’s been quite a bit of confusion in the media, and the situation changes daily, but let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. First, Macron (in the person of his Prime Minister) made use of a provision in the French Constitution to force through laws without a debate. This is Article 49,3 of the Constitution, the famous Quarante-neuf-trois. What it basically does is to allow a Prime Minister to force the passage a piece of legislation, with the proviso that opposition parties can then put down a motion of censure, and if that motion succeeds the government has to resign and of course the legislation perishes. But there are some nuances here, so stay with me.
First, the Article itself was drafted, like much of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, as a reaction against the Fourth. That Republic (1946-58) was ultra-parliamentary and very divided, and governments often had enormous problems getting laws passed. A government that couldn’t get its budget law passed, for example, had little choice but to resign. This led to endless instability, and the drafters of the Fifth Republic’s Constitution were determined to avoid a repetition. In reality, the Quarante-neuf-trois was only used occasionally under the Fifth Republic, because most governments had a stable majority anyway. But in the present chaotic state of the National Assembly, the Prime Minister has already used it almost a dozen times, including just a few days ago. And as often in France, the solution has now become more unpopular than the original problem, with understandable protests about authoritarian behaviour from a government without a majority. The government won this recent no-confidence vote, but only barely, and it’s hard to believe that it can pull off the same trick very many more times.
That said, the results of losing a vote of confidence are not as dramatic as that. To begin with, it has no effect on Macron’s position, since it’s the government, not the President, that is the target. It is possible (just) to get rid of a President under the Fifth Republic, but not by this method. Barring some political earthquake (but see below), Macron is secure until 2027. Neither does it necessarily mean an election. The existing Prime Minister has to resign, and Macron will have to find a new one, to form a new government. This will be a defeat, but largely a symbolic one, since any future Prime Minister will be another puppet of the Elysée. A single defeat like this would be a major political embarrassment. If there were more than a few such defeats, there would be pressure for new elections, but it’s not clear that anyone necessarily wants them: most of the parties have more to lose than to gain.
So there’s a very good chance that things will stagger on like this for a few years more, and the National Assembly will become more chaotic and less relevant. But this is France, where there is a venerable tradition of expressing discontent with the government in the streets. Until recently, the national mood, as far as it could be judged, was one of angry resignation. Weeks of massive demonstrations and strikes had failed to move the government, and it looked as though they would eventually force the measure through. This has largely happened (though there are still some procedural tricks to try) but the anger is still there. Up to now, things have been organised and peaceful. The trades unions, for once, have worked together, and there have been only a few violent incidents. But the trades unions have now effectively run out of weapons: mass demonstrations are really all they know how to do, and there are signs they are losing control at local level.
In the last few days, we’re getting increasing reports of improvised strikes, angry gatherings in front of official buildings, blockades and even sabotage. In several traditionally militant cities, the local trades unions have organised disruption of transport. Rubbish is still piling up in the streets of Paris. Oil refineries have stopped working for a while, and lorry drivers are talking about using blocking tactics: a couple of dozen lorries, strategically placed at rush hour would bring most French cities to a halt. Government attempts to lift blockades have further inflamed tensions. It’s interesting that moves are beginning to be made against the infrastructure of the State itself, and its elected politicians.
So far, the trades unions seem to be just about in control at the local level; But everyone sees the possibility of the return of Gilets jaunes style protest: locally-organised, without a fixed hierarchy, largely without control or direction and open to infiltration. As before, the ostensible cause will be only one among many: we’re seeing the beginnings of an outburst of anger against an arrogant system which is behaving increasingly dictatorially. And you can rely on Macron to make it worse, by a fumbled and probably disproportionate response.
The reality is that the State can’t deal effectively with a repetition of 2018/19. Even then, police were largely reduced to standing by and watching property being destroyed, only intervening when life was threatened. There just aren’t enough of them, and they can’t be everywhere. And this time the mood is uglier, the anger probably greater, and the choice of targets almost infinite. We’ve already had attacks on electrical infrastructure. You can’t protect all of it, and even if you could, you couldn’t protect anything else.
So things may be about to get distinctly kinetic, in a country with a reputation for a vigorous and lively form of street politics. And whilst there are specificities to the French case, most of the complaints are also international. It’s interesting to speculate who might be next.
1. The only thing that really matters is whether the security services will continue to follow orders, specifically, the order to shoot. So far, they do not appear anywhere near the point where they will refuse to do so.
2. Barring a change in 1. above, Macron will continue to survive politically. This is not because of any skills on his part, but because if he were gone, there is a non-zero chance that Le Pen would get elected. The overriding goal of All Right Thinking People in France is to prevent Le Pen or someone like Le Pen from getting into power. Even if, by some fluke she were to find herself in the Champs Elysee, the Better Sort Of People, the people who control the institutions, would do whatever it takes to prevent Le Pen from actually ruling.
France, like the rest of Europe, will continue to trudge to its demise, rather than question its Atlanticist orientation, or the current power structure.
I agree with the broad thrust of the article, but I have to admit to smirking a bit when you brought up the lack of a strong two party system as a contributor to the problems in France. A lot of people in US, in particular, imagine that the root of all problems here is the two party system. They imagine that if there are lots of parties out there, competing for "unconventional" voters, somehow things will be better, and to them, I usually suggest that they should look at dysfunctional multiparty politics in various parts of Europe, of which France has increasingly become the foremost example. The real problem, as I see it, affecting politics in most countries, is that parties have mostly become dysfunctional: when parties/coalitions/whatever work properly, they are vehicles for brokering compromise, allowing for horse trading or whatever to take place behind the scenes so that they can vote together to make policy whether they really "agree" in their hearts or not. This doesn't say, necessarily, that the policy produced would necessarily be "good"--you still need some publicly minded leadership to direct the compromise and bargaining in some productive direction. But the bottom line is that "parties" as embodiment of "ideology" is a self-destructive trap. If you cannot easily define what a particular coalition is about, that's likely a sign of a well-run, highly effective party. In this dimension, If you believe that the most important thing for a party or a coalition is to have an "ideology" that all its members somehow believe it, that's the thinking of comfortable elitists who think themselves above practical consequences of policymaking. (I'd describe the well-known saying about parties in US by Will Rodgers as prattlings of a nitwit. When no one know what the Democrats were all about, they were doing a wondrous job as a party.)
This description, which, incidentally, describes the decline of parties in US as policymaking organization (where you could get a bunch of people who don't share same views together and have them vote for some policy as a group), applies to the party/coalition politics in France (whose, politics shares a lot of characteristics with US.) except, well, the French citizens seem more hotheaded than we are when it comes to taking to the streets.