In France these days, there is little common ground between the Élysée Palace and civil society. Despite President Emmanuel Macron’s occasional rhetoric to the contrary, power appears to be exercised from the top down, with violence erupting and spreading, overshadowing meaning and content.
Shaken by the “Gilets Jaunes” movement from 2018 to the start of 2019, a series of all-out protests over the cost of living, France is currently experiencing one of the most serious episodes of civil resistance since the 1995 strikes against pension reform. Tuesday 28 March was the 10th day of strikes against Macron’s retirement overhaul, which would extend the minimum pension age from 62 to 64 years. While participation dropped by comparison to Thursday 23 March, what had begun as a rejection of pension reform has now morphed into a general cry against what many see as the country’s democratic shortcomings. The spark was the government’s use of the controversial “49.3” measure, allowing it to bypass parliament and push through the controversial reform bill.
In parallel, more than 25,000 pro-environment protesters have gathered in Western France over the past days to call on the government to stop the construction of giant water reservoirs. Aimed at securing water for the agricultural industry ahead of possible droughts this summer, this type of infrastructure has aroused concerns over the confiscation by one sector of an increasingly scarce resource in the era of climate change. Clashes with some 3,000 police forces have left 47 police officers and 200 demonstrators injured. At the time of writing, two protesters are in a coma, with one between life and death.
These events have increasingly shifted the conversation from meaning and content to clashes between police and subversive forces. As if it were possible to attribute the blame for the rise of violence to one or the other, and to settle the affair by denouncing one arm of the riot control police or the other, the anarchists or black block groups.
Violence is always a possibility in a democracy, but it begins to fester when problems are not dealt with politically. To avoid this, the International Panel on Exiting Violence at the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme has advised for mediating bodies to get involved.
The decline of institutions and mediation
The current situation in France calls for two types of complementary analysis. On the one hand, it is necessary to examine the processes that, over time, have weakened the players likely to ensure the political treatment of social problems. On the other, recent events demand that we look at the collapse of the institutions and mediating bodies that could have helped resolve political tensions in a peaceful and constructive manner.
The decline of French civil society’s capacity to mediate with power goes back to the mid-1970s. At the time, society was structured by the country’s little-examined Republican system of government and repeated conflicts between workers and employers. Liberalism or neo-liberalism had not yet affect the Republican model of public service and large nationalised companies. In May 1968 a new figure arrived, the student, and deindustrialisation led to changes in the economy, cultural shifts, and the weakening of trade unions.
In the 21st century, the idea and secularism of France’s Republic have largely driven the national conversation, against a backdrop of rising extremist currents, particularly Islamist extremism.
Rallying in a fragmented landscape
As a result, the trade unions and NGOs that have long structured French political life are now increasingly struggling to exist locally and rally workers. A telling example took place on 2 June 2020: despite the Covid-19 lockdown and in defiance of police orders, some 20,000 people congregated to demand the truth about 24-year-old Adama Traoré, who died in a police station in the Paris region four years earlier. However, it was not the long-established NGOs SOS Racisme or the human rights focused Ligue des droits de l'Homme that organised the protests, but a network led by Traoré’s sister.
While trade unions were able to come together and collectively call for the withdrawal of the pension reform, the reality is that they’re dependent on the radicalism of the base. In recent years, unions have often failed to lead the protest agenda – for example, when workers for France’s national railway company organised their own strike in December 2022, without the assistance of trade unions.
Power from the top down
Meanwhile, President Macron has consistently governed from the top down since taking office in 2017, allowing only a few mediating players.
On social issues, he does not take into account the trade unions, including reformists such as the CFDT – an attitude that does not date only from the debate on pension reform. He confirmed this to me personally when, at a meeting in March 2019 with academics to reflect on the “Gilets Jaunes” crisis, I asked him why he did not talk to the CFDT. Macron answered that the intermediary bodies that merited his attention were local and regional representatives, not trade unions. Time and again, he has criticised “corporatism” – a political ideology whereby professional bodies seek to exclusively defend their interests – referring to it as “the French disease, the thing that reappeared the quickest following the 1789 Revolution”.
This propensity to dismiss mediation can be noted in other areas as well. In June, the government moved to phase out two historic bodies of French diplomacy, ambassadors and foreign-affairs advisers. Instead, a new body of state administrators would be created, with senior civil servants no longer be attached to a specific administration. This prompted the first walkout in the foreign ministry in 20 years. Former foreign-affairs minister Dominique de Villepin and European Commission Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, opposed the reforms, and experts called it a “worrying development”, in vain.
Macron has also been accused of having a casual attitude toward local or regional elected representatives by not inviting the mayors of France at a working meeting on decentralisation on 13 March 2023. And he has blurred distinctions between the left and the classic right, the effects of which we have just observed on the occasion of the parliamentary debate on pensions. France’s traditional conservative party, Les Républicains, is moribund, or almost.
Understanding “Jupiterean” rule
Many have branded Macron’s style of governance as “Jupiterean”. Is it a consequence of the president’s personality, or even – as the former interior minister Gérard Collomb once called it – “hubris”?
By eliminating mediating players between himself and the country’s citizens, Macron risks rolling out the red carpet to the far right. These questions are always risky, but today there is a wealth of journalistic investigations and testimonies that document this creation of an institutional, political and social vacuum. If this owes much to the head of state’s perception of his own role, the fact is that the institutions of the Fifth Republic facilitate it. This has given rise to calls for a new constitution and a Sixth Republic.
We may also ask ourselves whether social, political or cultural players are doing everything in their power to move in the direction of debate and negotiation. The answer is “yes” if we consider how the country’s joint union body (“intersyndicale”) has opposed the government’s pension reform by tapping both into its member unions’ defensive radicalism and pro-negotiation reformism. “No”, if we look to the “Gilets Jaunes” who now swell the ranks of the pension-reform protests after having been left disillusioned by Macron’s “Great Debate” – a two-month listening tour of citizen’s demands by local and national authorities. Rather than a negotiation, the thousands of grievances collected resulted in another series of top-down proposals by the president, which many regarded as disconnected from the initial demands.
Could these trends be reversed? At the very least, it would require a profound reform of France’s institutions and a renewal of the political class – both of which seem to be out of reach for now.