France has entered a Marxian state of pre-insurrection. Orderly protest over the retirement age has mutated into a deeper crisis of the regime, with political violence feeding on political repression in a vicious cycle with no visible end. This is not because the French people have a cultural vocation for riots. It is the structure of the Fifth Republic itself that renders France prey to outbursts of angry protest. The constitution creates an overmighty Cromwellian executive that invites trouble.
The text, rammed through by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, gives the French president sweeping powers to emasculate parliament and pass laws by decree (Article 49.3) – a “government that knows how to govern”, as he put it. When this power is abused, or seen to be abused, the National Assembly is fatally exposed as a hollow vessel. The opposition has nowhere to go but the streets. This in turn has led to a militarised anti-protest police that is pathologically prone to escalation. They fired 4,000 tear gas grenades at eco-radicals agitating over a hole in the ground in Les Deux-Sèvres over the weekend, two shells for every tree-hugger. Emmanuel Macron has chosen to rely on decree powers as a method of government since losing his majority in the Assembly last June, rather than trimming his sails and accepting that he no longer has the votes for his neo-liberal assault on sacred modèle français.
In this he misjudges his mandate. The French people elected him – faute de mieux – to block Marine Le Pen and her hard-Right Rassemblement, not because they endorse his detested Gallic Thatcherism. They emphatically qualified his victory weeks later by stripping his party of legislative dominion. It is one thing to override parliament on minor matters. It is another to impose a root-branch reform of the beloved pension system against the overwhelming majority of the country, after having lost the national argument, and after having signalled clearly that he would not cross this Rubicon. Over 72pc of the French people oppose his plan, and opinion has hardened the more they learn about the details. For sheer political pyrotechnics, it is as if the Tories had tried force through the privatisation of the NHS after proroguing Parliament. “It is an abuse of democracy: for this to end in a 49:3 strikes me as incredible and dangerous,” said Laurent Berger, head of the largest trade union (CFDT).
The French people were open to reform in principle. A working consensus could have been found with the right political chemistry. But Mr Macron’s idea of consultations is to lecture the slow-witted. He refused at every stage to talk to the unions, allied in a single front for the first time since the Paris uprising of May 1968. For two months they carried out enormous kaleidoscopic marches in towns across France. They did so with discipline and high civic spirit. It made no difference. The gilets jaunes secured more by waging guerrilla warfare. Mr Berger warned that France would erupt if the Elysée shunned compromise, and so it has proved. Five of the country’s seven refineries are closed by strikes. At least 42 departments are running out of fuel. Trains and flights have been disrupted for weeks. Some 7,200 tonnes of rubbish rot uncollected on the streets of Paris. The nation is in the tenth day of what amounts to a general strike.
Mr Macron’s calamitous reaction to this insolence has been to go on television to compare the protesters – in spirit, two-thirds of France – to the Trumpian mobs that stormed Capitol Hill in a conspiracy to overthrow American democracy. This has not gone down well. As a matter of strict economic rationalism, one cannot fault Mr Macron for trying to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and shaking up a pension system designed for an age when people died in their 70s. “When I started working, there were 10 million retirees. Today there are 17 million, and by the 2030s there will be 20 million. Do you think we can keep going with the same rules?” he said. French men leave the workforce at an average age of 60.4 and can then look forward to 23.5 years of gardening and long lunches: women can expect 27.1 years. This compares to 20.1 and 23.1 years respectively in Germany. They can take paid retirement at 62 at an average 74pc of their former salary, compared to 29pc in Britain for public pensions. It costs the state 14pc of GDP, viz Germany (10.1), the US (7.1), or Britain (6.2). It is a vast intergenerational transfer from the young to the old.
It also leaves France on a ruinous debt trajectory. “Financially, we have our back against the wall and a knife at our throat,” said Agnès Verdier-Molinié from the French Research Institute on Public Administration (IFRAP). She said the country had been anaesthetised by zero rates and QE bond purchases that soaked up €300bn (£264bn) of annual debt issuance. Covid habits of quoi qu’il en coûte (whatever it takes) led to last year’s indiscriminate subsidy of electricity, gas and petrol for rich and poor alike, all entrenching a sense that the public purse has no limits. “We’re at the end of that magic money. The financial risks weighing on France are enormous,” she said.
France had a lower debt-to-GDP ratio than Germany as recently as 2007 – 64pc viz 65pc (IMF data). This year France will be 113pc, and Germany 68pc. The IMF says France’s debt ratio will keep rising through the 2020s long after peers have retrenched, unless something fundamental changes. That divergence makes monetary union unworkable over time. Mr Macron pledged a “grand bargain” with Germany when he burst on the EU scene in 2017. France would grasp the nettle of reform with its version of Germany’s Hartz IV reforms, make itself a fit partner for euro condominium: in exchange, Berlin would drop its resistance to fiscal union (ie, shared debts), and finally agree to establish the euro on viable foundations. Without pension reform, the grand bargain is dead, and Mr Macron’s even grander ambitions for a ‘sovereign’ Europe slip away. So yes, the stakes are high. The Elysée Palace is playing the clock, betting that public support for the strikes will subside and that the penetration of the protects by “black bloc” anarchists will work to the government’s advantage. As the weeks go by Mr Macron will prevail as the defender of public order. He will show who is boss and he will have his pension reform in the end. That at least is the gamble.
Mr Macron is offering no way out of this quagmire. He refuses to withdraw the pension plan and to go back to the drawing board. He also refuses to dissolve parliament and settle the matter via fresh elections, knowing that his Renaissance Party would be crushed. If the polls are right, the next Assembly would be a raucous bedlam of the hard-Right and hard-Left, dare one say like the German Reichstag in June 1932. Le Pen would command the largest force, entitled to become prime minister under “cohabitation” rules. The chief outcome of Mr Macron’s astounding lack of political Fingerspitzengefühl is to turn the old Front National into the foremost electoral force of France. The disaster is complete.