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With no legislative majority, Macron used a constitutional provision to raise the pension age by two years to 64. Germany and Italy just upped theirs to 67, based on similar math that shows longer lifespans and stalled population growth in Europe portend unmanageable future costs.
Options such as the Social Security system in America could let people retire early with reduced benefits or stay at jobs past 70 for a larger payout.
But this is France, where the idea is working to live rather than the other way around. “He has to understand that people also want to enjoy their lives,” Carl LeFrançois, a national labor union leader, told reporters. “We’re not here to die on the job.”
(Americans, please read on when you stop laughing. Retirement is only the surface issue.)
For me, “Mort à Macron” spraypainted on walls provokes a chuckle. But it’s not funny. Political deadlock cripples a crucial European leader with a nuclear arsenal, a globalist who takes climate collapse seriously, as Russia wages widening war to the east and China looms ever larger.
Opinion polls show two-thirds of the country agrees with LeFrançois. Many others who believe a delayed pension is a necessary sacrifice want a countrywide referendum if the National Assembly is deadlocked over a basic underpinning of French society.
And researchers at the prestigious National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) see a troubling increase in violence by protesting students and young people who reject the old political processes that have kept Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic from splitting at the seams.
Macron came to power in 2017, a flashy 39-year-old finance minister with solid ideas to get France back on track after François Hollande flamed out and left his Socialist Party in shambles. With a broad-based coalition of support, expectations were high across the board.
He helped Europe and NATO weather the Trump years. But he often failed to read the room at home. Efforts to curb generous social benefits rankled the middle-class. The rich got richer; the poor got desperate. Covid and Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war cut deeply into joie de vivre.
Yann Sallet, an author friend with a keen eye, reflected a view echoed by others: “It’s like he functions in a bubble, sure of himself and isolated from realities, which strikes a lot of people as arrogant, detached. This latest move was a step too far.”
Macron was reelected last April, skunking Marine LePen of the far-right National Rally. But with no legislative majority, he is stymied by a leftwing coalition on one side and LePen’s France First partisans on the other. She demonizes immigrants, likes Putin and wants France out of NATO.
At first, he tried moderation. He fired his top security guard in 2018 for beating up a protester when off duty. Now a woman in northern France is on trial for calling him “filth” on Facebook, subject to a 12,000 euro fine. “Insulting the president” is illegal yet has been a national sport for generations.
With four years left and ineligible for a third term, Macron declares he intends to do what he thinks is right, like it or not. Failure to raise the retirement age, he told an interviewer, means “making our children pay because today you refuse to act with clarity and courage.”
Today, families struggle with the soaring prices that bedevil most of the world after Covid and the Ukraine war. Strikes disrupted transportation, and people took to the streets. Joblessness nears 20 percent among disaffected youth, who set fire to mounds of uncollected garbage.
As so often happens everywhere in today’s “breaking news” climate, parachute journalists and long-distance commentators made much of dramatic footage when the protests began. There was little analysis of the background or the big picture.
I left Miami for Paris on March 26 in war-reporter mode, prepared for the worst. A mass demonstration had gathered at the Place de la Concorde to march on the National Assembly just across the Seine. My Paris home is between the two, an old boat at the port just below.
I’ve covered countless such French manifs – manifestations – over the years, but these days they are different. Protesters are truffled with casseurs, apolitical a-holes who simply like to break stuff and torment riot police, who respond in kind. There was blood.
From an ocean away, Paris looked ugly. Elsewhere, cameras showed such isolated incidents as a fire at the façade of Bordeaux’s historic city hall. Then it was over. The French protest the way many of them work – with only measured zeal. I zipped home in a rental car and cancelled my backup hotel room.
The next round was days later and much smaller, a peaceable march from La Republique to La Nation – a symbolic route easily avoided. BBC’s Hugh Schofield, an old Paris hand, reported from the thick of it, calming down his anchor in London who pushed for details about mayhem.
Scattered demonstrations and strikes across a large country of 68 million people should not deter anyone’s brief holiday in France. Restoration specialists rebuilt Notre Dame after that massive accidental fire; they can handle a charred door in Bordeaux.
Cyril Hamon at the Alma Market in Paris typified interviews I did in the capital’s environs and, by phone, with trusted old friends elsewhere. He had his usual array of charcuterie, terrines and plats du jour he had lovingly simmered for hours.
“We just deal with this stuff, like grownups,” he said. “Sure, sometimes strikes and shortages are a pain in the ass, but all that is necessary to keep the government from getting out of hand.”
My hardware store lady, from India, was outraged by the uproar. King Charles III planned to make his first royal visit to Britain’s traditional friend-foe, with a full-bore banquet at Versailles. Unions announced they would snatch away the red carpet, and he went to Germany instead.
“I’m so ashamed,” she said of her adopted country, preferring not to be named. “What must the world think of us?” I reminded her I was from the United States.
The French reach exceptional extremes. The worst, world-class buttheads, include some union leaders whose sudden strikes often discomfit such victims as penurious grandmothers who save all year for Christmas family gatherings only to find planes and trains cancelled.
Near my Wild Olives redoubt in Provence, Eric Martin is at the other extreme: generous beyond description, hard-working beyond belief – as decent as human beings come. He is too busy to demonstrate, and that is not his thing, but he vehemently opposes a higher retirement age.
Eric’s Italian-born mother’s family escaped Mussolini. She married a French olive grower, and their kids went to work at 15. “After 47 years, that’s enough,” Eric said. I’d bet anything he’ll still be in the trees if he reaches his 90s, as his father was. But he has earned his pension.
Lots of others work a 35-hour week, with six-week vacations and 11 national holidays. Mothers get 16 weeks off after childbirth. Fathers get 25 days (32 for twins). Most transport and public service workers can retire in their mid-50s with sizeable pensions from ex-employers and the state.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne is meeting with unions and protest groups on April 6 to seek common ground. If the issue were only retirement age, she might get somewhere. But it isn’t.
The left-leaning weekly, Marianne, campaigns for a national referendum on Macron’s executive order. Comments it published suggests a long, bitter fight over what many see as Macron’s aloof manner and a cant that favors big business over traditional workers’ rights.
French intellectuals rank with rock stars, and Olivier Todd stands out. He edited Nouvel Observateur, then L’Express, and published a shelf full of books. He is still at it at 93. “Macron uses this incoherent, unjust and useless reform to demolish Frenchmen’s future security,” he wrote. “Macron sows disorder, he likes disorder, he governs by disorder.”
The president’s supporters disagree. He is an i-dotter who works with numbers. He has clear policies to confront climate change, ease international trade, box in Russia and co-exist with China, among others. But if one word describes the crisis at hand, it is disorder.
It is easy to sympathize with the French fascination with Asterix and Obelix, cartoon book characters in a feisty village of ancient Gauls who fight comically among themselves but close ranks against Romans who try to impose values they reject.
The left excoriates a society in which an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos can spit out long-time employees overnight like watermelon seeds via impersonal email lists with few, if any, benefits. They fear multinationals will muscle aside small business and artisans that make France French.
But today’s global crises transcend borders and societies. The far right targets “les immigrés,” a catchall of destitute war refugees, dissidents in danger of death by despot, people from ex-French colonies and undocumented migrants seeking a better life. “Terre d’Asile,” Land of Asylum, is not often heard these days.
Macron faces four more years of trying to stitch France back together, while playing a vital role in what remains of the “free world.” If an unleashed Trump 2.0 or an ideologue ignoramus like Ron DeSantis infests the White House, he will have to be a key player as Germany’s Angela Merkel was. For that, he needs a popular mandate at home.
For now, Paris is not burning. But smoldering anger seethes in the capital and across much of the country. It is anyone’s guess what might happen if Macron’s detractors from the left, right and center decide to toss matches.
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.