What’s really driving the chaos across France right now?

The Signal

What’s really driving the chaos across France right now? Marc Weitzmann on a perfect storm of political strife and what it means for an uncertain time ahead.
Ivy Gould / The Signal
Intense political conflict has consumed France for more than two months now, with President Emanuel Macron pushing an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Protests and strikes began in January, when he introduced the plan, and escalated after he used an arcane constitutional tactic to pass a bill on it without any vote in the National Assembly. That move led to two rare no-confidence motions in the legislature, the first of which Macron’s government barely survived.

Meanwhile, the protests and strikes have continued—with more than a million people recently taking to the streets for a day of demonstration—but havoc is now increasingly accompanying them: Dozens of government buildings have been vandalized and burned, and the Council of Europe has condemned excessive force in the response by French police. How has a bill changing the retirement age by just two years led to all of this?

Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). To Weitzmann, the retirement issue and the way Macron’s handled it have brought fundamental tensions to the surface of French political life—tensions within the country’s traditional political culture, and tensions between this culture and Macron’s more contemporary style of governing.

The immediate effects have been intense disarray—in the National Assembly as well as in the streets—along with a major power shift that neither Macron nor many analysts of the French scene expected: a return of labor unions as significant players in French politics. But there’s potentially a bigger shift beyond the chaos of the moment: a strengthening of the far right as champions of order. Soon, France’s highest court will rule on the law—and a possible referendum over it—which could settle the issue at Macron’s expense. Or it could go the other way and “compound the crisis of authority in France.”

Eve Valentine: What do you think these protests say about French life right now—and Macron’s position in it?

Marc Weitzmann: They say a great deal. There’s a deep crisis of authority and power in this country—and you can see different aspects of this crisis converging in the protests.

At the heart of it, France’s power structure isn’t working anymore. France has long been a very centralized country with an enduring nostalgia for absolute power. Its current system of government, the Fifth Republic—which was founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958—works almost like a secular monarchy, with tremendous power concentrated in the presidency. In some ways, Macron wants to fit the part of a Fifth Republic secular monarch; but in many ways, he just doesn’t fit it—and doesn’t want to fit it—above all, because he’s too much of a technocrat, delegating and deferring to a host of specialist policy experts.

Macron’s style of technocracy is increasingly how power is managed across the West; it’s increasingly in tension with the old tradition of centralized power in France; and Macron has been increasingly caught between the old system he’s inherited and the new system he represents.

Meanwhile, he’s relied deeply—and far too much, frankly—on technocratic polls and surveys to try to understand what the French people think and feel and want. And that’s led to some acute problems.

One is that the companies managing these polls and surveys also serve as advisors to the government. So they’re on both sides of the question, if you will: They’re interpreting their own polling and surveys, and they’re also advising the government on what it should do—meaning there’s no critical distance between the interpretation of the data and the practical recommendations based on it.

A second problem is that the technocratic language of all these polls and surveys is completely alien to how people actually think and feel—and really, there’s no way you can understand the life of a country based on what they say.

When you get these kinds of technocratic dynamics entrenched within a highly centralized power structure, you get a government that’s dangerously isolated from the hearts and minds of the population as a whole.

And the population as a whole is full of confusion about everything their country and world are going through right now. It’s telling that there’s a war in Ukraine, three hours by air from Paris; there’s a world of crises, economic and political; and the thing the people of France are most concerned about right now is their retirement.

I would say there’s a certain inability among the French really to grasp the country we live in. We’re concerned about inflation, we’re concerned about the energy crisis, much more than we’re concerned about the transformative state of Europe and the world right now—including what it will ultimately mean for France. So you have a government that’s out of touch with the population, and you have a population that’s out of touch with Europe and the world.

At the same time, you have a traditional attraction to populist outrage in France that’s paradoxically mixed up with the tradition of highly centralized power. You can see this in the way the protesters are both criticizing Macron—for what they see as his will to absolute power in the way he’s trying to pass this law on retirement—and asking for a strong authority to oppose him.

Remember, the French fundamentally invented modern populism in the Revolution of 1789. We’re the masters of the art. Our tradition of collective rebellion is built deep into our national identity now—and tracks with Jacques Lacan’s definition of hysteria: Deep down, we desire a strong power to rebel against.

Ivy Gould / The Signal
More from Marc Weitzmann at The Signal:

During the debate on Macron’s retirement law in the National Assembly, the far left went super-crazy, adopting a very theatrical strategy—yelling, and chanting, and insulting ministers, and so on. Meanwhile, the National Rally essentially did nothing. They sat on the bench, trying to look responsible on TV—saying that of course they were concerned, saying that they understood the demonstrators. But they showed none of the love for chaos that the left has demonstrated, so now they appear across France to be the most responsible politicians in the country.”

In France, it’s become part of the country’s identity that it’s supposed to have the best retirement system in the world, the best social-security system in the world, and so on. And so now we have an identity crisis. But it’s an identity crisis based on a pervasive sense that things were “normal” for France back in the 1960s and ’70s. Virtually all electoral campaigns on the left and the right, since Nicolas Sarkozy was president more than 10 years ago—including electoral campaigns by the National Front—have been based on that nostalgia. We want to go back to “normal”—normal meaning full jobs, full employment, complete social security, a robust retirement system, and so on. Which is really, in historical perspective, anything but normal.”

This is a government run by people who’re not inclined to engage with the population as it is; it’s run by people who’re inclined to engage with the population as they want it to be. And what they want it to be is a population conditioned by technocratic concepts and technocratic communication. The idiom of emergency very easily, and very quickly, becomes an idiom of manipulation. The aspiration among Macron’s people is that it will work. But the reality is that it cuts the people running the government off. So they end up talking to themselves. And the tragedy is, they don’t realize it at all.”

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Categories: Geopolitics

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