- By Hugh Scofield
- BBC News, Paris
“What this crisis shows,” political commentator Alain Duhamel said recently, “is that there are two Frances out there. They live in completely different mental worlds and it is impossible for them to even communicate.”
As the country teeters on the brink of civil unrest, his sentence reverberates like a dark foreboding. The demons of France are back and stalking the land.
The anger and mutual misunderstanding over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed retirement age reform shows how dangerously polarized the two factions have become.
The government says moving the retirement age from 62 to 64 is vital to preserve France’s much-vaunted “share” system – based on a single fund into which workers pay and pensioners withdraw.
As people live longer, the only alternative would be to reduce the value of pensions or increase contributions from workers.
Both options would be even more unpopular.
What’s more, the president says, France is simply on par with every other European democracy – most of which have a retirement age even higher than the proposed 64 years.
But none of this seems to have caught on with the public, which continues to reject reform by about 70% to 30%.
Instead, people seem more inclined to believe the arguments of the left and the far right: first, that there is no urgency because pension finances are not as bad as they are made out to be, but also that it is unfair.
On the one hand, many protesters are calling not only to end the reform, but to actually lower the retirement age to where it was before 2010, when it was just 60.
On the other hand, voices on the right say that the Macron plan is already so full of concessions and exemptions squeezed out under pressure during the long parliamentary process that the savings it will make are almost meaningless.
In a functioning democracy, opposing arguments would surely find some form of compromise. After all, a majority of the population, while rejecting Macron’s plan, also agrees that some pension reform is needed.
But does French democracy work?
Faith in conventional politics and the parliamentary system is actually at rock bottom. How else can we explain the collapse of the Gaullists and socialists who ruled France for half a century and the rise of the extreme right and the extreme left?
President Macron encouraged the death of old modethat old order, which he exploits to present himself as the lone moderate picking up sensible bits from the agendas of the left and the right.
He may have been super-intelligent and super-brilliant, but France never liked him and he was elected twice by default. Because the Marine Le Pen alternative was unacceptable to most.
By eliminating the moderate opposition, he made the opposition extreme.
In last year’s parliamentary elections, he failed to secure a majority, making the use of the constitutional last Thursday inevitable Force majeure circumstances known as 49:3 to enforce the law.
Meanwhile, the tone of public debate is steadily depreciating.
The left introduced literally thousands of amendments to the pension bill, making conventional passage impossible. Opponents described as “brutal” and “inhumane” the reform, which in other countries would seem completely harmless.
A left-wing MP poses in front of the assembly with his foot on a ball painted with the head of the Labor Minister; fearing mob violence, a leading pro-Macron lawmaker called on Friday for police protection for his colleagues.
With scenes of looting and urban violence, mounds of rotting rubbish on the streets of Paris and other French cities and the promise of more crippling strikes to come, it is an unedifying atmosphere as the country enters the next crucial phase of the crisis.
Following the president’s invocation of the 49:3 procedure, opposition parties tabled two no-confidence motions against the government that will be debated this week. In theory, if either passes, it will lead to the fall of the government and possible early elections.
In practice, even a so-called “cross-party” motion tabled by a centrist group in parliament – supposedly more likely to build consensus between the mutually hostile far left and far right – is unlikely to get the numbers.
If the proposals fail, then the opposition can continue to fight the reform by other means: for example, by appealing to the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of the new laws, or by trying to organize a referendum.
The government is hoping that reality will eventually set in and most people will accept the inevitable.
A victim will most likely have to be made in the end – no doubt in the person of Prime Minister Elizabeth Bourne.
But for now, the mood is too bad for that.
In the immediate future, every blocked gas station, every unclaimed container and every broken window will be joined by the accompanying refrain: “Blame 49:3. Blame Macron.”