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The French disease

France is at war over pensions, but behind the bloodymindedness is a very justified rage

Artillery Row

For almost three months, France has been plagued by strikes and demonstrations. Uncollected rubbish is piling up in Paris and some other major cities. Public transport operates sporadically. Universities are blocked. Regularly the demonstrations are the occasion of violence and destruction. In the National Assembly, the parliamentary debates have become a free-for-all, with a level of verbal violence and vulgarity never seen in the 5th Republic. Dozens of deputies should soon be sanctioned by their assembly for inappropriate behaviour.

In France, the state seems only capable of reforming itself in order to degrade the quality of the services it provides

The cause of all this tumult? A relatively modest reform of the pension system. France has already experienced several such reforms over the past twenty years, and this one is far from being the most radical. Its flagship measure, the one that is crystallising the protest, is a gradual increase in the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. The bill was adopted, thanks to an article of the Constitution that allows the government to force the hand of the National Assembly: either the government is overthrown by a motion of no confidence, or the bill is considered adopted. However, the protest is not weakening so far and everyone feels that the situation could seriously degenerate at any moment. 

What is behind such an eruption of anger? 

It would be tempting to see it as proof of the untreatable immaturity of the French who, like capricious children, refuse to understand that wealth must be created by work before being (eventually) shared; that the pay-as-you-go pension system is fundamentally based on the ratio between contributors and beneficiaries and that the low birth rate in France, combined with the ageing of the population, inevitably means that the retirement age will have to increase or that the working population will have to be squeezed even more; and that, no, it is neither fair nor realistic to try to solve our budgetary difficulties by taxing “the rich” even more than we already do.

In short, it is tempting to interpret this stubborn refusal of a modest reform as confirmation that the French, taken collectively, are stupid, lazy, and moreover envious.

And of course, I would be the last to deny that the French are far too infatuated with their so-called “social model”, which flatters their vices and saps their vital energy, and that the French political culture is strongly marked by a very bad kind of statism and egalitarianism. 

But all this being granted, and which I willingly grant, it seems to me that we would be missing out on important things if we simply left it at that.

If we stick to the most vocal and visible opponents of this reform, the moral portrait I have drawn is hardly a caricature. The Nupes – the left-wing coalition that is the second largest political group in the National Assembly – and the CGT – the country’s second largest trade union – are bull-faced leftism, as Baudelaire spoke of bull-faced stupidity. 

Of them I would be tempted to say the same thing as the novelist Michel Houellebecq said of the ecologists (who are part of the Nupes, by the way): “They are really the dregs of humanity. They are wrong about everything, it’s fascinating.

But I am not convinced that the motivations of this very active minority are identical to those of the famous silent majority, who nevertheless, as it seems, refuse like them the pension reform that has just been debated in Parliament. 

The French people I meet, those I hear or read (of all political persuasions) as I try to understand my own country, do not resemble the grimacing image reflected in the mirror of political parties or trade unions. Or rather, they only partly resemble it, and I think I detect other reasons than those of the said parties and unions for refusing that “their pension” be curtailled. Call it an educated guess if you like.

First of all, it seems obvious to me that Emmanuel Macron is now paying for his non-campaign and his non-election: to conquer without peril is to triumph without glory and to win an election won in advance against Marine le Pen (leader of the far-right party, Rassemblement National) is to be elected without authority. 

By preferring to keep Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée, last year, the French really made the choice of a certain form of conservatism: they preferred a man whose serious flaws they knew but who at least guaranteed a form of stability, rather than to rush into the storm with a captain who has never sailed and whose moral and intellectual capacities do not inspire confidence. This was not irrational, but it meant that they expected the reappointed president to keep quiet for five years. 

This obviously does not suit the Elysée’s tenant, who wants to be the man of movement, progress, and “disruption”. In short, Emmanuel Macron does not want the mandate of a lazy king that has been entrusted to him. This is why he wanted this reform of the pension system with all his might, knowing that it would be unpopular: to prove himself and the country that he could still govern as in the best days of his previous mandate.

This means that the pension reform risked becoming a contest of pride and will between the president and the people in whose name he is supposed to govern, and indeed it did. Emmanuel Macron claims that this reform is legitimate because it was in his electoral program, to which the French implicitly reply that it is illegitimate because the mandate he has been given is to do as little as possible.

It seems to me that it is the latter who are right.

Moreover, perhaps the French are particularly allergic to effort, but I believe that they are especially allergic to efforts that seem useless to them. The countless “adaptations” that have been asked of them or imposed on them over the past two generations, in the name of European construction, modernity or inevitable globalisation, have clearly not made France more powerful, more glorious, more free or more prosperous. Nor have they made the French state more efficient and less expensive, quite the contrary.

A dull and burning anger against everything that is wrong in France

In fact, in France, the state seems only capable of reforming itself in order to degrade the quality of the services it provides to the French people and to further erode their freedoms and their property. Our leaders know very well how to increase the tax burden and how to reduce certain benefits that are supposed to be the counterpart of it, such as pensions or the reimbursement of medical care. They know very well how to invent obstacles and vexations in the name of the “ecological transition”, they know how to destroy our industrial assets in order to replace, for example, an abundant, reliable and cheap energy with a rare, expensive and intermittent energy. They are able to dictate to us what we should think and feel through ever stricter language and behavioural discipline. But, at the same time, we discover painfully almost every day how incapable they are of fulfilling their most fundamental missions: the safety of people, the education of children, the preservation of the body politic. To say nothing of the state of our productive apparatus or our hospitals.

Therefore, wouldn’t it be masochistic for the French to say “amen” to yet another reform that they don’t see what it will bring them collectively, apart from additional efforts and other reforms of the same flour, because “adaptation” is an endless screw?

Finally, the elites must, at some point, pay the price of their secession. By governing for so long in defiance of the wishes, aspirations and needs of their own people, they have destroyed the glue that holds the social body together: trust. And when trust is gone, all that is left is the crudest of corporate interests. No matter how hard governments try to ‘educate’ people about the goodness of their reforms, no one believes that the efforts they are being asked to make individually are ‘fair’, i.e. that they have been fairly distributed and that they serve the common good. The prevailing and stubborn feeling is now that ‘those at the top’ care only about one thing: preserving their own interests at the expense of everyone else. With the nation dissolved or forgotten, all that is left is a war of all against all to try to grab the biggest share of the common treasure.

Perhaps this is unfair to this particular reform, but it is not inexplicable in terms of the way France has been governed for about two generations.

These are some of the things that I seem to discern, as through a glass, darkly, in the broad and deep rejection of this pension reform. 

Behind this resistance, there is not only the refusal to work longer, but also a dull and burning anger against everything that is wrong in France, a wounded pride that is looking for an outlet. If I’m not mistaken, there are many potentially explosive feelings, and there is no shortage of firebrands among us who run around with torches in their hands hoping for a conflagration. 

Perhaps, with the entry into force of the new law on pensions, the protest will end up being exhausted. It is even the most likely. But the anger will not disappear, and it could resurface at any moment and for the most futile reasons. 

The government, it is said, is worried. It seems to me that it has very good reason to be.

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