France, a global power that is no stranger to public uprisings, is facing an unstable political situation amid massive – and at times violent – protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise the country’s retirement age, with another nationwide demonstration underway on Thursday.
The unrest, which started in January when the French government announced the proposed overhaul to its pension system, took a new turn when the increasingly unpopular president invoked a special power to force the legislation through. One day of demonstrations prior to the move had already swelled to more than 1 million people, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, and hundreds of thousands more have taken to the streets since.
While onlookers describe the protests as mostly peaceful, allegations of police brutality – reported by The Associated Press, among other outlets – only add to the instability.
But this isn’t just about pension reform, experts say. It’s about the French people being angry at a government that has not been leading based on their will, says Cécile Alduy, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford University.
“Now, protests are more about a feeling that representative democracy has been emptied out, by Macron and the administration, of all its substance,” she adds. “The pension reform was the spark that lit a bigger fire that had been kind of dormant before.”
Read on to learn more about what’s behind the movement.
Why Are the French People Protesting?
Thursday’s demonstrations mark the 11th nationwide mobilization organized by France’s labor unions. Alduy, who is currently based in Paris, says the protests have been “really massive” and at one point, garbage was not picked up in the city for weeks due to a strike by trash collectors.
The main source of their ire? Macron’s decision to push raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 – which had been years in the making – in an effort to ease the country’s pension budget costs. Despite the proposal’s unpopularity, Macron used a constitutional tool called Article 49.3 to pass it without a vote on the text because his government had already lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly in the 2022 elections, according to an article published by the Brookings Institution.
“There is generally a sense of anger and frustration in the French population and the increasing feeling of disengagement with decision-makers and disconnect,” says Tara Varma, a visiting fellow at the institution’s Center of the United States and Europe and author of the Brookings piece. “And I think that’s very true for Macron.”
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Macron assumed office in 2017 and campaigned on a promise of prosperity for the French people, she notes. But it didn’t take long for him to be labeled the “president of the rich” due to early moves that included loosening labor laws and ending a wealth tax. Then came the “yellow vests” protests in 2018 over policies that appeared to be aimed at helping the wealthy. Varma says there’s a sense among people whose parents were considered middle class in France 30-40 years ago that they are now lower-middle class or below, and many feel they “don’t have access to the same opportunities as their parents” – an idea termed “sentiment de déclassement” in French.
Additionally, Macron’s policies are requiring the most vulnerable to make the sacrifices, says Elizabeth Carter, an assistant professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. But more than that, the moves are weakening France’s long-held social protections and ideals of liberty and equality, she adds.
“The French perspective is, ‘this is part of our social pact. This is part of our social contract,’” Carter says. “‘We work hard. This is what the state has agreed to give us and this is why we’ve worked hard.’ And they see it as rescinding essential benefits that they had been promised. It’s more about identity.”
How Has Macron Responded?
Macron defended his use of Article 49.3 by describing it as something he didn’t want to do but felt he had to, according to CNBC. But otherwise, the French president has stayed largely quiet in the face of the discontent, instead focusing on his international standing and foreign policy agenda, including a trip to China this week, Varma notes. Macron also doesn’t have many people demonstrating on his behalf and is in general “lacking any kind of widespread support,” adds Ezra Suleiman, a professor emeritus at Princeton University.
“He should not have underestimated the reaction to the retirement age,” Suleiman says. “It seems very simple … he explained, ‘it’s needed.’ But you know, he’s not in front of a classroom. He’s in front of a political power that’s very strong.”
A team from Macron’s government, led by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, met with the labor unions on Wednesday, but the negotiations did not lead to any progress, Reuters reported. Regardless, Varma says it’s unlikely that Macron will withdraw the pension reform proposal because it’s a “question of principle” for him now.
The government’s actions, however, have made some human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Council of Europe concerned about restrictions on protesters’ right to assemble, Alduy says. She notes that some French cities have forbidden simple gatherings, and that Gérald Darmanin, the country’s minister of the interior, wrongly said protesters don’t have a right to demonstrate if they haven’t previously declared their intent to do so.
“There’s this appearance of the government trying to curtail individual liberties under false pretext just to kind of quell the unrest,” Alduy adds.
Thursday’s planned demonstration was thought to be “quite the test,” Varma says, noting there are questions about “whether the movement is dying down” after the last nationwide protest was less popular. Initial reports on Thursday noted some incidents of violence but a smaller number of protesters.
But beyond Thursday, the big date on the calendar is April 14, when the country’s Constitutional Council will decide whether the government’s pension reform plan is in line with constitutional rules. Varma says the verdict is unlikely to be “black and white” – it’s more likely the council will ask for some tweaks to the proposal rather than strike it down entirely. Macron’s next move, she adds, will “very much be contingent” on the council’s ruling.
Regardless of the outcome, the events of the early months of 2023 have led France to a political turning point, analysts suspect. Alduy – noting the situation in Israel as an example – points to a rising sense in a number of democracies of a discrepancy between policies pushed by government elites and everyday people’s “real problems.” This sort of popular discontent, she says, “can really pave the way for a truly populist movement to kind of feed on that discontent.”
The protesters are fueled by seeing “these fundamental values as under threat,” Carter adds.
“They think that they are protesting for the soul of France and they feel that way,” she says. “You can see this passion, or if you hear them… you can feel the depth of their rage.”