- By Hugh Schofield
- BBC News, Paris
“What this crisis shows,” veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel recently said, “is that there are two Frances out there. They live in completely separate mental worlds and even find it impossible to communicate.”
As the country teeters on the brink of civil unrest, his verdict rings like a grim premonition. The demons of France are back and stalking the country.
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 raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 is essential to preserve France’s popular ‘sharing’ system – based on a single fund to which workers contribute and from which pensioners draw .
As people live longer, the only alternative would be to reduce the value of pensions or increase the contributions of working people.
And those two options would be even more unpopular.
Moreover, the president says, France is simply lining up with all other European democracies – most of which have retirement ages even higher than the proposed 64.
But none of this seems to have gained traction with the public, who continue to reject reform by a margin of around 70-30%.
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 described – but also that it is unfair.
On the one hand, many demonstrators demand not only the end of the reform, but a lowering of the retirement age, where it was before 2010, when it was only 60 years old.
On the other hand, right-wing voices say that the Macron plan is already so riddled with concessions and exemptions, wrung out under pressure during the long parliamentary process, that the savings it will deliver are hardly worth any more. sense.
In a functioning democracy, opposing arguments would surely find some form of compromise. After all, a majority of the population, while rejecting the Macron plan, also agrees that pension reform is necessary.
But does French democracy work?
Faith in conventional politics and the parliamentary system is in fact at an all time low. How else to explain the collapse of the Gaullists and Socialists, who ruled France for half a century, and the rise of the far right and the far left?
President Macron encouraged the death of the old regimethis old order that he exploited to pose as the only moderate, picking sensitive pieces from the left and right programs.
Hyper intelligent and hyper lively, he may have been, but France never liked him and he was elected, twice, by default. Because the alternative, Marine Le Pen, was unacceptable to most.
By eliminating the moderate opposition, he made the opposition extreme.
In last year’s legislative elections he failed to secure a majority – making an appeal to the Constitution inevitable last Thursday force majeure known as 49:3 to pass the law.
During this time, the tenor of the public debate has continued to deteriorate.
The left has literally tabled thousands of amendments to the pension bill, making it impossible to pass it conventionally. Opponents described as “brutal” and “inhumane” a reform that in other countries would have seemed perfectly innocuous.
A left-wing deputy posed in front of the Assembly, his foot on a ball painted with the image of the Minister of Labour; Fearing mob violence, a prominent pro-Macron MP called on Friday for police protection for her colleagues.
With scenes of looting and urban violence, hills of rotting rubbish on the streets of Paris and other French cities, and the promise of more crippling strikes to come, such is the unedifying atmosphere as the country enters the next crucial phase of the crisis.
Following the president’s invocation of the 49:3 procedure, the opposition parties tabled two motions of no confidence in the government which will be debated this week. In theory, if one of them passes, it would lead to the fall of the government and possible early elections.
In practice, even the so-called “cross-partisan” motion tabled by a centrist group in parliament – supposedly more likely to build consensus between the mutually hostile far left and far right – would have little chance of getting the numbers.
If the motions fail, then the opposition can continue to fight against the reform by other means: for example by seizing the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of the new laws, or by trying to organize a referendum.
The government hopes that reality will set in at some point and that most people will accept the inevitable with discouragement.
Most likely, a sacrificial victim will eventually have to be made – presumably in the form of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.
But for now, the atmosphere is too ugly for that.
In the immediate future, with each blocked gas depot, with each uncollected garbage can, with each broken window will be added the refrain which accompanies it: “Blame 49:3. Blame Macron”.