24 March 2023

France is burning, but Macron’s not for turning


An opinion poll last weekend revealed that Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating has dropped to 28%, the lowest since the Yellow Vest protests of 2018. The only consolation for the president is that some of his predecessors have been more unpopular. François  Hollande, for example, hit 13% in 2014, François  Mitterrand recorded 26% in 1984 and Jacques Chirac stood at 27% in 1995. Which goes to show that the French are rarely satisfied with their presidents. 

The popularity of Mitterrand and Chirac plunged at a time of economic crisis, prompting mass street protests, similar turbulence to that currently rocking the country. The eight main unions have had people out on the streets since January, protesting about the pension reform bill, particularly raising the age of retirement from 62 to 64. There has also been strike action – from railway workers to binmen – as the unions came together in a rare display of solidarity. In the past moderate unions such as the CFDT have found little common ground with more hard-left unions like the CGT and Force Ouvrière, but this time they are united.  

Neither side has been willing to compromise. Macron is not a man known for his humility, but he has been credited with a certain amount of cunning. Last week, however, he did something very reckless. Fearing the reform bill wouldn’t pass the National Assembly, he ordered his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to circumvent parliament by activating Article 49.3 of the Constitution. This passes a bill without putting it to a vote. It is part of the 5th Republic’s Constitution, but it is used sparingly. At least it was up until Macron won a second term last year. His government has used Article 49.3 eleven times in nine months. In the previous 64 years of the 5th Republic it had been deployed 89 times, and only for relatively minor legislation.

By using it to pass his despised pension reform bill, Macron enraged his opponents, confirming their view of him as an arrogant, pig-headed and out-of-touch president. While political figures expressed their outrage to the media, the people took to the streets. Yesterday there was – depending if one believes the police figures or the union’s – between one and three million protestors around the country. The vast majority were peaceful but it only requires a couple of thousand hoodlums to cause chaos, and so it proved in Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and several other cities as mobs burned town halls, attacked police stations and smashed shops and restaurants.  

The government has been shocked by the violence, and the state visit of King Charles and Queen Camilla to France – scheduled to start on Sunday – has been cancelled. Macron has evidently decided that it wouldn’t be good for the Republic’s prestige if the King of England was attacked by a mob at Versailles.  

When Macron was elected president in 2017 he boasted he would turn France into a ‘Start-Up Nation’; to a degree he has been successful. Last year the country created its 25th Unicorn – a privately held startup company with a value of over $1bn – and in 2021 French tech companies raised €11.6bn in funds, an increase of 115% on the previous year. There really is a mutual love-in between Macron and the techies.

Unfortunately for the president he is hated – really hated – by millions of voters who don’t share his globalist ‘anywhere’ vision of the world. They believe he holds them in contempt, and there’s plenty of evidence that he does. Over the years he’s described his compatriots as ‘slackers’, ‘nothing’ and ‘resistant to change’. The anger that has erupted in recent days has been around for years; it exploded in the winter of 2018/19, dressed in a Yellow Vest, and after a break for Covid, it’s back. 

In a television interview on Wednesday Macron insisted he would never withdraw the bill. His defiance was not well received. Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, accused him of ‘pouring fuel on an already well-lit fire’. Marine Le Pen is one of several political figures to demand a referendum on the reform bill, and others want the president to dissolve parliament and call another legislative election. None will get their way. 

Macron will tough it out, confident that the violence and anarchy will slowly turn the tide of public opinion his way. Friday’s lunchtime news on French TV interviewed some of the stunned bystanders in Bordeaux in front of their smouldering city hall. They were appalled and ashamed. The man himself is in Brussels today, where he has expressed his disgust at the violence and declared himself ‘available’ to discuss with the unions measures to better improve working conditions, retraining and remuneration.  

The leader of the hard-left CGT, Philippe Martinez, has in the past accused Macron of ‘imitating Margaret Thatcher’. For Martinez it was an insult, but Macron will surely have taken it as a compliment.

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Gavin Mortimer is a journalist based in Paris.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.