May 1st in France

Paris, correspondence by Christos Marsellos

The social mobilisation of the French continued on the first of May with a somewhat diminished participation, apparently, compared to that of the 27th of March, but it was still more significant than that of the 13th of April. This of course was not very reassuring to the government, and all the more so as, at the same time, the violence increased a notch (with 406 injured police officers and 540 arrests throughout France, as we wait for the final figures regarding the demonstrators, who, during the revolt of the yellow jackets, had paid a very heavy price).  The government might be tempted to use the scenes of violence to win over public opinion, which it already did during the yellow jackets revolt when the black blocks made their appearance – but it is clearly a double-edged sword that it will then try to wield, not only at its own risk and peril, but at that of the democratic regime itself, which is in several respects singularly strained.

It is in fact now becoming apparent that the anger of the French is aimed – beyond the reform of the pension system itself, whose application seems inevitable, even if some still claim to be fighting for its repeal – at the way in which the government has proceeded, which is almost unanimously considered to be an affront to democratic institutions. For if the government can claim to have respected the law, it can only do so, at this phase, with the complicity of the Constitutional Council, as regards its letter – since the recourse to the provisions of the famous article 49. 3, which allowed the president for the umpteenth time to avoid the parliamentary vote, where it is sure  he would not have obtained  the majority, seems abusive insofar as it requires that the law be considered as a financing law, which is clearly not the case for a reform of this magnitude which involves a mechanism and a temporal horizon broader than any simple financing;  As a result, many believe that the Constitutional Council itself, in endorsing the law, has committed an error and in any case it seems clear that, beyond the letter, the spirit of the law has not been respected. Hence the widespread feeling that democracy is becoming more and more of an empty shell.

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What all lips are whispering today, what everyone is increasingly noticing, is that the institutions are in a rare incapacity to produce legitimacy. And that, in any case, a majority of French people believe that Emmanuel Macron (at the lowest of his popularity) does not have the legitimacy to make such a reform. This is for reasons that go far beyond the character traits that would explain his unpopularity, and which make him, according to journalists, including the least controversial, the most despised President of the Fifth Republic (when his predecessor, Hollande, was only the most held in contempt). He can, of course, claim to have evoked this reform as a presidential candidate; nevertheless, the vote, while favouring him, to block, as they say, Marine Lepen, has subsequently denied him a majority in Parliament; and even if E. Macron did not say in such clear terms as his opponents sometimes claim, on the evening of his election, that he understood that he was not elected only for his programme (on the first Sunday of the elections he got 27.5% with abstention rates at a worrying 26%), we cannot forget that he had been elected in the previous elections with exactly the same reassuring arguments, on the question of pensions, put forward today by his opponents and after the ousting of a candidate (F. Fillon) who was stressing the emergency regarding  the state’s finances (when E. Macron was promising the abolition of the tax on large fortunes, which clearly earned him the support of the main parties concerned who, as if by chance, have 95% of the media in their possession); we cannot forget, either, that his Minister of the Economy until a year ago was forecasting and promising a new thirty glorious years!

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Macron now seems to feel that his responsibility is at stake, given the fragility of the pension system in its current state, which is in danger of losing its balance in a context where people are living longer. We will pass over the opposing argument that productivity has also increased, which may seem specious, given the uncertainty with which this increase in productivity is calculated. One could even argue that France could not, that is to say the French economy could not bear, to deviate from what is already the norm in other European countries. Nevertheless, if it was only necessary to explain better, as the government claims, why did it not take the time to do so, even though the Pensions Council clearly established that there was no emergency and that the system was safe for several years to come?

The only answer to this last question is that E. Macron, who does not have the spectre of re-election ahead of him, is in a better position than any other in the near future will be to pass an unpopular reform that the electoral cycle would have blocked, and that doing so at the beginning of his presidential term was the only way to keep the path open for other reforms. The resistance of the French people risks closing this path, and the downgrading of the French debt rating by Fitch (to AA-), because of, among other things, the social movement, risks showing that the method was counter-productive. In the end, E. Macron will perhaps be able to boast of having been a reforming President and use this hard-won reputation to promote his career within international institutions, since being President of the Republic is no longer the pinnacle of ambition that a politician can have, as it was in the past; but nothing will have justified such a circumvention of the institutions, which undermines confidence and does not augur well.

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