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Macron has torn up the social contract

The French people are rising up against his neoliberal authoritarianism.

Charles Devellennes

Topics Politics World

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Last Thursday marked a turning point in Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. This was the day Élisabeth Borne, his prime minister, used the dreaded Article 49.3 of the French constitution, allowing her to pass Macron’s unpopular pension-reform plan without a vote in parliament. And just like that, he turned millions more French people against him.

When Macron was first elected president in 2017, he talked hopefully of a better, fairer future. He promised to overcome the left-right divide, to rule by consensus and to enact much-needed reforms to turn France into a thriving 21st-century economy.

But by ruling by decree, by attacking the welfare state and by presiding over falling living standards, Macron has replaced his former message of hope with one of despair. And now, with the retirement age set to rise from 62 to 64, the French will have to work longer and for less pay.

Just hours before Macron invoked Article 49.3, written by Charles de Gaulle into the constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958, the government still hoped to get sufficient backing in the National Assembly for its pension-reform package. For months, it had been cajoling Les Républicains (LR), the conservatives, to back its pension reforms. After all, LR had tried to carry out similar reforms when they were in power. But with some LR MPs refusing to back the reforms, the assembly vote was too close to call, and so Macron decided to pass the reform en force.

Macron’s recourse to such a drastic measure revealed his authoritarian instincts once again. It also reinvigorated parliamentary opposition to the government. As Borne tried to announce that the bill was to be pushed through by decree, opposition MPs drowned her out by singing La Marseillaise. Borne walked out of the assembly visibly shaken. Macron’s power had finally, after six years of relative calm, met political opposition.

Today, the assembly is to vote on a motion of no confidence to defeat the pension reform and topple the government. This motion is unlikely to pass, with Macron likely to be saved by the right-wing LR, whose leaders have backed the pensions reforms. Indeed, as I argue in my book, The Macron Régime, Macron has moved so far to the right that it is now difficult to differentiate his programme from that of LR.

Borne’s future as PM is less clear. She may well survive Monday’s vote, but she had staked her reputation on passing the reform through the National Assembly. Her failure to do so has cost her all credibility. It is now likely that Macron will sacrifice her as soon as it is politically expedient to do so.

Like the gilets jaunes movement, which protested for 70 consecutive weekends between 2018 and 2020, the opposition to Macron is more likely to succeed in the streets than in parliament. Macron’s government is now widely seen as being opposed to the interests of the vast majority of French people. Macron has mounted widespread and continuous attacks on the welfare state, offered tax breaks for the richest in French society, undermined workers’ rights and privatised highly profitable public assets, such as France’s national lottery.

That’s why the French are now protesting in the streets in vast numbers – because of Macron’s relentless assault on the social contract between the rulers and the ruled. His authoritarian use of the constitution to force people to work until they are 64 is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since Thursday’s decree, this embryonic insurrection has spread, from the streets of Paris out into the ‘provinces’, where the gilets jaunes had previously been very vocal. It seems old class-based solidarities are resurfacing, too. French workers, feeling estranged from the party-political establishment, are increasingly turning to each other to organise their own opposition. Yes, the burning rubbish bins in Paris may make for dramatic front-page images. But it is the roasting sausages on the picket lines in Marseille and elsewhere that better capture the nature of the growing opposition to Macron.

The French authorities’ response has been violent and repressive. Riot police and ‘BAC’ (Brigade anti-criminalité) specialist units – known for their heavy-handed, year-round operations in the banlieues, France’s troubled suburbs – have been deployed. They have spent the weekend throwing gas grenades into crowds and attacking bystanders with batons. That is the price of the neoliberal order Macron wants to impose on France: organised repression, intimidation and the arbitrary use of force.

Many of those now taking to the streets are doing so out of desperation. They have lost all hope that any political party will speak for them. LR are complicit in Macron’s attempt to raise the retirement age, and the decrepit centre-left Parti Socialiste did nothing to improve the lot of French workers when it was in power six years ago. And so, like the gilets jaunes, the people of France have one choice: to take matters into their own hands.

Charles Devellennes is a senior lecturer in political and social thought at the University of Kent and author of The Gilets Jaunes and the New Social Contract, published by Bristol University Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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