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Why the French are Striking

A common chestnut in Anglo-American analyses of French political life is that the French love “taking to the streets,” that protesting or even rioting is a sort of national pastime they engage in perhaps for fun or lack of anything better to do. Foreign commentators are often bemused by the raucous scenes in French cities and wonder why there is so much public rage in a relatively wealthy country whose economy is the second-largest in Europe (behind Germany’s) and the seventh-largest in the world. Like many other clichés about France, this one stems from a lack of understanding of French history, politics, and society — and especially the preference among elites, both liberal and conservative, for cultural explanations of political phenomena. We see this now in coverage of the political crisis that has engulfed France since President Emmanuel Macron circumvented an unsupportive parliament to impose his signature pension reform bill, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, against the clear preference of the overwhelming majority of citizens.

French workers, students, and others are regularly on strike or protesting in the streets because in the existing French political system, and especially given the sort of political leadership the country now has, strikes and street protests are probably the most meaningful check on presidential power left to the public and sometimes the only way the people can have a voice in political and economic decisionmaking. This is a feature of the system, not a reaction to it. Thus the reasons for the strikes and street protests are straightforward: Macron has forced through his deeply unpopular pension reform in a way that, while not unconstitutional, is widely perceived as authoritarian. The strikes have been disruptive and the protests have been angry, to be sure. Making matters worse, the government has been dealing with the protests in a manner reminiscent of authoritarian states. Even the May Day marches, which are a tradition, were essentially criminalized and attacked by police forces, sometimes before they could even get started.

The legislation itself was not a surprise. Macron told voters before last year’s presidential election that this bill would top his agenda. His argument is that as the French live longer and the number of retired citizens swells, the state will not be able to afford their retirement pensions. Technocrats worldwide take this sort of policy for granted. As the IMF puts it (in a piece describing how well France is doing), Macron’s reform “aims to balance the pension system and increase the employment rate of older workers by moving the effective retirement age closer to the EU average.”

But not all experts in France find this convincing. By the most conventional metrics, France’s economy is doing well and its prospects are bright, even compared with other Western nations. Many mainstream economists believe the bill is far from necessary. And critics on the left point out that it will be the poorest and most vulnerable people, especially women—who work the at the most menial jobs for the lowest pay over the greatest number of years—who will bear the burden of the bill with two extra years of work. Moreover, for the many people at or near retirement age who cannot find work at all, the pension reform spells more years of unemployment, which will reduce the pensions they receive.

But there is more to the story than the pension-reform bill. That move came on the heels of fiscal-policy changes that Macron enacted during his first term — lowering the tax rate on corporations from 33 percent to 25 percent and creating a 30 percent flat tax on capital gains. These tax reforms, which broadly favor the rich and are supposed to boost the economy and promote the free market, will potentially deprive the French treasury (which Macron claims will lack sufficient funds for pensions) of billions of euros in revenue. At the same time, thanks to years of neoliberal austerity going back to the 1980s, state-funded services, especially public education and healthcare, have been suffering.

Read entire article at Journal of Democracy