The French Political Crisis Continues

Suzi Weissman interviews Sebastian Budgen

France, Paris, April 6, 2023. The demonstrator’s sign reads “Let s kick the king of the jerks off his throne.” 11th inter-union demonstration against pension reform. Photograph by Martin Noda / Hans Lucas

ON MAY DAY 2023, France will explode in demonstrations against the authoritarianism of the Macron government and its undemocratic passage of a bill that raises the work life of the majority of French people by two years. Here is a edited version of an April 5, 2023 interview from Jacobin Radio that provides an overview and analysis of the current political crisis, with Suzi Weissman interviewing Sebastian Budgen. In France, President Macron has imposed a deeply unpopular pension reform by resorting to Article 49.3 of the Constitution, meaning he bypassed parliament. This move has provoked the largest wave of continuous popular mobilization, arguably since May ’68.

A vote of no confidence or motion of censure was held on March 20th but ended up nine votes short of an absolute majority. Yet anger over Macron’s deeply unpopular pension reform and his anti-democratic way of governing has only made the mobilization stronger. A large majority of French people oppose raising the pension age from 62 to 64 and the number who back continued protests is actually rising. A fresh day of action called by unions for March 28th, a national strike, faced unprecedented security measures, meaning police violence against peaceful demonstrators.

Sebastian Budgen is an editor at Verso Books, a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine, and on the board for the journal Historical Materialism. We last spoke about French politics at the time of the last French election. Sebastian also wrote a piece called “Shrewd Tortoise” on the New Left Review’s blog “Sidecar.” Sebastian joins us from France and has been participating in this massive protest movement.

SUZI WEISSMAN: MACRON has provoked the scope of the opposition, the wave of strikes and other actions. Who is in the streets, who is on strike, and who isn’t?

Sebastian Budgen: This struggle against the pension reforms has been going on now since January. You have to put this in the long perspective. Macron’s reform, although it’s particularly unpopular, is only the latest version. Sarkozy, for example, in 2010 reformed the pension system, as well as did Chirac. The reform that Macron’s pushed through raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.

It’s very different from the reform that he proposed just before the COVID lockdown. The CFDT (one of the main union federations – ed.) was interested in that because it seemed to be more universal, and supposedly fairer — whereas this pension reform reduces itself to having everybody work two years longer. For manual workers, it affects them harder. It hits women harder because they often have shorter working lives and therefore fewer annuities. About 75% of the French population rejects it, which is 90% of those who are economically active.

The only groups that support this reform are Macron supporters. These are the higher end of the managerial and professional classes and, very ironically, retirees who are a core part of his constituency.

It has created enormous controversy and led to an unprecedented and united trade union front. This includes the moderate left — even the Catholic CFTC — all the way to the CGT and the Solidarity Trade Union Federation. It has provoked massive demonstrations, probably some of the biggest demonstrations since the massive demonstrations in 1995 — the big turning point of the rebellion against neoliberalism in France.

Until the imposition of Article 49.3, these have largely been very peaceful, well-disciplined demonstrations. They’re not just demonstrations that take place in the big cities like Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, etc. In some towns, where they only have a population of seven or eight thousand, there are demonstrations of 2000, 3000, 4000 people, which is enormous. It’s a very profound rejection of this reform and has been accompanied by some strike action, some blockades, some occupations.

There are big piles of rubbish piling up in Paris streets; the refinery workers’ strike has hit the petrol pumps. But we’re not talking about a general strike or even a mass strike at this moment. We’re talking about very large demonstrations with some sectors that have been involved in strikes.

We’re also talking about an increasing youth component. It’s not a massive involvement of university students as, for example, in 2006 when there were very successful demonstrations against the employment law. The enormous numbers of high school and university students were able to overturn the law. It remains was one of the big successes of the French social movement in the recent period.

Since the imposition of Article 49.3 and Macron’s despicable and amazing performance on TV to try and justify himself, we’re seeing lots of young people coming out on the streets, particularly in the evenings. Parts of Paris are playing cat and mouse with the police. It’s a broad movement, but it’s not a mass strike of millions of workers. It’s not an occupations of factories or workplaces on the scale of May ’68.

What Kind of Moment?

SW: The reporting in the international press is that French workers are very privileged. They can retire at 62, whereas almost everywhere else, the age is 65, 66, 67. So what’s the big deal? How does this compare the Gilet Jaune (Yellow Vests) in 2018 or Nuit Debout of 2016?

SB: I don’t think it’s a revolutionary moment, because a revolutionary moment is characterized by at least elements of an alternative source of power such as workers councils. But it is an extremely important moment.

I wouldn’t say it’s more important than the Gilet Jaune that was a plebeian movement, involving also members of the lower middle class and the self-employed. This is a movement which has a very singular, and quite modest demand, that Macron simply retreat on the pension reform law.

But it is a movement which has put the trade unions back in the center of political life. Previous governments — and Macron himself in 2019 — were successful at dividing the trade union movement, picking off the more moderate elements from the more militant elements. Surprisingly, this time Macron hasn’t done this and therefore he’s faced with a united reaction.

But a lot is still up in the air. France may be known for big social movements, but they don’t all succeed. Many are defeated.

How those defeats play out is important. Are those defeats crushing defeats, or are they defeats where people learn? The big difference between France and the United Kingdom, for example, is there hasn’t been a defeat on the scale of the British miners’ strike (under Margaret Thatcher — ed.).

I would say this is a movement similar to the one of 1995, which was also a defensive movement against Social Security reforms. It was a very powerful movement.

A lot of things are up in the air on both sides. The involvement of young people is crucial. If it reaches a critical mass, you could see it taking on a much more militant and more generalized aspect.

Many young people are not just demonstrating about about pension reform, but about the authoritarian way that the Macron government has acted and also about, the place of work in people’s lives.

Just because life expectancy is getting longer, and retirees here live better than in many other countries, why should that mean that you should work until you drop? Shouldn’t it mean the opposite, that you should work so that you can then have a decent retirement?

Can these broader elements provide a different dynamic and dimension to the movement? Or will it remain a single issue and defensive movement.

SW: You raise so many interesting questions. What’s happening in parliament? Was there not enough time to organize so an opposition?

SB: Macron does not have a majority in the National Assembly. There are two blocs that oppose him. There’s the far-right bloc, which has the largest number of deputies for a single party — Rassemblement National led by Marine Le Pen – and which is opposing the pension reforms. And then you have the NUPES, which is an alliance of several left parties, the key one being La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Remember that Macron’s political campaign strategy in 2017 was to win by soaking up as many of the votes he could of the center left. These are the people who used to vote for the Socialist Party. Over the last several years his strategy shifted to soak up as many of the center-right votes as possible. They are extremely right wing, let’s call them the center-right Republicans.

SW: When you say center right, you mean traditional center right, not those who went for Le Pen?

SB: That’s right. If Macron can count on 100% on Le Républicain, the so-called center right bloc, his laws can pass. Up to the last moment, there was the possibility the pension law could pass, although it seemed risky.

The left put up thousands and thousands of amendments to try and slow the process down. But ultimately Macron was able to use this 49.3 clause in the Constitution, which was introduced by de Gaulle when the Fifth Republic set up a way of bypassing party structures and the National Assembly.

It would have been democratic to put the law to a vote, possibly lose and just accept that they’d. But it seemed increasingly obvious to the Macron forces that the right wing bloc was splintering.

So they decided to go for this extremely undemocratic emergency measure of 49.3, which allows them to avoid going to a vote. But then they had to face a no confidence vote in the parliament, which they only managed to survive by the skin of their teeth, again, with the support of the right-wing bloc.

The no-confidence vote was a very close vote, nine votes. It shows the weakness of the Macron project. Of course, parliament doesn’t perfectly represent the mood in the country. And most of the center right are very much in favor of the pension reforms because it fits with their neoliberal program. But it wasn’t the 100% needed.

The law is being considered by the Constitutional Council. [NOTE: Subsequently the CC approved the imposition of the law.]

The Right and the Left

SW: Macron claimed several days ago that France Insoumise is using this moment to delegitimize French institutions. Could you give our listeners a sense of how important France Insoumise is? But I also saw a report that Melenchon was booed off a stage when he was speaking. Is Melenchon still the undisputed leader or is his standing diminished? What about his politics and the politics of the left?

SB: In France there’s a very strong tradition which goes back to the CGT’s original founding congress, where a sharp separation was made between trade unions and parties. Trade unions defend their autonomy and separation from political parties ferociously. So there is trade union mobilization and there activity at the political party level.

It’s true that some trade union leaders criticized Melanchon and La France Insoumise, I think unjustifiably, for the way that they were trying to slow down the legislative process.

All the parties of the left have been through a very turbulent period over the last few months. with various internal crises and arguments. This means that they’ve lost some of the momentum they had just after the legislative elections. Melenchon is still the leader but he’s not in the National Assembly anymore. He set up a foundation for research and training of cadres.

But he still plays a very important role, even on a day-to-day level, including discussing tactics by La France insoumise deputies. I think it’s likely that unless something terrible happens to his health, he will stand again for the next presidential election.

There is this contradiction that exists with a strong social movement and a somewhat discombobulated political left. But La France Insoumise has been very active, including on the ground, of mobilizing people for the demonstrations.

There was an extremely large ecological demonstration on the weekend that faced extreme police violence. Two comrades are in a coma and between life and death at the moment.

It’s not a straight split in terms of the streets and the parliament. There’s interaction but Melenchon doesn’t have the same preeminence when it’s a social movement as opposed to an electoral campaign.

SW: Has Marine Le Pen and her standing diminished or strengthened? As you have said in earlier interviews, she represents a populism we’ve seen elsewhere that’s anti-immigrant, but pro-worker. Where does she stand on pension reform?

SB: Le Pen and the Rassemblement National (the new name for the National Front) have been following a twin-track strategy. On the one hand, they want to keep their working-class base. That means they oppose pension reforms and some other anti-social measures the government wants to put through.

On the other hand, they try to appear as much as possible to be an alternative government, an alternative government in waiting as it were. This means playing up values of respectability, stability, order. For example, they criticize La France insoumise for its inflammatory rhetoric and the role it played in trying to undermine the legislative process in the National Assembly.

They’re not going to go out on the streets. They’d be chased away from most demonstrations if they tried, but they’re not going to actively support social movements. In a recent poll their poll rating has risen by 6%, which is not that surprising given that they have a strong popular base.

Their strong supporters are less organized, less militant and the less connected to trade union sections of the working class. Although they are very opposed to these pension reforms, their base doesn’t necessarily have the confidence or desire to engage in collective action themselves.

Le Pen supporters are fueled more by resentment and anger and fury at the system as a whole rather than any kind of positive project, unless it’s a kind of racist project.

Le Pen is playing a careful game of positioning herself as Macron’s main opponent, but on the other hand, trying to appear respectable to right-wing voters. These voters have traditionally have been a little bit suspicious of her, partly for class reasons, partly for concern about her being too extreme.

Macron could dissolve the parliament and call for new legislative elections. If he does that, his majority could actually shrink. And I hope the left would also have a bigger group. So he doesn’t have a lot to gain. He is hesitant because many are saying that he’s creating the basis — socially and politically — for a win for Le Pen in 2027. In the absence of a strong left response, that is definitely true.

SW: He’s very cocky, but that seems like an incredibly risky move given his diminished stature, and the growing social movement that his actions have provoked.

What more would you say about working class support for Le Pen? Are thee people who’ve been thrown out of work by restructuring and who then have blamed immigrants. We did see early on that some of the Communist Party base voted for Le Pen.

When there are strikes, they are popularly supported. When there are movements in the streets, they are supported no matter what discomfort they provoke, including trash in the streets. What about France’s social solidarity?

SB: It’s not true that the Communist base supported Le Pen. It is true that the far right has won in areas where the left Socialist Party and in some cases Communist Party used to be strong. But those voters were not previous Communist Party voters. They’re usually people who used to vote for the right. There’s always been a right wing working-class vote in France — or people who previously abstained.

Because of our history, there is a legitimacy to mass protest, including when it takes a violent form against property. Burning bus shelters and trash bins is not considered to be the end of the world as it might be in other European countries. Lots of people are very happy to see the protests, particularly when they exist at all levels of French society, including very small towns.

It is true as well that French society has been de-industrialized; there’s 30 years of neoliberal policies. There have been right-wing discourses coming from all sections of the French political establishment, including the left, on how immigration is a problem.

Then there were horrific terrorist attacks. All of those things have coagulated to create a counter-tendency to collectivity. It breeds individualism, resentment, and in some cases, outright hatred of other groups.

The Future of France

So there are two tendencies in constant conflict, and sometimes combined. French society is not entirely characterized by solidarity and collectivism, nor can you say it’s entirely characterized by racism and individualism. Both exist simultaneously and are in tension with each other.

Obviously, moments like the present where you have a mass movement there is a chance for more positive aspects to express themselves and perhaps consolidate. This is especially true amongst younger people.

But if we were to lose this struggle, then it’s quite possible that the far right will pick up all of the fruits, the bitter fruits of that defeat. Whenever you have a big social conflict, nothing determines in advance who’s going to benefit from it.

SW: You said that 90% of the workers are opposed to this pension reform and, more than half of the population is actively opposed to it. That’s including supporters of Le Pen. And as you’ve also said, the character of the protest has gone beyond just the pension reform, but also the way that Macron has governed and his anti-democratic moves by resorting to 49.3.

What next? You just raised the specter of what could happen with defeat, but do you think that Macron is going to back down or just risk riding it out? What do you think is going to happen? Do you see a possibility of his government falling as a result?

SB: Macron’s between a rock and a hard place, He chose a confrontational position from the start, partly because he’s a lame-duck president and he doesn’t have a majority in the parliament. It put him in a very difficult position. If he were to back down, it would be difficult for him to do anything else for the rest of his term.

Of course, the people within his own camp who want to succeed him in 2027 would be stabbing each other in the back to differentiate themselves from him. The solidity of the Macron parliamentary group would begin to disintegrate.

At the same time, if he doesn’t back down, he is going to have an unpleasant and lonely next few years. He’s been rejected by 90% of the economically active French population. He can’t rely only on retirees and the higher levels of the managerial and professional classes. That’s not a sufficient base to do anything really.

Whatever choice he makes, the most intelligent choice would be to try and do what he should have done from the beginning. From his perspective that means trying is to split the unions by reaching out to the more moderate elements. They’ve been invited to meet the prime minister next week. Perhaps that’s the beginning of a new strategy.

Supposedly his backup plan is to change the prime minister, someone from the center left who might be seen as a concession to the left electorate.

Or perhaps the level of the struggle will intensify so much that people, including employers, will start screaming at him to, “for God’s sake, drop this fetish of the pension reform law. We didn’t even want it that much in the first place. And you’re making life for the rest of us very difficult.”

All those options are on the table. But as I say, he’s put himself in a very difficult position. He got out of the Yellow Vest protest with a fake consultation. He could try that again. But the level of hatred for him now is extremely high. His TV interview was an absolute disaster. He came across as this sneering, smirking, arrogant little twit.

SW: Which he is. Yes, Yes.

SB Which he is. But he could have hidden it better, to be honest. Who characterized the protesters as Seditionaries? He was talking about how the crowd doesn’t govern. It was a contemptuous discourse. So it’s a tough call for him, I would say.

SW: Thank you so much for that analysis and overview. Incredibly useful!

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