Interview: France’s anti-austerity turmoil with Marlon Ettinger
Which way will the country turn from here?
Today we’re doing something new -- an extended interview with Marlon Ettinger, a France-based journalist and author of the book Zemmour and Gaullism. Marlon has been reporting firsthand from the demonstrations that have shook France in recent weeks, an explosive response to a new round of austerity from the country’s business-friendly president, Emmanuel Macron. You can subscribe to his Substack here.
U.S. media reports have glossed over the complexity of the issues involved, and elided the unique character of the protests -- the largest and most sustained the country has seen in years. Marlon took time to talk to Contention about what he’s seen, what Macron is really trying to do, and how the country’s political factions -- left and far-right -- are taking advantage of the situation.
This piece is longer than normal -- about 15 minutes reading time -- but if you like this format let us know and we’ll do more in the future. Follow us on Twitter and don’t forget to subscribe: we’re 50% off for all of April!
Can you sum up what has inspired the protests we’ve seen in France in recent weeks?
Marlon Ettinger: Over the past couple of months, a bill has been going through the French parliament that will do a lot to change the current pension system. France has a public pension system -- everyone pays into it, it's not a private 401K-type system. The headline about the bill is that it raises the pension age to 64 from 62. But that’s not the only thing the bill does. It's completely overhauling the pension system, essentially. It's not just raising the age.
For instance, it changes when people can retire and what level of benefits they get if they retire early. One woman I spoke to told me that she had planned to retire, but with the reforms she would only get 25% of her pension -- €200 or €300 a month. Instead, she has to work two more years to ensure that she gets 75% of her salary as her pension.
The bill also gets rid of special regimes, which are for people with particularly hard or physically demanding jobs who are allowed to retire earlier or receive different benefits. These are regimes that unions have negotiated in the past, but they're gone, also knocked out by this bill.
The way the government passed the bill has also inspired protests. They didn't send it through the normal process, instead they attached it to a bill that was funding Social Security which meant there was no debate on the specific provisions of the bill in the National Assembly. It then went through the Senate, which is un-democratically elected – like the old-fashioned U.S. Senate system – and then to an inter-parliamentary commission before it was to be voted on again, in theory, in the National Assembly. But the government wasn't certain that it could get all the votes to pass it democratically, so they passed it using a provision in the Constitution called “49.3,” which is in reference to a section of the Constitution. That allowed it to be passed without a vote. After this, the National Assembly held a no-confidence vote, which the government came very close to losing -- they fell only nine deputies short of ousting the Macron government.
Since then, there's been a mounting social movement with weeks of street protests and confrontations with law enforcement. All the country’s unions have been involved, which is kind of rare because France's biggest union, the CFDT, is a very reformist union and usually willing to work for the government. But they've put a hard line on this. They are joined by the CGT, which is in theory the more radical union in France, historically close to the Communist Party – though that’s not necessarily true anymore. Workers have gone on strike in many sectors like refineries, rail, industry. The bill is now headed to the Constitutional Council to decide whether or not it's valid, and there's this mounting social movement against it.
What makes what's happening now different from what we've seen pretty regularly in French politics? People in the United States are so used to seeing big demonstrations and riots occasionally in France -- what is different about these?
Marlon Ettinger: Part of it, I think, are the different groups in society which are coming out to march against this. Every single group in society has come out against it, young people, middle-aged people, old people, people in white-collar professions, people in blue-collar professions, just even geographically across France. This I think has worried the government, that it's not just in Paris.
The idea of huge protests in Paris, kind of choreographed riots against the police, all these confrontations are very integrated into French political life. There is still some of that. I was out a few days ago and there were these athletic confrontations between protesters and police, choreographed to a degree. But I was in Bayeux recently in Normandy, and I was reading the local papers there and they were talking about how they're having these huge turnouts in these little towns. And they are consistent turnouts -- this is unusual.
The other aspect is the fact that the CFDT is drawing a line in the sand. Traditionally they seek dialogue, and even with Macron, they've been willing to negotiate, but they refuse to accept raising the retirement age to 64. If they don’t cave, there’s gridlock in the country. Now, who knows what's going on behind the scenes in the CFDT, if they're going to give in or negotiate at some point, but as of now, they have not. The CGT also will not surrender -- as of yet -- and the fact that these big institutions are drawing the sort of line in the sand does, I think, make a difference.
What do you think has led them to draw the line now as opposed to any of the other reforms that have eroded the social safety net in recent decades?
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