FROM the outside, it might very well seem that France is in turmoil, once more erupting into mass strikes and demonstrations, dividing against itself and preparing to fall, while its President Emmanuel Macron, like the Emperor Nero, slowly reaches for his violin. Having recently trodden on French soil for the first time since the Covid era began, I can confirm that this impression is pretty much correct.
Forty-eight hours was enough for me to see this divide starkly. On Saturday January 21, in the wake of demonstrations and strikes involving millions earlier that week, I witnessed tens of thousands of young people, many of whom have never had a job, pouring through the streets of Paris declaiming anti-capitalist slogans and demanding the right to retire at the age of 60.
Two days later, I mingled with a few hundred struggling, angry owners of small businesses (mainly, but not exclusively, bakers) parading towards the Ministry of Finance demanding the right to continue to stay open, and asking the government to extend its energy price cap to them as well – their best hope of survival.
The France that wants to work versus the France that wants to retire early is a match that can have no real winners, and certainly not with Macron as referee.
A French news channel video interview which went viral after Saturday’s demonstration saw a young, well-dressed man called Enzo suggesting that it was entirely possible to reduce the working day to four hours and the working week to four days and still live high on the hog. Ultimately, retirement would wither away, since it would be possible for society as a whole not to work at all, he claimed, in an echo of 19th century Marxist Paul Lafargue’s pamphlet The Right to be Lazy.
On Monday, speaking to those who get up at dawn and work all day in their small businesses, burdened by rising prices and government taxes to the extent that some can barely draw a salary from their efforts, I heard the voices of those who could only smile bitterly at this inverted view of reality.
A full two years of government-funded laziness, sometimes referred to as ‘furlough’, has accelerated the decline of, if not entirely destroyed, the work ethic (and not just in France, of course). A cosseted class of state-fed employees, to whom philosopher Pascal Bruckner has referred as the ‘slipper kings’, have come to believe that being paid to stay at home is a right, not an unaffordable, soul-diminishing privilege. Those who fought during lockdowns to keep their businesses open to feed themselves and their families were bullied, vilified and often prosecuted for taking work and vulgar productivity more seriously than ‘public health’, many being dismissed as ‘unessential’ by people whose salaries were derived from their taxes.
Some commentators have been quick to pick up on this fracturing of a social consensus around the value of work, and made reference to France’s own ‘Great Resignation’, with stories of bankers becoming cheesemongers and gentrifying France’s Atlantic coast. More perceptive commentators, such as the social geographer Christophe Guilluy, have pointed out that this ‘reassessment’ of life’s priorities is another symptom of the problem: those with the luxury of being well-off enough to ‘downsize’ move into regional towns and cities with low house prices, uprooting those without this flexibility, and taking over their localities. Meanwhile, areas less popular with the affluent looking to scale down their activities, such as the ex-mining towns of northern France, fail to benefit even modestly from any positive effect of this internal migration.
Nevertheless, although the ‘right to be lazy’ might be duking it out philosophically with the ‘right to make a living’, the issue of pension reform has crystallised a more general frustration felt by many French citizens. They are, if polls can be trusted, mostly willing to support or tolerate trade union attempts to shut down the economy through rail or oil refinery strikes, to force an increasingly unpopular Macron to back down on his proposed raising of the official retirement age from 62 to 64. Uninterested in or indifferent to the technocratic detail, though with their opposition actually increasing the more government ministers try to explain the ‘good sense’ of these reforms, many ordinary people seem to want to use this as a way to give a president with an increasingly threadbare legitimacy a metaphorical slap across the face.
Meanwhile, the artisans I spoke to last Monday were unconvinced that there could be a coming together of those fighting pension reform and those battling to keep their small businesses alive. ‘It’s the France that wants to work versus the France that lives on benefits,’ one baker told me. This seems about right. Two tectonic plates are moving against one another, with contradictory, even conflicting, priorities. There can be no overlap there. Only some kind of earthquake.