France on the Brink

Bro Adams
7 min readMar 26, 2023
The National Assembly, Monday, March 20, 2023. Lewis Joly, AP

Monday, March 20

Our flight from Boston to Paris arrived at 5:30 am on Monday, March 20, the morning of the day the French National Assembly was scheduled to vote on two motions censuring the government of Emmanuel Macron. Just days before, Marcon’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, had invoked the infamous article 49.3, permitting the government to proceed with its reforms to the national retirement system without a vote in the Assembly. We knew of the planned disruptions to the transportation system and feared the worst. And sure enough, several minutes before boarding our flight to Marseille, gate personnel informed us that there would be a runway delay of one hour owing to the strike by air traffic controllers. But weirdly, the delay never materialized, and we arrived in Marseille on time. Leaving the airport, we encountered long lines of cars waiting to buy gasoline.

The results of the vote on the motions of censure were announced mid-afternoon. They failed by the narrowest of margins — a mere nine votes. Barring any adverse ruling from the Conseil Constitutionnel — France’s version of the Supreme Court, sort of — Macron’s sweeping changes to the retirement system would now become law. The televised scenes from the hemicycle, as the National Assembly chamber is known, were astonishing. Members of the left coalition, “les Nupes”, hurled insults and sang the Marseillaise. They were joined in their outrage by representatives from the hard-right Rassemblement National (RN). Outside the Assembly and the Elysée palace, crowds began to gather in the streets, growing larger and more organized as evening approached. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the RN, appeared on television, urging on the demonstrators. As dark fell, enormous mounds of uncollected trash and plastic garbage bins were set on fire in multiple locations across Paris, creating vast clouds of toxic smoke. Small knots of demonstrators hurled objects into the heavy ranks of police, and union leaders announced plans for more aggressive actions in cities across the country in the coming days. Smaller but equally angry demonstrations erupted in Rennes, Strasbourg, Nancy, Amiens, Dijon, Nantes, and Lyon.

Tuesday, March 21

I went to the village store this morning to buy groceries. As I paid, my conversation with the owner turned quickly to the political storm caused by the retirement reforms and the invocation of article 49.3. “It’s civil war,” he said. Later, President Macron announced his intention to sit for an interview with journalists on Wednesday. The unions announced plans for a nationwide work stoppage on Thursday.

The news programs this evening were saturated with stories of the political turmoil. With the exception of members of the administration, it seems that almost everyone in public life is furious that the reforms were not taken to a vote in the Assembly. Public opinion — already strongly arrayed against the proposed changes — is turning even more aggressively against the government and its heavy-handed approach. Grave predictions about the futility of Macron’s remaining years as president; graver concerns about the legitimacy of the government.

Wednesday, March 22

Driving to Aix to buy SIM cards, we listened to Macron’s nationally televised interview with journalists from France’s public television stations. I hadn’t heard him speak since the fall, in the lead-up to his election victory over Marine Le Pen. But his tone, demeanor, and manner have not changed. Cerebral, a little imperious, many references to his sense of “résponsibilité,” perhaps the most important word in the Macron lexicon. He spoke unconvincingly about re-engaging with “social partners” to discuss the nature of work and economic inequality in France. The journalists attempted several times to focus the discussion on his decision to bypass the National Assembly, but he skirted the issue.

Aix was extremely quiet. Very little traffic and fewer than normal numbers of pedestrians. In the Orange mobile phone store, employees were watching live reports of demonstrations around the country. News reports on the way home suggested that Macron’s interview had made things worse. Numerous denouncements by union leaders, politicians across the political spectrum, and people on the streets. More demonstrations in the night.

Sometime during the evening, a story about Macron’s wristwatch went viral. Still shots from the interview showed him wearing a watch, described by critics as a luxury model costing 80,000 euros. Later in the interview, the watch disappeared. A presidential spokesperson noted that the president became nervous that the watch was striking the table during his emphatic gestures, and so had removed it. The public station TF1 later confirmed that the price of the watch was a mere 2,000 euros. A deputy from the left-wing La France Insoumise, Frida Amrani, noted that “the President of the rich has never worn his name so well.”

Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday, March 23

A day of national strikes and demonstrations. Substantial “perturbations,” as the French have it, in the country’s transportation system. Some of the country’s oil refineries are blocked by union-organized protesters, and many of the gas stations in our area have run out. Those still open have impossibly long lines.

It strikes me again that with respect to the economy and the world of work, Macron is much more American than French. He speaks often and passionately about the need for French people to work more and more efficiently. Many of the reforms he’s enacted or attempted to enact have to do with working better, smarter, and longer. It’s a vision that lacks deep cultural resonance here. When we make new French acquaintances, they rarely talk about work. Family, personal interests and pastimes, and politics are inevitably first in line.

At the end of the day, the Ministry of the Interior estimates that more than a million people demonstrated across France during the day. The unions estimate the number to be 3.5 million. The truth is probably somewhere in between. In some cities, the demonstrations are becoming increasingly violent. “Casseurs” — breakers — and “Black Blocs” — organized groups of protestors intent on violence — are present in growing numbers. The escalation brings perfectly predictable laments about the unacceptability of violence and police overreaction. There is a pervasive sense of things spiraling out of control. Uncollected garbage still burns in Paris and several other cities. In Bordeaux, protesters set fire to city hall.

Friday, March 24

Tonight, the end-of-week news programs are full of talk of crisis — political crisis, social crisis, regime crisis. “La crise” is probably overused in the French political lexicon, but it seems appropriate now. Macron’s administration is dead in the water, perhaps for good. The turmoil casts a glaring light on the deep economic inequalities in French life. Still deeper down, at least politically, the events of the past few weeks are raising fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the Fifth Republic, the French state, and democracy itself.

Late in the day, the Elysée Palace and Buckingham Palace announced the postponement of the much-anticipated visit of King Charles to France. Macron stresses the distraction of the protests, and security concerns are invoked by both governments. But the deeper, unspoken reason for the cancelation is evident to all. The specter of the British monarch parading around France with the imperial president would surely make things worse. Incredibly, the visit schedule included a magnificent state dinner at Versailles, the most conspicuous symbol of the monarchical tradition in France, and the site of one of the most infamous events of the French revolution. On October 5th, 1789, a large procession of women marched from Paris to Versailles and confronted King Louis XVI. The next day, the royal family left Versailles for good. Several years later, Louis was arrested, tried, and convicted of high treason. On 21 January 1793, he was beheaded by guillotine in the La Place de la Revolution in Paris.

THIBAUD MORITZ / AFP

Sunday, March 26

The French newspaper Le Monde reports this morning that more than 400 police officers were wounded in confrontations nationwide on Thursday, March 23, a level of violence not seen in France since the eruption of the “gilets jaunes” several years ago. The violence was particularly intense in the city of Nantes on the Loire River in the western part of the country.

Meanwhile, in Sainte-Soline, a rural community not far from Nantes, more than 200 police officers and demonstrators were wounded in confrontations over a massive water impoundment project — a “megabassine” — designed to support agricultural production in the increasingly common conditions of draught in rural France.

In one sense, the confrontations in Nantes and Sainte-Soline are separate events. The radical ecologists protesting water impoundment and the coalitions protesting Macron’s changes to the retirement system are different groups motivated by different issues. But at another level, they are elements of a broader challenge: how is the French state going to balance and fund its sweeping commitments to its wide-ranging social programs as they become bigger and more expensive? In addition to universal retirement, free pre-K through university education, and free universal healthcare, the list now includes important environmental initiatives. Macron has pledged that France will become carbon neutral by 2050. Getting there won’t be easy, or cheap. Billions of euros will be required to support the transit from a carbon-intensive economy to one that is carbon-neutral. The militant ecologists gathered in Sainte-Soline, worried about the use of freshwater resources, have been paying attention. And they’ve now joined more traditional pressure groups across France that expect the state to keep its promises.

The broader question that needs asking is how the priorities of the welfare state are to be determined, balanced, and sustained over time, and in a setting where revenue solutions are limited by France’s already very high tax rates. In that context, Macron’s worry about the retirement system is one among several possible concerns. But the confrontations caused by his single-minded pursuit of cost containment in the pension system have made public debate about priorities (extremely difficult in the best of times) impossible. Sides are dug in; the debate is suspended; force rules, with no end in sight.

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Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.