France is renowned, revered and reviled, depending on where you fall on the ideological spectrum, for its militant political movements. Whether it be the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century, the 1832 June Rebellion depicted in Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” the seizure of power by workers during the historic Paris Commune of 1871 or the “Yellow Vest” protests that ebbed and flowed from 2018 to 2020, depictions of the French as a revolutionary people are emblazoned throughout history. And while it is important to understand that these depictions do not reflect reality given France’s status as a brutal beneficiary of colonialism and imperialism in the Caribbean, North Africa, Southeast Asia, Pasifika and beyond — exemplifying the classic “oppression for thee but not for me” mentality seen in most colonizers — it’s hard to deny that when the French decide to make a scene, they’re thorough.
The militant political tendency of French labor was put on full display Thursday, March 16, when protests, continuing from unrest in January, broke out in response to pension reforms by French president Emmanuel Macron that would push the retirement age from 62 to 64. To make matters worse, the manner in which Macron pushed the bill through — using special constitutional powers to pass the reforms without a full vote by the National Assembly — sidestepped the democratic process entirely, doubtlessly contributing to the malcontent of workers who are already alienated by the daily reality of wage-labor exploitation. Now, as Macron refuses to back down to protester demands, his government continues to fuel the metaphorical and literal fires that have been set throughout the country over the past two weeks, including one that engulfed the town hall in Bordeaux.
It’s anyone’s guess when the uprising in France, which has included strikes by sanitation workers, rail workers and teachers, conflict between unions and the government, student protests and the usual conflagration of trash will come to an end, but no one can say this was unexpected. For starters, France has a huge public sector, with public spending making up 62% of GDP and government employees representing 21% of all employees against the U.S’ 14.5%. As such, a huge swath of the population, which includes both public sector workers and private sector workers who can’t depend on a private pension plan, are massively affected by austerity cuts that shift the age of retirement upward and prolong the toil of workers.
What’s at play here is the greater toolset of which austerity is just one part: neoliberalism. The Marxist geographer David Harvey offers a robust — if a little verbose — definition of neoliberalism as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” For our purposes, however, neoliberalism just refers to a set of policies used to strengthen private property rights for those who have a lot of it and weaken economic security for those who don’t. Raising the retirement age, which effectively cuts the amount of pension available for retirees, does exactly this.
Don’t be fooled by the large private sector or the accusations of “freedom fries” jingoists: France has employed neoliberalism as its modus operandi since the 1970s, with cuts to pensions being a common theme throughout the past five decades. Even nominally “socialist” Presidents like François Mitterrand and François Holland led governments that eventually turned to neoliberal fiscal and monetary policies at the behest of other Western economic hegemons like the European Union and United States. On the other hand, Macron never ran on any pretext other than neoliberalism, as he has set himself apart as a centrist since his election in 2017. Meanwhile, many have come to speculate that France’s decades-long commitment to slashing services and strengthening private capital has contributed, much like in the U.S, to the rise of the French far-right, embodied by populist, white nationalist candidates like Marine Le Pen. Although proponents of this theory tend to understate the cultural and economic influence of European colonialism, white supremacy and unequal exchange with the Global South here, it is nonetheless a compelling explanation for today’s fascist resurgence.
France’s recent uprisings have been a long time in the making, and President Macron truly has no one to blame but his own political project. Although the government will likely concede with symbolic offerings to the protesting workers or theatrically strike down Macron’s reform bill as unconstitutional on a technicality, the fundamental contradictions are still in force. This won’t be the last large-scale protest we see out of France, and next time the trash and fires will tower even higher.