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France: the Legacy of the Guillotine
Why is France so riddled with protest, despite being a democratic republic? Why are students rioting against reforms which are going to affect them in half a century?
The 28th of March marked the tenth day of strikes in France, with over 740,000 people taking part, and peaceful protests escalating into violent riots. They are protesting against a reform which has already been passed, forced through Parliament through the use of Article 49.3, raising pension age from 62 to 64 years; a decision to which 2/3 of the French population are opposed.
The 28th of March marked the tenth day of strikes in France, with over 740,000 people taking part, and peaceful protests escalating into violent riots. They are protesting against a reform which has already been passed, forced through Parliament through the use of Article 49.3, raising pension age from 62 to 64 years; a decision to which 2/3 of the French population are opposed. The reasoning behind the reform is as follows: in 1970, the retirement age was 66, with the average man being expected to die at around 78 years old. In 2020, they were expected to live until around 84, with a prediction that the old-age dependance ratio will rise from 1 in 5 to 1 in 2 from 1990 to 2050 across the OECD. Thus, Macron has stated that in order to keep the state pension system viable, it is necessary to raise the retirement age. He is not alone; in Britain, the retirement age has been increased from 2010, at 60 for women and 65 for men, to 66 for both men and women currently. There has been almost no friction as a result of the rise in pension age in the UK, although it will have a greater impact in France, as French state pensions are 60% of the average final earnings of an individual, whereas British state pensions are 20%. It is thus understandable that the French population are not happy with the reform, especially those who have made financial plans, and who thought they would be receiving pensions sooner. On the other hand, it is certainly not a reform which would heavily affect the younger generations, given they have plenty of time to plan - indeed, it is in their interests to ensure that the French government does not take on too much debt. Therefore, the question is; why are the French younger generations protesting?
In May 1968, in what has been described as ‘the final farcical coda to two centuries of dangerous fantasy’ from the left (Times Literary Supplement), France erupted in a wave of student protests. In the 1960s, the population of students in France nearly trebled, resulting in a clash between the feeling of ‘youth culture’ and the strict autocratic hierarchy of France. The French youth felt that their leader, de Gaulle, was acting as a benign dictator, having gained power in 1958 through extra-constitutional means during the Algerian War. Furthermore, the Radicalist and Socialist parties were almost powerless in the decision making of parliament. In 1967, there were protests by students in the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, specifically against the restrictions on male and female students sleeping with each other. In January 1968, a verbal attack on France’s Minister of Youth and Sports escalated into an accusation that the minister was part of a fascist regime. This continued to heighten until the Night of the Barricades, when nearly 40,000 students erected a barricade, which was attacked by the police at 2am on the 11 May. The police used tear gas, and clubs, arresting around 500 students, and hundreds of students and police officers were hospitalised as a result. The success of the barricade encouraged the students to demand bigger things, such as taking down authoritarian political structures, and democratising social and cultural institutions. Following the Night of the Barricades, there was a general strike for several days, by millions of workers who were supporting the students, as well as posing personal demands. De Gaulle referred to the protests as signs of ‘intimidation’ and ‘tyranny’ in a radio address on 30 May, and he indicated a willingness to use the army if they did not stop. Ultimately, the protests lost momentum and failed, and de Gaulle remained in power for another 10 months. However, May ‘68 began the culture of protest in France which is still around today; the culture to which Macron stated that he would not give in.
However, the roots of people-led change in France go back much further; one of the students at Nanterre who took part in the protests in 1968 claimed that ‘to achieve reforms, you have sometimes to try to make the revolution’. Another famous quote from the banners at the time was ‘it is forbidden to forbid’. The sense that the population should have the right to oppose decisions made in the running of the country is rooted much further back than the May ’68 protests - ultimately, it is embedded in the foundations of France, as a result of the French Revolution of 1789. Although it was not an entirely successful revolution, in the sense that France remained an autocracy in the long term, feudalism and slavery were abolished, Roman Catholic Church land was nationalised and property was redistributed. Above all, the monarchy was abolished - on the 21 January 1793, King Louis XVI was guillotined, and his wife, Marie-Antoinette followed suit nine months later. These beheadings were representative of the end of an era - a physical killing of the figures of sovereignty, and of old France. Thus, the French Republic was formed on the basis of a desire for the people to control the running of their country.
It is evident that the culture of protests in France is a manifestation of the fact that the people feel that they have a right to influence political decisions which they do not agree with, and the fact that it is legal to peacefully protest is one of the key elements of France as a democracy. However, there being so many protests also undermines the democratic nature of France - the President is directly elected by the population, and the Prime Minister indirectly elected, and in this election there is an implication that the French are putting their faith in the judgement of these figures. To take part in this system is to imply that one is willing to allow the elected President and Parliament to make decisions they see fit, and Article 49.3 is in place in order to ensure that decisions can be made efficiently, so that the efficacy of governance is not hindered by the potential effects of a multi-party system. Indeed, Macron stated that he would not give in to street protests, indicating his view that they should not play a part in the running of a country. In the case of both the gilets jaunes movement (against a rise in tax on diesel and petrol), and now the protests against an increase in pension age, the decisions being made by the Prime Minister are not against the interests of the country - indeed, there are some decisions, such as increasing tax, or reducing pension expenditure, which need to be made for environmental, or financial reasons, in the long term. One of the biggest issues with democracies is the lack of long-term sight, because of the need to win elections in the short term. On the other hand, a lack of democracy can have terrible consequences. Therefore, we must consider whether people are protesting because they feel that their government is acting against the interests of the country, or because they are expressing discomfort with personal consequences of certain reforms. In any case, when protests become riots, there is not longer democratic utility to them, as the government is forced to impose order by force, and the messages being conveyed by the protestors are entirely undermined.
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