The Strikes and Protests in France Look to the Future and the Past

The past, according to a famous American dictum, is never dead. It’s not even past. First said in a spirit not entirely agreeable to today’s present—William Faulkner, who wrote it, was, in part, indulging the white South’s preoccupation with the Lost Cause and its grievances—it is, nonetheless, true. And it is particularly true in France, where the past is more present than perhaps anywhere else. That is partly because, in France, so much of the distant past remains upright or, when it falls, gets quickly hoisted back up—as the approaching reopening of Notre-Dame, complete with remade spire, reminds us—and partly because of the wounds that remain from France’s own bad luck and troubled conscience.

It is a startling truth, for instance, that, this past week, despite the apparent urgency of mass protests and a national strike, turning on the issue of pension reform, the Paris media were preoccupied with a strange enterprise: a rerecording of Charles de Gaulle’s famous appeal to the French people, which he delivered from London, on June 18, 1940, just days after Paris had fallen to the Nazis, as it would have been heard at the time. De Gaulle had recently been made a brigadier general, but he was unknown to the public. In his address, however, which was broadcast just before midnight over the BBC, he called on the French to continue to resist the German occupation—and to rally around him. The address, which became the first of many, had to be rerecorded because no original exists, and de Gaulle’s own rerecordings of it, made in later years, were of dubious authenticity, thought to use quite different language from the original. But, recently, a transcript—ironically, in German—of the original broadcast was found in a Swiss federal archive and re-translated into French. With the help of A.I. technology at IRCAM—a center for audio experimentation at the Pompidou Center—the voice of a French actor reading the transcript was transformed into a replica of de Gaulle’s voice, as it sounded in 1940. Now one can experience the legendary appeal as it was first heard—or, again ironically, mostly not heard, given the obscurity of the speaker, the lateness of the hour, and the difficulty of listening to the BBC in France.

In some ways, de Gaulle spoke more honestly about the state of France and the war in that appeal than he did after it. He emphasized that France’s defeat did not mean that the world war had been lost, because France might yet be saved by the British military and by American industry—truths that he was not often willing to state quite so candidly later. One only has to consider the improbability of the British using the latest technology to rerecord, say, Churchill’s “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech—the only recording of which is also not from its original broadcast but from a later staged reading—to see the urgency that recapturing the past still holds in France. The sound and shadow of the past even overhangs something as particular as the current street and parliamentary fight over pension reform.

Anyone with a love of France who heard, last fall, even from a distance, that President Emmanuel Macron intended to reform the state pension service likely felt a sudden need to go lie down in a darkened room. Pension reform in France has been often proposed and always defeated, with the Presidential reformer left bereft. Trying to reform the pension system is a story of fatality that is less like Lucy perpetually pulling the football away from Charlie Brown than it is like the destiny of the mosquitos, in “A Bug’s Life,” as they head dreamily toward their doom: “No, Harry, no! Don’t look at the light!”

I well recall, and, newly arrived in Paris, wrote about the 1995 reform effort, proposed by the newly elected President, Jacques Chirac, which mobilized the French street in strikes that shut down Paris from October through Christmas, when they paused for the trêve des confiseurs—the holiday pastry armistice. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that Chirac, who withdrew the plan, never recovered his aplomb, and he reigned—very much to the detriment of France—as a roi fainéant for the next twelve years.

Indeed, the defeat of Chirac’s effort is part of the reason for the intensity of the current opposition, both because it emboldened the otherwise fragmented left to act together and because France, although it has not exactly beamed cheerily through the past twenty-eight years, was hardly crushed, despite many warnings, by the weight of the failure to reform the system. Absent any obvious signs that failing to enact pension reform is a bad thing, how can people be persuaded that opposing it is anything but a good thing?

Yet what makes the intensity of the opposition improbable is the seeming modesty of the proposed reform. Basically, the age of retirement would rise from sixty-two to sixty-four, and, symmetrically, most workers would need to work for forty-three years, rather than forty-two, to be eligible to receive the French equivalent of social security. France would still have one of the lowest mandated retirement ages in the European Union, where the general rule is retirement at sixty-six, and, as with all things French, the reform is likely subject to so many curlicues and exceptions—there is not one pension system but many—that its effect on actual lives would be minimal. No one is proposing, as free marketers in the United States routinely do, to spin social security on the roulette wheel of the stock market, or to make significant cuts in payments, or to means-test recipients.

What, then, accounts for the vehemence of the protests, which drew an estimated million people into the streets of French towns and cities? Two things, perhaps, both rising from French history: an understandable reluctance on the part of unions to give back any gain, and, more deeply, a conviction that the triumphs of the French left have all centered on the omnipresence, however symbolic, of the welfare state. Since the Popular Front government of Léon Blum, in the nineteen-thirties, those triumphs have been defined by the right to strike and holidays and unemployment insurance, by a vision of a working class freed from the peonage of a lifetime of labor, and to negotiate on even a disputable front in the battle is to dishonor the cause. These are not merely political projects; they are poetic symbols of what the “fraternity” in the famous French motto means. (There are similar shibboleths in this country, though they tend to rise more often on the right, as with the insistence that owning a military-style weapon is essential as a symbol of liberty.) At a moment when the French left is about to be sundered again, over the question of support for Ukraine, by the internal (and eternal) war between the insular, nationalist left, led now by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the universalist, humanist left, having something that everyone in the tactical coalition can agree upon makes for a welcome commonality of purpose.

The other reason rests on the claustrophobic nature of French politics, in which bad faith, raw personal ambition, and reverse-spin politicking overwhelm pragmatic argument. (Those things occur here, too, but the meanings are generally easier to decode and have fewer moving parts, given the more tribal and binary nature of American politics.) Macron’s once-closest independent allies in the center, François Bayrou and Édouard Philippe, endorsed his reforms, but they are apparently so consumed with the project of running for President themselves, yet again, that it seemed to occur to them, looking at the crowds in the street, that it might be wiser to show some concern about the proposals.

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