A divided country lurches toward nationalism, writes Christopher Caldwell in the Claremont Review of Books.
Forty-nine minutes into a championship-round rugby game in the French city of Agen one night this spring, the lights went out. The stadium and surrounding neighborhoods were plunged into darkness. Players collided on the field. Patrons groped their way out of restrooms. For half an hour the stands glowed with cell-phone screens, as fans sought to figure out whether a generator had burst or a terrorist had struck. They discovered that this was not an ordinary blackout. The power had gone off because someone had shut it off—namely, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the most radical of France’s labor organizations.
The mayor of Agen professed himself shocked. But when the CGT announced that it had sabotaged the game out of rage at President Emmanuel Macron’s having raised France’s retirement age, Agen’s fans and the stadium’s neighbors were by and large mollified. Or so they told interviewers after the fact. The 45-year-old Macron, in office since 2017, has a 28% approval rating. Other presidents have fallen lower—notably Macron’s Socialist predecessor and mentor François Hollande. But of the eight men who have held the office since the 1950s, Macron is the most passionately and widely despised. He was re-elected last year, having promised to bring France’s retirement age, which then stood at 62, into line with those of other Western countries. But voters didn’t want that. Seventy percent of them oppose his reform. In legislative elections a month after re-installing Macron in the Elysée Palace, they stripped him of his majority. In March the National Assembly voted down his bill to raise the retirement age to 64. So Macron resorted to a notorious piece of French political chicanery. His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, invoked section 49.3 of the constitution. This
section permits the passage of legislation by decree, as long as the assembly cannot produce a majority to bring down the government. Macron’s foes tried to rally such a majority, but their motion failed by nine votes. The very afternoon Macron resorted to 49.3, French citizens rushed into the streets in fury. They have barely gone home since.
Although Macron has never been especially popular, he has always been able to rally a lukewarm coalition. Moderate conservatives like him for the way he advocates (without always practicing) fiscal prudence. American- style progressives back him for his campaigns around sexuality, multiculturalism, and euthanasia. But his support has collapsed. The problem is not the reform as such—though only 7% of people with jobs approve of it—but the constitutional outrage of passing it without a vote. Now Macron has fallen afoul of workers who think of themselves as the country’s backbone. Garbagemen and bus drivers have gone on strike. The normally business-friendly CFDT, another of those French trade-union confederations, has, for the first time in decades, made common cause with the electricity-cutting radicals at the CGT. Farmers have marched.
Of course, Macron’s predicament is not unique. In every European country there are people mad at the capture of institutions by elites, infuriated by the lockdown of public spaces and the run-up of debt under COVID, and uneasy about being dragged ever deeper into the Ukraine war. But France is the first country to reach the stage where its leaders can no longer scare up the resources they need in order to quiet the electorate down. And this threatens to make the country ungovernable.