The France Pension Protests - Lessons for European Liberals

Consider the France protests. 

Popular insurrection spurred into reality due to President Macron’s decision to raise the pension age to at least 64, from the previous age of 62. Most would probably agree that such a change would likely not haul the people to the streets en masse in most European societies, or to engage in the kind of protest that would see the town hall of the French city of Bordeaux sacked. After all, the retirement age of some European countries still exceeds that of France, even with this measure in place (Euronews) - and while dramatic political upheaval is by no means exclusive to France, there is little doubt that the propensity to down tools and strike is a stereotype long-associated with French culture and society. It is espoused frequently (sometimes derisively) in the neighbouring United Kingdom - where, perhaps not unexpectedly, there was a dismissive outlook by the British public toward the unfolding events in France, as noted by Claire Launchbury for Le Monde. It is in this same United Kingdom where, by contrast, one may suspect that the retirement age could be raised to 80 before vehement protestations would be seen on British streets.

British reservation - dismissible, perhaps, as indifference or deference - toward popular insurrection is something long featuring in the British psyche. One speaks of the Stiff Upper Lip, of British Bulldog spirit and tenacity, of an unwritten understanding not to make a scene and to accept life’s circumstances with poise and endurance (regardless of adversity). It is, perhaps, this mentality which is held as having seen Britain through the hardships of the First and Second World Wars, and which remains (visibly) a source of pride for the British public. While the French have taken to energetic protest on multiple occasions in recent decades - and British commentators were quick to link the 2023 protests to the French Revolution of 1789 (the Guardian) - even neutral observers may lean back and chortle that the French are doing as they have always done. In response , the French may well claim that the British are too slow to protest - and that they do as they’ve always done when laying down and (wrongly) accepting life’s circumstances without protestation. 

But the distinction between the French and British public is not so stark. In fact, it is likely that the stereotypical distinction between the French and the British in all that concerns popular protest is born not of wartime experience, nor of the French Revolution, nor of any centuries-old historical event. In fact, it is rather more recent social upheavals (and the contrasting fates they met) which mark the distinction. For this, we must consider the May 1968 student protests (in France) and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike (in the United Kingdom), and their influence on the divergent worldviews being herein (simplistically) commented on.

In France, May 1968 saw students and workers, seeking a variety of demands, shut down large sections of French society for several weeks. By the end of May, President Charles de Gaulle had fled France and the force of the (ultimately relatively brief) month of protests caused the French government to collapse. Irrespective of their objectives (and their merits), for a government to be brought down by (initially) a series of striking students was momentous, and remains (rightfully) recognized as such in French collective memory. A blueprint for protest the entire world over - but most definitely for later protest in France.

It is the children of the May 1968 generation who are to be affected most directly by the newly-proposed change in policy. Those who were in their earliest formative years in 1968, or born shortly thereafter, are now in the relevant age bracket (60+) for this change in legislation to be particularly pertinent. The generation born of protest, given something worthy of protest. 

Is the much-storied readiness to action by French citizens (putting to one side the wanton destruction, looting, and the burning of the Bordeaux town hall) a good thing? 

Yes, perhaps it is. It is a symptom of an unhealthy society for its citizens to have no recourse to action, or options to voice dissatisfaction on occasions when their lives are curtailed by their government. It is not unique to France for a government - whether legitimate or not - to be seen to trample over the desires of the electorate. Even in ‘healthy’ democratic societies with high levels of citizen satisfaction, the voice of the people is not always heard. In a parliamentary democracy, a skilled leader can thread a piece of policy through discussion chambers and debate rooms if surreptitious or convincing enough - even if the policy has tangible, negative, but not immediately obvious consequences for the electorate. This can be accomplished even without resorting to legislative override as Macron has done in France. Consider the poll tax introduced in Britain - an objectively terrible piece of legislation which crept through parliament without major objection. It was ultimately withdrawn after bitter opposition from the British public - and even provoked a rare day of riot in central London. It can be that a piece of policy may be threaded through, or forced through, by the head of state even in societies where citizens are electorally empowered - if their elected politicians do not succeed in opposing the undesired legislation. Perhaps, therefore, there is some benefit in the citizens having a final recourse to voice their objection and take matters into their own hands (as the French have done), as long as this is done non-violently. Are empowered citizens not a sign of a healthy society?

Now Britain. The type of protests which are dominating news from France have not been seen in Britain for— well, you tell me. Certainly not the last few decades. Yes, isolated riots such as the poll tax riot have occurred. But for a coordinated front of citizens to strike as a countrywide collective effort to override a government policy - this seems at this moment inconceivable in Britain. Perhaps the British are too ‘dignified’, as some may haughtily claim. Or perhaps it is consistent with the British dictum Keep Calm and to Carry On, to avoid - British-style stoicism in the face of adversity.

Nonsense. The reason for the hesitant British approach to social unrest may be more simple: it began with Margaret Thatcher’s crushing victory over the striking miners in 1985.

Dispel any thoughts that you had about the British not being capable of downing tools and taking to the streets as the French have done in recent times. Those who know of the warring relationship between UK governments and labour unions of the 20th century could advise otherwise. The 1984 strike of 142,000 miners - had been ultimately successful - would probably have left industrial action as common a feature of British society as it is perceived to be in French society. The May 1968 protests remain a defining moment in the social development of 20th-century France - despite the protests having lasted only a fraction of the the length of time that the Miners’ Strike had lasted in Britain (almost one month, versus almost one year). Despite the obvious difference in intensity of the protests, there remain visible parallels: both saw support chiefly from leftist elements of society, and both sought to oppose the leading political strongman or strongwoman of the time. But crucially, while Charles de Gaulle folded and fled to West Germany in the face of massive pressure, Thatcher leveraged her political capital onto brutalizing the Miners into submission - ultimately resulting in a major victory for her government. The results for each society are telling. The mining labour union, cowed, faded into obscurity, and the mining industry has since met a similar fate. While France continues to see cyclical protests and strikes, the blow to industrial action in Britain - I argue - has been as decisive as it was devastating. Begone romantic ideals of the British Grin and Bear it - it was, rather, Thatcher’s breaking of the miners’ resolve which influenced British society most. What could have - and probably would have - become a moment of empowerment for the British people became an evisceration, and demonstration of Thatcher’s political muscle. The United Kingdom may be a stoic, steadfast society - but at least in this regard, is a traumatised, browbeaten society too.

Thatcher’s actions against the protesting public were visibly depraved. Her actions to subdue the miners and also toward civilians and hunger-striking prisoners in Northern Ireland were obscene, inhuman. But that is not to say there is not some value in a steadfast and resolute leadership in times of such upheaval. A robust response to upheaval. Within reason.

It does remain the prerogative of a competent leader to prepare a robust response to pressure, and it is the caliber of a good leader which is determined by this response. A weak leader may respond with overreach or suppression - such as Belarus, 2020 (New Yorker). A brutal response does not destroy dissent, it merely offsets it. But it is also the mark of a weak leader to crumble in the face of popular protest. Putting to one side the way by which Macron’s new policy was introduced, and focusing instead on the policy change itself: a change of this nature would always engender opposition, justified or unjustified. But a leader who believes in their policies must be able to withstand potential opposition, even if it may directly threaten their tenure. A leader must accept that, and a good leader would prepare for it. Maggie Thatcher was not a good leader, per se. She was cruel and politically shortsighted. But the need for resolve in the face of public pressure - this she understood.

However, despite the (arguably) beneficial elements of Thatcher’s strong leadership, the precedent laid down for British protest was as reverberant as it was destructive. Following proudly in Thatcher’s guise, the UK Conservative party (under Boris Johnson) introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in 2022, providing itself sweeping powers to crackdown upon undesirable protests under the vaguest possible criteria. Protestors would be threatened with up to 10 years’ imprisonment. In the wake of (peaceful) public disruption caused by climate protests in the same period (perhaps the last vestiges of British physical protest) the Conservative Party (through Suella Braverman) doubled down in 2023 with the Public Order Act - further expanding the government’s capacity to crush protest considered undesirable through obscure justification and ramification. What began with Thatcher’s batons, has been effectively sealed with Braverman’s pen.

So what is the lesson for European liberals in all of this? Is it purely an exercise in good governance and response to unpopular measures? Is it a comparison of the merits of two of Europe’s most recognizable and notorious political figures, and two competing societies in close proximity to each? Or is it a lesson in the fine lines by which government resistance to popular protests may be exercised?

All the above, perhaps. However, maybe the most important message here is derived from the nature of the protests in France themselves. A society must be able to protest, it must have the right to assembly. We must have the right to self-expression. We must have the right to freedom of the press and of the internet, to manifest our views (with some controls) and to engage in discussions about the conditions under which we may spend our lives. Is this an endorsement of the objectives of the French protests? No. It is an endorsement of the French energy directed towards non-acceptance of policies which disservice them - and any good liberal should endorse this. It is also, to an extent, an endorsement of the right to resist these protests (within reason and with proportional response) by the governing entity. Let the polls then decide if they did so ably.

If there is one more thing to be taken away from this article, it is the sheer unmatched capacity of the UK Conservative Party to crush all freedom to protest and to assemble, without inheriting the reputation of a tyrannical entity. While Maggie Thatcher’s destruction of the Miners’ Strike stands alone in its symbolism, do not underestimate more recent - more insidious - moves to erode freedom to protest by governing Conservative Party figures, as identified above.

The legacy of May 1968 in France looms large - as does the shadow of 1982 in Britain. The resolution of the protests - and President Macron’s resolve before them - will be telling.



References

 

Adam Volf

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Adam Volf
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