- Interview by
- David Broder
Twelve days since France’s government forced its deeply unpopular pension reform through the National Assembly, the mobilization against it seems stronger than ever. The use of Article 49.3 —passing a law without a parliamentary vote — has made the fight over the pension bill a broader fight over the powers of Emmanuel Macron’s government, which lost its majority in last June’s parliamentary election.
The large majority of French people oppose raising the pension age from sixty-two to sixty-four — and the number who back continued protests is actually rising. On Monday, ahead of a fresh day of action called by unions for March 28, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced the “deployment of unprecedented security measures” to impose order. His comments followed dramatic scenes of police breaking up peaceful rallies.
One parliamentarian who saw this police offensive firsthand is Manon Aubry. She is a France Insoumise representative in the European Parliament, where she is cochair of the Left group. She spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the continuation of the movement, the government’s response, and a way out of France’s crisis situation.
Is it right to say this is France’s most important social movement in decades?
It’s probably the most important since May 1968.
First, because of the sheer number of demonstrators. There have been ten different days of massive mobilization, and over three million people in the streets.
But also because of the level of anger that is being expressed. We could make a parallel with the “yellow vests” movement. In that case, things began with an economic issue — a rise in the fuel tax — but it developed into a much broader democratic movement, for instance calling for the right to hold referendums upon citizens’ initiative.
The yellow vests were spontaneous, whereas the pension reform movement is led by trade unions — but they both illustrate a deeper democratic crisis. The use of Article 49.3 to force the bill through, without a vote in parliament and against the majority will, has taken us to a new level of anger.
What’s impressive is the depth of the ongoing mobilization — among the workers who are first to suffer, like railworkers, garbage collectors, and oil refinery workers. Big cities and very small ones. Employees from both the public and private sectors. But also young people, who have massively joined the mobilizations in the last few days. Months into the struggle, it enjoys 80 percent popular support, and Macron is more isolated than ever.
Emmanuel Macron seems to be betting on the idea that he can just hold firm, and the movement will ebb.
Macron’s strategy is based on popular resignation — that, after all, people will put their anger to one side and go home again, once the bill has been forced through. This is a very dangerous move. His actions have thrown fuel on the fire, especially with the use of 49.3. It’s the only democracy in the world where such an important bill, one that will affect our lives for decades, can be adopted without a parliamentary vote. Some of my colleagues in the European Parliament ask, “Are you in Hungary?” Macron knows that he has no support in the country for the reform, and that the majority are with the people in the streets. So, given how weak his position is, repression has become the only tool available to this government.
You posted footage of yourself on a garbage workers’ picket attacked by police. What kind of police violence have you seen?
The garbage workers’ picket — and not only that one — was broken up by force, with the CRS (riot police) several times taking to the offensive with gas and truncheons. When the police force is asked to beat its own people and its elected officials, then it’s not being a servant of democratic institutions. At the protests we’ve seen illegal, arbitrary arrests, especially of young people, with no judicial follow-up — the only aim is to intimidate people.
We’ve had protesters kettled — trapped by police and unable to leave — even though the State Council declared it illegal in 2021. We’ve had LBD (“nonlethal” flash-ball guns) and stun grenades used, causing very serious injuries — a railworker trade unionist has lost an eye, and an education worker has lost a finger. We’ve had testimonies of sexual violence against protesters, including accusations of rapes. This weekend we saw an environmental demonstration in Sainte-Soline against artificial water basins broken up by three thousand police gassing and beating people. Two hundred demonstrators were injured, and two are in a coma, between life and death. It’s a thugs’ way of imposing order.
I think people around the world will have seen the shocking images. Many institutions are troubled by this, including the likes of the United Nations and the Council of Europe and the Ligue des droits de l’Homme. I have tabled a motion, with left-wing members of the European Parliament, condemning the police violence. I am asking for a debate in the plenary session on Wednesday. This is happening in an EU member state, indeed in the land of the Revolution and of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which defends the right of resistance to oppression. This is unacceptable, and the EU must react.
The government speaks of “pacifying” the situation . . .
And yet, only last Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron said that “in this country, too much goes on through legislation” rather than having rule by decree. That the method of parliamentary votes should be avoided. Isn’t it incredible, for the elected president of a democratic country to say such a thing? They are pyromaniacs, pouring fuel on the fire. They must be in a parallel universe, not to see what people think of this. Macron found the time to give the prestigious Légion d’honneur to billionaire and tax avoider Jeff Bezos, but he said he wasn’t available to meet with the trade unions. That symbolizes his level of arrogance and contempt.
Macron today claimed that France Insoumise is using this moment to delegitimize France’s institutions.
The strategy is to delegitimize the opposition, and especially the Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES; left-wing coalition), which is the political force most active and present in the demonstrations. Despite all Macron’s lies and falsifications, the level of opposition has not changed in months. So the strategy left to him is to shoot the messenger and demonize the opposition that embodies an alternative.
The government surely wants to whip up people’s fear of chaos and the far right. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap they are trying to set. Macron’s party refused to back NUPES against Marine Le Pen in runoff elections but now are playing into the hands of the far right. They are the only ones responsible for the rise of the National Front.
In a normal democracy, the obvious way out of this situation is either to withdraw his plan or to go back to the polls, with a referendum or snap elections. Then it will be NUPES that’s in the strongest position to be able to form a new government.
I remember being in France in 2006 for the movement against the so-called First Employment Contract (CPE), a law that weakened young workers’ labor rights in the name of helping them get hired. Back then, Jacques Chirac’s government, headed by Dominique de Villepin, actually passed the measure but then had to retreat, faced with the continued strikes and protests. Do you see that happening today, even without early elections?
I think the parallel is a good one. It was the first movement I was involved in, when I was a high schooler. The situation was blocked, and the social anger continued to express itself. Chirac said that he had no choice but to take the responsible course of action and withdraw the measure. So if Macron can have two minutes of Chiraquism, this is the time to do it. People won’t go home now if the pension reform is confirmed. We need to force Macron to think again.