Strikes and protests, of course, are a well-known fixture of French life, from the student uprisings of 1968 to the “yellow vest” demonstrations against inequality that stunned the French government last year with their vigor and violence. No other Western democracy seems to have as high a tolerance for burning cars and broken windows.
But these protests could be bigger and more destabilizing than most.
Macron is playing with political fire: The retirement system is a beloved feature of France’s famously generous welfare state.
The last time the French government seriously tried to overhaul it, in 1995, protests paralyzed the country for more than three weeks and forced then-President Jacques Chirac to back down and accept a stinging political defeat.
And although French transport unions largely steered clear of the yellow vest demonstrations over the past year, they are expressing the same anger that certain segments of the population have been abandoned by their leaders.
Yellow vest protesters could join these demonstrations. Teachers unions, postal workers, hospital workers and the police may also support the strikes.
“It’s the coalition of all frustrations, and it demonstrates the isolation of the elite, the isolation of the president, even the personal rejection of Macron,” said Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist and the author of a recent book on emotions in politics.
“There is a deep sense of injustice right now, that inequalities have exploded, that the state is much less protective than it was of the weak, and much more protective of the strong,” Moïsi said.
Granted, hardly any other Western country redistributes as much wealth as France does. According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France’s ratio of tax revenue to gross domestic product was a staggering 46.2 percent in 2017, with the government allocating about 28 percent of that total for social services.
Macron’s retirement proposals are bound to appear to foreign observers, especially in the United States, as nothing too extreme.
Forty-two different retirement schemes are in use in France, and under some of those schemes, such as those for train drivers and Paris Metro operators, certain employees can still retire as early as age 50 or 52. Paris Metro drivers are entitled to monthly pensions as high as $4,100, according to a government report in July. Many private-sector employees, by contrast, can retire only at 62, and the average government pension ranges from $1,400 to $1,600 a month.
Macron’s idea is to create a universal points-based system that would calculate pensions in the same way for everyone, regardless of their profession.
This has angered the powerful French labor unions, which have called for Thursday’s protest and who insist that Macron’s new calculation would harm lower-income workers and those who have been temporarily employed.
And yet the resistance is not just about retirement income.
Laurent Berger, the head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, one of the country’s major unions, couched his movement’s actions in general terms in a recent interview with France’s LCI television. “The government is in the process of losing everyone,” he said. “It’s lost everyone.”
According to an Ifop poll published Sunday by France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper, 76 percent of the French are in favor of overhauling the retirement system. But 46 percent of those polled also expressed a positive view of those who plan to demonstrate.
Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po University in Paris, said those frustrated with Macron and his policies have few options.
Macron’s 2017 victory marked the end of what had been for decades a political system that simply handed power between old-guard parties of center-left and center-right. His election on a nominally centrist platform — and the subsequent absolute majority his newly created party won in the French Parliament — means that there is no real political opposition.
But though Macron won in a landslide vote, his victory never implied a public mandate: the results could also be read as a repudiation of his opponent, the far-right Marine Le Pen and her extremist anti-immigrant and protectionist platform, Cautrès said.
“There is no one to propose an alternative,” he said.
“That explains the violence and the force of the ‘gilets jaunes’ and the protests that have followed,” he said, using the French term for the “yellow vests.”
It remains unclear how long the transport workers strike will last.
Eurostar has said that because of expected disruptions, it will run a reduced timetable of its high-speed-train service at least through Dec. 10.
Union organizers have vowed to continue until the government responds sufficiently to their concerns. But the coming Christmas holidays may deflate the crowds they draw.
For some observers, the tense atmosphere in France is ultimately the same kind of discontent with democratic systems that is on view across the West, but manifested in a French style.
“In Great Britain, when you are dissatisfied, you get a new election, and we are about to see the third one” in four years, Moïsi said. “In France, when you get dissatisfied, you take to the streets. And you have the symbol of the barricade.”
“You don’t use the ballot box but the stone, which you are going to throw at the symbol of authority.”