The face of the young woman fiercely confronts a police officer, guarded by helmet and shield. Her bravery and the strength of her gaze echo the determination of so many in France’s younger generations to defend not only an endangered welfare system but also a way of life.
The protest movement that this young woman embodies was launched in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s overhaul of the nation’s retirement system, a deeply unpopular reform he ultimately forced through the French parliament without a vote. Although Macron was already jeopardizing the future of the French welfare state, it was his avowedly antidemocratic approach that truly undermines the ideals of the nation. This is why people still march, myself included.
In my life, I have taken part in many protests against multiple previous, and unsuccessful, attempts to reform France’s pension system, but I have never witnessed such an inspiring and commanding unanimity around the urge to preserve our society. For me and so many others, this is not just a matter of policy, about the particular age a worker can retire — 64 instead of 62. This is far deeper and more fundamental than that. It amounts to nothing less than the dismantling of our entire social model, first because it worsens the lives of the poorest among us without any apparent sympathy from our leaders and also because our president somehow feels entitled to force through a deeply controversial policy without parliamentary support. What kind of democracy are we?
Of course, protests, even crippling ones, are nothing new in France. But the level of anger we have seen in the past few weeks is historic. French unions, which rarely agree on anything, are united against the retirement system overhaul, something we have not seen in years. Alongside them, a staggering 73 percent of French citizens disapprove of this reform. Millions have taken to the streets.
There’s no question that this frustration is justified. From the beginning, the government has tried to do its best to prevent parliament from blocking the law.
First, to limit parliamentary debates, it chose to attach the proposed reform to a broader package dedicated to social security more generally. Indeed, our constitution specifies that in this specific case, the debate could not exceed 50 days. Needless to say, deliberately curtailing our elected representatives’ ability to debate such a fiercely contested reform, one that questions so deeply the foundations of our society, was an inauspicious start, albeit a revealing one.
Finally, Macron resorted to circumventing outright the typical democratic process, an insult to the entire nation. After his law was adopted by the Senate, the lower house — our National Assembly — was supposed hold a final vote. But 15 minutes before that vote was due, Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, decided to invoke article 49.3 of our constitution, which allows the government to pass legislation without a vote. In this case, article 49.3 was very likely the only way to protect Macron’s bill and to prevent it from being used to bring down his government.
After denouncing the use of a tool that would preclude elected representatives of the French people from expressing their views on an overhaul that literally turned the streets of Paris upside down, the government imposed one of the most controversial laws in recent history. My question is this: Having passed the legislation this way, do they really expect it to stand?
It should come as no surprise that unruly crowds have gathered near the chamber of parliament for the past week to express both their astonishment and their sense of dispossession from the democratic process. Since he was elected for the first time in 2017, Macron has been called “Jupiter”, a king-like persona indifferent to the concerns of his people. It was telling that when Macron did finally agree to speak publicly about his decision, on Wednesday at lunchtime, he did so at a time when most ordinary people are still at work. Not only did he stubbornly defend his reform, but also he compared the protesters to the crowds that assaulted the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Never before has the “Jupiter” moniker seemed more appropriate, as our president now appears totally incapable of facing up to any public disagreement whatsoever. But that young woman and millions like her will continue to face up to him. She is our face of inspiration, the face of our democratic spirit.
Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.