On April 23, 2017, Emmanuel Macron stunned the world by leading in the first round of a presidential election that had looked unwinnable by him. He went on to win the second round and carry his movement, En Marche!, to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. France, the new young president promised, was finally ready to be transformed and would soon be fit for the 21st century.
A year after his first victory, the French president is on a state visit to Washington, and is a changed man. He has turned 40 and has toured the world, where he can still bask in appreciation. At home, though, the glory is largely gone. The president, who prides himself on talking the talk and walking the walk, has been pushing reforms at a dizzying pace since he arrived in the Élysée Palace. But his fellow countrymen also like to walk their walk — a very different one. True to their reputation, they have taken to the streets to protest and resist changes organized from the top. It has taken a full year for President Macron to meet his moment of truth.
Spring is in the air and strikes are back, as are anniversaries. One anniversary in particular is on some people’s minds: May ’68, which is widely seen here as a cultural revolution. Those protests started with a student rebellion at the Sorbonne in Paris; soon enough, the clashes spread and the students were joined by workers. Within weeks, a general strike paralyzed France and challenged President Charles de Gaulle. The general never fully recovered. He resigned the following year after losing a referendum.
Is French revolutionary fervor back? In 1968, Mr. Macron had not yet been born, but he does know what “convergence des luttes” means. Literally a “convergence of struggles,” this slogan epitomized the unity of bourgeois students and the proletariat that made 1968 unique. Fifty years later, some people at the far ends of the French political spectrum still dream of its magic. Indeed, there’s no shortage of protest in France this spring, putting Mr. Macron’s reformist agenda to the test.
Railway workers are staging a two-day strike every three days, trying to force the government to give up an ambitious overhaul of the national railway company, the SNCF, and disrupting the lives of millions of travelers; they say they are prepared to continue their protest until July. Air France pilots are also on strike, but for a 6 percent wage rise. Lawyers have been demonstrating in the streets of Paris to protest a proposed reform of the court system. There is rising discontent among the staffs of public hospitals and nursing homes affected by budget cuts. Angry pensioners feel unfairly targeted by taxes. In western France, the riot police have clashed with ecologists illegally occupying an area where an airport was supposed to be built, even though the plan has been scrapped. Motorists are furious at a proposed speed limit of 80 kilometers (50 miles) an hour outside urban areas, to replace the current 90.
And, of course, protests have reached universities. Another of Mr. Macron’s reforms aims to make the clogged admission process more selective. Protesters, who see this as an attack on the sacrosanct principle of equality, have occupied a handful of colleges. The police have been sent to evacuate the highly symbolic Sorbonne and some other sites.
In a three-hour television interview on April 15, a journalist (who happened to be one of the former revolutionaries of May 1968) asked Mr. Macron whether he was trying to re-enact 1968 “through repression.”
“Rather than En Marche, shouldn’t your party be called En Force?” the journalist wondered sarcastically. The president rejected the analogy; this is not the legendary “convergence of struggles,” he claimed, not even “a coagulation of discontents.”
Mr. Macron is right: 2018 is not 1968. It is probably not even 1995, when Prime Minister Alain Juppé had to give up his own reform of the SNCF after three weeks of strikes by railway and public transport workers.
In May 1968, France enjoyed a 5 percent economic growth rate, and its population was young. It had fewer students — most of them sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie — and more industrial workers. Trade unions were strong. The biggest union, the C.G.T., was closely linked to the Communist Party, which garnered about 20 percent of the vote. Far-left groups were led by charismatic figures. May ’68 was not only the French version of the rebellious mood throughout Europe and America; it was a revolt of 20-year-old baby boomers against the grip and conservatism of the Gaullist establishment, shaped by World War II and France’s Algerian war. Their dream of breaking free was, in the words of the French intellectual Raymond Aron, a “lyrical illusion.”
Fast-forward to the 21st century: France is part of a much more integrated Europe, in which it has a shared currency with 18 other countries. It has just recovered from a devastating global economic crisis. Globalization has disrupted the job market, leaving trade unions weaker and divided. Unemployment averages 9 percent, higher education has been widely democratized and immigration has changed the social fabric. The Communist Party and its ideology have collapsed. So has the Socialist Party. At the first round of the 2017 presidential election, nearly half of the votes went to populist and anti-establishment candidates. French society has never been so fragmented.
And there lies the danger. Sociologists note that while today’s protests do not spread, they tend to be more violent. Mr. Macron, often accused of being arrogant or condescending, now acknowledges the feeling of injustice generated by the economic imbalances. “I hear the anger,” he acknowledged on television last week. He hates being called “the president of the wealthy” for lifting a tax on wealth. “The wealthy don’t need a president,” he responds. “They manage very well on their own. I am the president of all.”
But the anger he hears, he says, will not deter him from pushing ahead with reforms. “France is a house whose foundations have been eroded,” he insists. “We need to fix the house.” The French philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber disagrees. “French society cannot be fixed like a house,” she says. “It is much more complex.”
It is definitely more complex than 50 years ago. The 1968 barricade-stormers were looking ahead; they wanted to deregulate the future and overthrow de Gaulle. The strikers of 2018, mourning the golden age of the welfare state, see deregulation as a threat and de Gaulle as an icon. Mr. Macron tells them that world is gone, but he reverts to a Gaullist posture when dealing with the protesting ecologists and radical students. One of the best known student leaders of May ’68, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, also known as “Dany le rouge” (Red Dany), today supports Mr. Macron.
Like most Western nations today, France is divided and anxious. President Macron, on a mission to transform his country, now experiences the discontent firsthand. This is his first serious crisis, and he knows that if he loses this battle, his reform agenda will be largely defeated. The stakes are that high.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer.