We French were born to confront authority. Can Macron withstand the onslaught?

Emmanuel Macron walks through the Galerie des Bustes at the palace of Versailles in 2017. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron walks through the Galerie des Bustes at the palace of Versailles in 2017. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/AFP/Getty Images

The Communist trade unions, the far left and a ragtag group of provocateurs had warned that they would do anything to disrupt King Charles’s three-day state visit to France. According to intelligence service reports leaked to Le Parisien, they were actively planning action in Versailles and Bordeaux during Charles and Camilla’s visit.

In the end, their threats were taken seriously. Besides, the 4,000 policemen and women dedicated to the royal event could be of urgent use elsewhere. To the relief of the masters of protocol and the diplomats, and of an overwhelming majority of the French people – who would have been mortified if their guests of honour had been inconvenienced in any way – President Emmanuel Macron decided to spare the king the very French drama playing out in our streets. Ouf – or, in English, phew.

Olivier Besancenot, the former poster boy of France’s New Anticapitalist party, had merrily declared: “We are going to welcome the king with a good old general strike”. If only. It would have been easy to shelter Charles III from the tumult of a “good old general strike”, even on a large scale. We are used to them. Strikes, marches and republican pomp are among the things France does best.

Strikes are not the problem. It is the insurrectionary spirit of political extremes that is of particular concern, as it poisons public debate and radicalises opinion. The mood in France has indeed turned sombre and volatile; discontent is now palpable in the streets. Since Macron’s pension reform was legally forced through parliament, and the vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, was rejected by only nine votes, tension has been rising. It is in the air, just like spring and the smell of putrefaction.

It is unlikely that the royal cortege would have got stuck in one of those improvised demos flaring up at night and leaving behind a trail of bonfires and destruction on the boulevards of Paris. However, it would have been impossible to spare the king the sight and odour of the French capital half disappearing under 10,000 tons of rubbish. On Monday, municipal refuse collectors will enter their fourth week of strike – they do not want to retire at 59 by 2030 instead of 57 (the retirement age of 64 won’t apply to all. There are many exceptions, notably for mothers, those who started work young or have a strenuous job).

What eventually proved too perilous about this state visit for Macron, far more importantly than the far left’s threats, was the optics. The last thing the president needed was pictures of him, in full regalia, hosting an unelected head of state who owes his position to birth, in the chateau of Versailles. Imagine one matador named Macron swinging his red cape in front of a country of 66m bulls.

For better or worse, whether we like it or not, whether we are even conscious of it, the revolution of 1789 changed the way we see ourselves and relate to power. Compromise is an art reserved for others. On the rare occasions we have tried it, we have lamentably failed. Confrontation is what we seem to be born for, what we secretly seek, what makes us tick. Macron is the first to enjoy a dispute. In a room, he will always walk straight to the few dissenters and debate with them at length, for he believes in his power of persuasion. This is admirable and perhaps, at times, a little impetuous of him.

With the pension reform, which was badly explained to the public by Borne and her government, he has taken a gamble for the sake of the country’s finances and in the interest of future generations, who will be increasingly burdened by the cost of their elders’ pensions. Tomorrow’s youth will probably be grateful to him, but they are not born yet. Today’s young people, however, are tempted to join the protests.

For French teenagers it is now a rite of passage to sneak out to a mass demonstration against a law the minutiae of which they hardly understand. What they take away from the experience is an intoxicating feeling of power. This past week, demonstrators have looked increasingly young, especially in the impromptu marches at night. And the younger the crowd facing the riot police, the more dangerous the situation becomes. Accidents have so far been avoided but, as tension rises and the police start feeling exhausted, peril is mounting. For a French government, it is the stuff of nightmares. Whenever young people join a protest en masse, the government always backs down in the end.

So far, though, Macron has held firm. The man is different from his predecessors. He takes risks, and doesn’t shy away from difficulties. He is constitutionally unable to seek re-election when his term ends in 2027, so doesn’t mind being unpopular. He may also hope that “the silent majority” of the French people will eventually be appalled by the filth in the streets, the violence and the inanity of the opposition and will turn against all the opportunists pouring oil on the flames.

This is a possibility. This is also, however, forgetting the obvious: the irrepressible revolutionary romanticism of my compatriots, who like to regularly check that they are still the ultimate boss. When they do, they go all the way. Even if it’s against their interest. Didn’t Macron once quote Asterix and talk of the “unyielding Gauls” who resist all change? It was a kind of compliment but the French took it badly.

Will Emmanuel Macron be the man to tame his compatriots? Can a matador raising his muleta escape millions of angry bulls?

Agnès Poirier is a Paris-based political commentator, writer and critic.

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