It was in the end, as one French television commentator described it, not a protest but a mobilisation. The unions provided the infantry, the Black Blocks were the special forces. While the former, backed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of France Insoumise (France Unbowed) inched forwards, the shock troops, known as the Black Blocks, wearing crash helmets, goggles and armoured vests, took on the police, attacking them with rocks and petrol bombs, breaking off only to smash the windows of banks and luxury hotels. 

More than a hundred police and gendarmes were hurt in the melée, several of them badly burned. A total of 540 rioters were arrested. And it was not just Paris that suffered; there were serious confrontations in all parts of the country, notably in Rennes, Nantes, Lyon and Toulouse. 

This morning, France was having to ask itself what, if anything, it all means. Can it seriously be argued that a modest increase in the pensionable age from 62 to 64 – which still leaves French workers among the most cosseted in Europe – justifies three months of mayhem, with nothing resolved and the country poised on the brink of anarchy? Is Emmanuel Macron really The Enemy of the People or is France simply undergoing one of its periodic political cleansings, intended to demonstrate that the streets, not the Élysée Palace or the National Assembly, are where democracy properly resides? 

Macron was of course the focus of Monday’s May Day upheavals. He had refused to reverse course on pension reform and had to pay the price. Yet the genuine animus directed towards the President, re-elected to office less than a year ago, bears no relation to the scale of the events taking place every week in central Paris and other public squares. 

The Place de la Nation, scene of yesterday’s most violent clashes, was in the early 1790s the epicentre of the French Revolution, renamed La Place du Trône-Renversé – the Square of the Toppled Throne – and it is hard not to see the current assault on democratic process by the mob as an attempt to depose the President and replace him with… what? 

Macron himself stood back as the mayhem built up around him. Perhaps he was hoping that voters would at last see for themselves the potential consequences of their actions. In an ironic tweet, sent as the first petrol bombs were setting officers alight less than a kilometer from his office, he praised the workers, who, he said, got up early each day to nourish the nation and contribute to its sovereignty. 

The First of May – International Labour Day – is taken seriously in France, unlike in the UK, where it is regarded as little more than another day off. The unions strut and the Left makes speeches. But this year, it was promoted as an opportunity to show the Establishment, presided over by the loathed figure of Macron, that the workers had had enough and were insisting on change. 

What change, though? If Macron had announced the withdrawal of his pensions legislation, would the protesters have cheered and gone home, satisfied that their interests had been protected? Unlikely. Instead, more probably, they would have interpreted the move as the sign of weakness they had been waiting for and gone on, as it were, to storm the Bastille. 

There was nothing the President could have done yesterday that would have calmed the situation. Knowing this, he did nothing. His strategy has been to out-wait the protesters, counting on the population at large to weary of the struggle. 

For their part, the Left has no alternative other than to continue the slew of grands manifs that have revealed a nation that is deeply unhappy, at war with itself, in search of answers to a question that is never quite asked. 

Mélenchon is precisely the sort of politician who in 1789 would have incited the mob to sweep aside the monarchy and replace it with the Committee of Public Safety, presided over by himself. He is an odious man, steeped in the post-war Marxism that in the early post-war years came close to being the dominant dogma of the Fourth Republic. If De Gaulle hadn’t stepped in, trading on his reputation as the nation’s one true hero, there is no telling how France might have developed. But while most observers see what actually transpired as a lucky escape, Mélenchon views it as a lost opportunity. 

The one-time teacher, born in Algiers, of Spanish and Sicilian descent, likes to think of himself as the answer to a nation’s prayer. The truth is that he is no more than a cog in a wheel set in motion by forces that defy any rational analysis. 

France, like every other country in Europe, suffered considerable trauma during the Covid-19 crisis. Macron and his ministers did their best and, after initial confusion, emerged with some credit from the experience. In the meantime, the economy, though hard-hit by the costs of defending Ukraine against the Russian invaders, has emerged as one of the continent’s best-organised and most resilient. 

Macron should have read the national mood better. He could have pulled back on pension reform, arguing that, essential though it was if the system is to survive the demographic challenges ahead, change could be left to another day. But he didn’t. Such is his arrogance ­­– to the extent of believing himself, like Louis XIV, to be the state – that he pressed on regardless. Hubris and nemesis have rarely tripped over each other so quickly. 

By doing so, he tripped a switch. France was frustrated. It felt cheated, as though it had been denied the prosperity and lifestyle that was its birthright after the shame and agony of the Occupation. Jacques Chirac would have known what to do. So would François Mitterrand. They would have stroked the dissidents until they dozed off. They would have come up with grands projets and other diversions. In short, they would have bought them off. It is the present crop of leaders, starting with the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy and the centre-left François Hollande, culminating in Macron (neither right nor left), who have proved clueless. 

In Macron’s case, there is an element of tragedy attached. He is highly intelligent, well-read and serious. He knows what has to be done and is determined to do it. His problem is that everything he touches, such as his interventions on Ukraine and China, turns to dust. It is as if he is fated to be misunderstood and always to play a weak hand badly. 

But he is no fool, and in the present case he might just battle through. 

How many demonstrators took to the streets yesterday? Two million, say the unions. Less than a million, says the interior ministry. Either way, France is a country of 67 million, so those battling it out on the streets cannot honestly claim that they are – or in some way represent – “the people”. The fact is that raising the pension age is deeply unpopular. No one, including Macron, denies that. But regardless of how the new legislation came about, with a final vote denied to the Assembly, it requires a considerable effort of imagination to conclude that a long-overdue increase in the nominal age of retirement is an assault by the Louis Vuitton class on the sans-culottes

History is rarely about what it is about. It is usually about something else. The something else in this case is that the French are miserable and frustrated, and though most of them aren’t prepared to storm the barricades, many, looking out behind their twitching curtains, are quietly glad to see others do the job for them. If nothing else, it makes life more interesting. Thus, Mélenchon. Thus the unions, united as never before. Thus the Black Blocks. Thus the riot police, with tear gas and water cannons.

It will end when the people grow tired of it or begin to turn against the extremists – most obviously if a police officer dies. Macron could risk everything by calling new parliamentary elections. All that is certain is that with everyone at odds with everyone else and with Bastille Day, July 14, billed by Mélenchon as Insurrection Day, the President’s torment is far from over.

And meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, is keeping her powder dry. 

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