If Emmanuel Macron decided to embark on a tour of central Brittany, would he be greeted with a cacophony of pots and pans beaten with ladles by an angry populace? Would “the people” come out in force to denounce him as a traitor for increasing the state retirement age from 62 to 64?
Possibly. If so I will be sure to let you know. But the truth is, I don’t think they would. They have better things to do, including in many cases, nothing.
It has been noticeable during the long and increasingly violent protests against the President’s controversial pension reform that “the people” have more and more been crowded out by students, Far Left extremists and the Black Blocks, the last-named made up of organised thugs, fancying themselves as anarchists, who turn up to assault the police, burn cars and smash the windows of banks and stores selling luxury goods.
Like “keeners” – the professional mourners who until quite recent times could be hired in Ireland at so much an hour to provide a lament for the dead – the Black Blocks have become a distinct feature of contemporary French manifs. They dress, as their name implies, in black and wear motorcycle helmets and dark glasses over balaclavas to protect themselves from the police and to hide their identity.
Television coverage of the major protests, especially in Paris, starts early, when demonstrators are still gathering, drinking cups of coffee as they chat among themselves. On hand in the studios are les têtes qui parlent, the groups of experts assembled by the networks to provide a running commentary on what may or may not be going on. When not very much is happening, the pundits expand to fill the vacuum. Conversely, when things start to hot up, they recede into the corners of the nation’s tv screens, eventually to disappear entirely as the stones and bottles fly.
A feature of twenty-first century rallies is the motorised division, made up of vans surmounted by enormous plastic moulds bearing the names of each of the various participating unions. Then come the flag-bearers, like medieval heralds, their union banners proclaiming to which lords they owe particular allegiance and for which cause they are prepared to give up a day’s pay.
Union leaders themselves are strategically placed, enabling the television reporters to march in step with them for minutes at a time as they heap opprobrium on the President and praise the indomitable spirit of the protestors.
The people themsleves bring up the rear, some waving flags, others carrying placards. In bad weather, they wear hats and scarves. Many of them carry umbrellas. During the first hour or so, they are lively and noisy, waving their fists and providing scripted responses to the chants of the primary agitators.
During this phase, there are long-shots of the cortege, as it is known, and close-ups of the participants, some of whom are invited to tell the nation why it is they have decided to come out and what they hope to achieve. We get to read the placards and to marvel at the daring of some of the younger marchers as they climb statues and traffic lights to wave their defiance.
And as the cameras roll, so do the smartphone videos. Everybody is filming everybody else. For some, this is clearly the object of the exercise.
It is only when “something happens” that the spectacle switches from worthy to interesting. The cameras notice a disturbance going on up a side street. The focus shifts to the police, with their riot shields and tear-gas launchers, who up to this point have been held back, in reserve, but are now being taunted by the Black Blocks and their disciples.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
The commentary on the news-feed switches from dull and responsible to excited, even hysterical, as rocks, paving stones and metal street signs are showered on the forces of order. When will they turn? When will it become clear that they they are about to launch an assault of their own? Will anyone be hurt or even killed, and if so, whose fault will it be?
On-screen, the talking heads are back, still up on the top right-hand corner, only to be silenced as a petrol bomb ignites an officer or a pile of rubbish or a news kiosk. Predictably, the police charge. It is clear that some of them can’t wait to get stuck in. Equally predictably, the mob shrinks back, fearful of what will happen to them if they don’t get out of the way fast enough. A snatch squad hands over one or more of their assailants as a hail of bottles breaks around them. Now we hear the sirens of ambulances and fire engines. Someone has been hurt and the police are to blame. On the ground, an officer who sustained a wound to his face is dragged out of harm’s way by his colleagues.
At some point during all this, the cameras pull away and the scenes of hand-to-hand fighting are replaced by a long-shot of speeches at the Place de la République or the Bastille or the Opéra, virtually none of which will feature in the evening News. And as the afternoon wears on and the protesters begin to drift home, all that is left to do is announce the conflicting claims for the numbers said to have taken part: one million, according to the unions, three-hundred-thousand if you believe the minister of the interior.
Back in central Brittany, meanwhile, the locals are playing boules, or pétanque. In Callac, a new set of outdoor tennis courts has just been built and a start is to be made next month on a skatepark for the local teenagers. In Les Marronniers and the Café de la Place, the already retired and those hoping to join them as soon as possible order another round of demis or a glass of kir. The television on the wall shows the events in Paris, but the talk below is of the upcoming horse race in Carhaix and the newly resurfaced road in downtown Plusquellec.
And the same is surely true in towns and villages across France. The gilets-jaunes notwithstanding, only in the big cities, thick with students and commuters burdened by the hardships of their working lives, does politics translate into activism. For proximity and numbers are everything. But even then, the appetite for confrontation is visibly fading. The May Day manif, intended by the unions to ram home the message that Macron Must Go, could well be the last such demo on any scale before the arrival of summer. Thereafter, with temperatures soaring and water shortages taking over from retirement as the number one crisis nationwide, the French may just give themselves a break
I am in no doubt that a majority of the public is opposed to the rise in the retirement age. If they had their way, they would be able to take their pensions at 60. They have had enough of Macron and in 2027 may well turn to Marine Le Pen and her National Rally to give them what they are looking for: shorter working lives, higher pay, better schools, improved healthcare and a sharp reduction in the number of immigrants. Well, good luck with that, I say. For if wishing could make it so, France would be the happiest country on Earth.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at email@example.com