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French Streets And American Sofas

Above Photo: In the Paris procession of the demonstration of March 28, 2023 against the pension reform. Jules* / Wikimedia Commons.

You might be Brazilian or Malian or Singaporean, it is remarkable the world over to watch the French explode into the streets of dozens of cities and towns to protest the imperial president residing in Élysée Palace. It is altogether singular to follow the demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron as an American. The French are still citoyens and take to their streets and public squares. Americans long ago cashed in their citizenship to live as consumers—and take to their sofas no matter how abusively political elites treat them, no matter how many wars they start, no matter how corrupt the financial system, no matter how many people live in poverty, no matter how grotesque the “defense” budget, no matter how poisoned the environment, no matter… let me not go on.

Please pass the Fritos and turn on the big game.

They burned city hall in Bordeaux last week. The Place de la Concorde, where the French protested the monarchy in 1789, is again shoulder-to-shoulder every day and night. Video footage records fires, barricades, appalling confrontations with baton-wielding CRS, the French riot police. Uncollected garbage is everywhere in the capital. The luxury shops along the grand boulevards have boarded up their windows.

This started, of course, as a protest against Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 as part of a sweeping reform of the pension system. I have heard many Americans ask, “Two years? What’s the big deal?”

It is telling enough that Americans would pose this question, missing all the reasons why Macron’s plan is a very big deal. The French work to live, as they like to say, while Americans live to work. Pushing up the retirement age had a semiotic meaning from the first, signaling the creeping incursion of American neoliberalism into French society.

There is the choice Macron had. I don’t think too many people dispute the demographics and fiduciary numbers at issue. More older French are reaching retirement age while fewer younger French are advancing into the workforce. This is a reality in France as in many other developed nations, though not the near-term crisis Macron made it out to be. Macron’s choice lay between raising taxes on the wealthy and the corporations or pushing the problem on the shoulders of the working class. He made the wrong choice.

Remember, Macron was a merchant banker before going into politics. Early in his first term he was nicknamed “the president of the rich.” He failed to understand that serving as a national leader meant leaving behind the merchant banking in favor of the common good. So he made himself a sort of comprador, an import agent introducing Anglo–American neoliberal orthodoxies into a society that has long, long stood outside the Anglosphere. For the French, the English Channel and the Atlantic are wide.

On March 16 Macron made his wrongest choice. Unwilling to risk a vote in the National Assembly, he resorted to a provision de Gaulle wrote into the Fifth Republic’s Constitution in 1958, which allows the president to pass legislation without parliamentary approval under certain defined and rare circumstances—emergencies, in a word.

So has Macron turned a big deal into a big, big deal and now a big, big, big deal.At this point the pension reform crisis has jumped the levee to become something far broader. Now demonstrators tip over into protesting the war in Ukraine, U.S. hegemony, NATO, and, on the domestic side, de Gaulle’s constitution. As Roger Cohen reported in The New York Times the other day:

Those huge protests have shifted in character over the past week. They have become angrier and, in some cities, more violent—especially after nightfall. They have been less about the fury felt over the raising of the retirement age to 64 from 62, and more about Mr. Macron and the way he rammed the law through Parliament without a full vote.

Finally, they have broadened into something approaching a constitutional crisis.

Cohen then quotes Laurent Berger, who heads the 875,000–member, middle-of-the-road CFDT, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor:

We have moved from a social crisis on the subject of retirement to the beginnings of democratic crisis. Anger is rising, and before us we have a president who does not see that reality.

Macron is now behaving like a sequestered monarch such that King Charles III had to cancel a planned visit with Macron last week because “the optics” were so hideously ill-suited to his isolation and the mess he has made.

Since his interview with Roger Cohen, Berger has proposed a dialogue with Macron to resolve the crisis, but the president has taken no interest in any such idea. There have been large, nationwide demonstrations daily for nearly two weeks, and I discern no flagging of spirit among those in the streets.

Cole Stangler, an American journalist working in Paris, had a good piece on The Times’s opinion page last week, headlined “France Is Furious.” His mention of the Yellow Vests, les gilets jaune, refers to nationwide protests five years ago that forced Macron to drop a proposal to raise fuel costs to the disproportionate disadvantage of farmers and the rural working class:

Demonstrators are responding to a government that has repeatedly ignored public opinion, pleas from moderate labor unions and large conventional street protests. And as the French know from their own history, from 1789 and 1968 to the Yellow Vests, direct action with a popular mandate often gets results—even if it’s loud and unruly.

On Tuesday Stangler posted some photographs of the day’s events. One of them features this slogan: Le peuple veut la chute du régime, colloquially translated as “We want this regime to fall.”

Direct action. Loud and unruly direct action. A popular mandate. Bringing down a government: What is it about the French that they are ready to take to the streets in behalf of the society they stand for when the society they stand for is challenged by an imperious figure such as Emmanuel Macron? If you think this a good question, here is another: What is it about Americans that, as the sad record indicates, nothing rouses them from their quite amazing stupor such that they get off their sofas and.. and act, act in behalf of… of anything?

To take these questions in order, the French retain an idea of themselves as members of a community. However frayed this community and however fractured their idea of shared interests, this still has the power to motivate them. Related to this, their civic selves remain alive. The French treasure their private lives, certainly: One way to consider these demonstrations is as a defense of private life. But whether you are a schoolteacher or a steamfitter or a shopkeeper,  if you are French, you also have a public self that extends beyond the private self.

Not least and maybe most of all, the French share an idea of the present as a passage in history and of themselves as forces in history. I am not at all surprised the French Revolution is so often mentioned in the better media coverage of events these days. The Revolution was an attack on the vestiges of divine right, the notion that a monarch’s authority was God-given. It was about humanity, not the heavens, as the agent of its destiny. And it was class-conscious. There were no illusions in 1789 as to the nature of power. The fate of the French is in the hands of the French: This was the core thought then and it is the core thought now.

As to nous Américains, our differences from the French began early. French political culture is simply of another order than America’s. We had no time for the notion of divine right, obviously, but we believed profoundly the hand of Providence had determined our fate. This remains our prevailing assumption whether or not we are conscious of this. The consequences are two.

One, a people who put their trust in God, as our dollars bills proclaim, also trust in the perfectibility of what God hath given them. In other words, we Americans assume that we have had it right from the first and there is little to do other than janitorial maintenance. When problems arise they are at the margins, they are due to passing human lapses, and can be remedied such that we return again to the state of grace Providence bequeathed to us.

Two, we have understood since the 17th century that “the New World,” later named the United States, stands outside history. Escaping the sordidness and decadence of European history was the whole point of crossing the ocean in wooden ships. It was thenceforth as Toynbee put it when he described his childhood in Edwardian England: History is something unpleasant that happens to other people. Such matters as class conflict are things that plague other nations. As every American knows, there is no such things as class in the land where the buffalo roam. We’re all in this together, as every president since I don’t know who has told us.

Few are the Americans who have a strong sense of their own agency, to put the point simply—an idea of themselves as forces in history. We live by myth, not history.

The consciousness I describe left Americans ripe for the extreme social atomization neoliberal capitalism was bound to produce over time. “There is no society, there are only individuals” is the perverse assertion of Margaret Thatcher. Reagan ought to have instantly issued her an American passport. To the community consciousness of the French we reply with the privatization of consciousness. To their claim to the power of “direct action” we reply apathetically from our sofas that we are powerless. To their regard for public space and their understanding of their places in it, America has made itself a littered village green where you cannot walk at night.

Not since the civil rights movement and the antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s have Americans addressed the question most urgently in need of address: the question of power. This is the weakness that causes protests such as those prompted by the murders of Michael Brown and George Floyd to come to so little. Those protesting in favor of abortion rights want Roe v. Wade restored without contesting the corrupted political and judicial systems—the power structure—that rescinded the ruling. Occupy Wall Street, impressive as it was, had no staying power because too many occupiers were in it for the acting out. Rebellion is one thing, to put this point plainly. Committed confrontations with power in the cause of the social commons and authentic change are another.

Do we approach an inflection point in these matters? It is a fair question. The degree of disillusion and frustration abroad among Americans is considerable and unmistakable at this point. The predicaments of young people—unfulfilling work, unlivably low wages and salaries, a creeping meltdown in consequence of the climate crisis: All this suggests we may see such a point. But I have to ask: What proportion of Americans are stirred to act in these circumstances, and what, as we used to say, is the program? That antiwar demonstration in Washington last month: Are we counting the turnout in the hundreds, or a few thousand? I will not even get into the spectacle of people saying, “I’m not going because so-and-so are among the organizers and I don’t like so-and-so,” or “So-and-so is speaking and I do not like so-and-so.” It is too reminiscent of the hopelessly unserious sectarianism of the 1960s to bear.

There is another matter meriting mention. This is the presence of propaganda in American life. The French and the rest of the Europeans have their own problems in this regard, but they are not inundated nearly to the extent Americans are.

You have noticed, surely, that Americans can no longer bear being with people who disagree with them on any question of consequence. This is because most of us don’t arrive at our judgments after thinking things through. We typically derive our opinions from people who tell us what they should be. In such a circumstance, debate becomes impossible because most of us with strong views have no idea what we are talking about.

Everyone building a barricade or throwing pavement stones or getting his or her head cracked on the streets of France has thought through the matters at hand and arrived at a conviction of what should be done. If what you purport to think is merely what you are told to think, you don’t in truth think anything. Why on earth would you bother rising from the sofa?

The French believe in something and in themselves, to wrap all this in a big bundle. Americans no longer believe in anything, even themselves, despite all the motions they go through to persuade themselves otherwise.

I am due shortly to pass through Paris en route to a speaking engagement elsewhere in Europe. I don’t know whether I’ll delight in the last of the season’s oysters or be a witness to history. The latter was not in my plans, but if it turns out this way how good it will be to cross the ocean and see people making some.

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