Of all the hundreds of press images from last Thursday's huge day of protest across France against pensions reform, my favourite happened to come from my adopted city of Montpellier.
A picture showed the 20,000-strong demonstration (as estimated by the Préfecture) passing the Palais de Justice, where it was joined by representatives of the avocats (courtroom lawyers) in their distinctive ankle-length black cloaks and white bibs. They looked like a conclave of fruit bats, but they provided an insight into just how daunting a task the Macron administration faces in trying to implement its long-awaited overhaul of the pension system.
What it showed was that the hostility runs way beyond the usual suspects. For sure, the main organising force was the eternally truculent CGT trade union confederation. And for sure, the sporadic scuffles with the riot police that erupted in Montpellier's Place de Comedie, and in several other cities, merely reprised the mayhem that the trouble-seeking rump of the gilets jaunes movement has orchestrated on so many Saturdays over the past year. This time though, the clouds of tear-gas were incidental to the real force of the protest.
By any measure, the people marching in more than 70 towns and cities – 1.5 million, according to the CGT: 806,000, according to the Interior Ministry – went beyond the invariable ranks of disgruntled train drivers, air traffic controllers and council workers. There, in the long and angry columns, were also to be seen medical staff in their hospital scrubs, teachers, seafarers, power workers, museum curators, posties, municipal executives, refuse collectors, students and even some token police. Top professionals like pilots, surgeons and senior lawyers have their own national strike pencilled into diaries for 3 February. President Macron and his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, are taking on an astonishingly broad cross-section of French society.
The strikes have played out in deserted railway stations, congealed airports, cancelled trams and buses, silent school playgrounds, blockaded oil refineries and padlocked public offices. A resigned kind of siege mentality is evident on all sides. Driving around the towns of the Hérault valley last Thursday, we encountered none of the traffic mayhem that had been predicted. People had not struggled to get to work without public transport. They were 'working from home'. President Macron's mood, equally, was described by the Élysées as 'calme et determiné': business as usual.
But was it? The marches and the days of disruption that have followed were mobilised even before the substance of the government's plans was clear. Philippe took until yesterday to spell out the details, though the broad themes were central to Macron's election platform. They included phasing out the 42 'regimes spéciaux' for specific classes of employee (some of whom can retire as young as 48); replacing salary-linked entitlements with a unified points-based scale; and reflecting demographic change by raising the standard pension age of 62, which lags behind other OECD countries. Philippe's prospectus yesterday will mean a more gradual transition, with no change for those born before 1975, will classify more jobs as 'arduous' and therefore deserving of earlier retirement, and will involve the unions in setting the value of the 'points' by which the unified pensions are determined. The standard pension age of 62 will stay for now, but with incentives to work longer.
In one of those paradoxes that drive successive French leaders to despair, a recent poll showed that while three-quarters of French voters are in favour of pension reform, two-thirds don't think the government can get it done. Other polls, conducted around the same time, have found that some 60% of the populace supports the actions of the protestors. You can see why interpreting public opinion in France counts as a science. So, once, did necromancy.
History supports the pessimistic view. France has not tholed previous reform attempts with anything like the sullen acquiescence habitually exhibited by British voters. The last comprehensive attempt to reform social security and pensions, led by Chirac's prime minister Alain Juppé, was met with a three-week general strike. Subsequent change has been incremental (notably the raising of the standard minimum age from 60 in 2010), and never achieved without painful confrontation.
Will it be any easier this time? Another recent poll found that 89% of respondents feel the country is in the throes of a 'social crisis'. You can see their point. One of several societal fault lines prised open by economic adversity lies between France's legions of hand-to-mouth micro businesses (shops, restaurants, tradesmen, market traders, smallholders) and what they see as a pampered, bloated and lavishly-pensioned public sector. The prosperity gap has also yawned wider between boardroom barons and lesser humanity. In other words, the second element in Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité is under-performing, to the jeopardy of the third.
Macron's biggest tactical blunder, though he does not acknowledge it as such, was to kick off his reforms by slashing François Mitterand's wealth tax. He insisted that the cut was necessary to perk up a limp economy (it did, a little), but the country was in no mood for Laffer Curve mumbo-jumbo. Those who find themselves on the wrong end of France's unequal pensions system have a just grievance – but to millions at the other end of the equation, the pension is a bulwark against economic uncertainty and hardship.
Much of this will sound wearily familiar to seasoned observers of French politics. It is the established privilege of French voters to elect presidents on the promise of radical reforms, and then throw themselves energetically into preventing the reforms from taking place. What is happening to Macron happened to Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
Yet, the 'social crisis' identified in that poll betokens a mood that is rather different from what went before. A decade of falling real wages, economic stagnation, and attrition of small businesses has frayed the social fabric of France. People long for a time when their families could reasonably expect to enjoy the best produce, the smartest clothes and a choice of decent restaurants in which to eat out two or three times a week.
Those times are gone, and in their place is a lowering, demoralising inertia, manifested in a spread of cut-price retail chains, second-hand clothes stalls in the markets, shuttered shops, and fast-food outlets replacing beloved restaurants and cafés. That some sections of the workforce continue to enjoy shorter hours, better pensions and stronger workplace rights, not just than those who lack their combative strength, but also than competitors in other economies, is hard to overlook. Something, almost everyone agrees, has to be done. That, paradoxically, was part of the original impulse behind the gilets jaunes movement – the perception that the essence of French life was being eroded, and that something must be done.
But what? Macron has had to fight every sort of fury on the streets to get even a diluted version of his labour market, environmental and social security reforms into force. The past week's eruption of popular protest tells anyone who cares to listen that the pensions battle will be the toughest resistance he has yet faced. And it is only just beginning.