The annual May Day march is as much a fixture of Parisian life as fresh croissants in the morning and riots in the suburbs at night. This year, it was also the 50th anniversary of les événements—“the events,” as the French call them, of May 1968 that led to riots, strikes, and a generational changing of the guard. After 1968, the self-proclaimed vanguard of the revolution marched through Europe’s institutions and made themselves exceedingly comfortable. Now, they are the old guard, either pensioned off or fighting a rearguard action against “neoliberalism” and other forces of Americanized depravity that threaten the 35-hour work week. 

“This is their last chance,” a Parisian friend told me just before May Day. Indeed, the generation of 1968 is losing power. A new president, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned against the status quo, lucked out in the 2017 elections as the least-worst candidate and is now trying to push through a program of technocratic reforms that, if successful, will reduce unemployment, establish France as a global force in technology, and transform the social contract. The terms of that contract are good for workers, especially older ones. The law favors strong unions and weak employers—so much so that many small businesses cannot afford to fire unsatisfactory employees. 

Last August, as the French prepared for la rentrée—the annual “re-entry” after their long and lazy summer—Macron announced a plan to overhaul France’s stifling labor laws. The measures include cutting the 3,000-page labor code; allowing the small- and medium-sized businesses that employ about half of France’s workers to negotiate pay deals directly with their workers, instead of through a national union; and cutting the minimum severance pay for two years’ employment from six months’ of salary to three months’. A late August poll reported that 90 percent of French people agreed that labor reform was necessary, but 60 percent were worried by Macron’s proposals. In a not-unrelated development, Macron’s approval rating had slid from 57 percent in July to 40 percent in late August.

This did not stop him, however. “France is not a reformable country,” he told a group of expatriates when he visited Bucharest, Romania last August. “Many have tried, and they have not succeeded because the French hate reform.” France, Macron said, was “a society of entitlement and privileges.” What it needed was not reform but “transformation.” The French need to think globally, he said, and the government should “free up the energy of the workforce.” Not quite a revolution, then, but a sharp shift in laws, values, and lifestyle.

Last September, the left-wing CGT (Confédération general de travail, or General Confederation of Labor) turned out more than quarter of a million people in protests across France. Later that month, the hard-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) claimed that more than 150,000 had rallied to hear its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, at a rally in Paris, though the police reckoned that only 30,000 turned out. Both this figure and the figure for the CGT’s rally were lower than those for similar protests in 2016.

The Left is in disarray. Macron, exploiting it, has split the unions. Unlike his predecessor, socialist François Hollande, Macron announced his intentions when running for the presidency. He also attempted to negotiate with the unions before launching his labor-reform program in September. So the biggest public-sector union, then CFDT (Confédération française democratique du travail, or French Democratic Confederation of Labor), complained about the final draft of the reforms but refrained from joining the protests, as did the biggest private-sector union, the Force Ouvrière (Workers’ Force).

This year’s May Day march thus carried a heavier symbolic charge than usual, and the numbers were telling. The weather was good, but turnout was low—20,000 if you believe the police, 55,000 if you prefer the word of the organizers. There is always a ritual aspect to these demonstrations in France. They are a form of historical séance, at which the spirits of 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, and 1968 announce their presence with a whiff of tear gas and the heavy tread of the CRS, the French police’s crowd-control units. Since 1968, May Day has been a highlight of the season for both the CRS and France’s richly varied universe of hard-left and anarchist groups. Both sides are always impatient to get the marching over with and start the fighting.

They got their wish: the level of violence was higher than usual. Police said that 1,200 masked and hooded members of left-anarchist groups known as Black Blocs—the Gallic equivalent of Antifa—impeded the marchers and then got down to business. Four policemen were injured, some 200 rioters were arrested, and 109 were retained in custody. Tear gas and water cannon were fired, shops and cars burnt, and a branch of McDonalds was put to the torch, with traditional revolutionary ardor. 

If this is the best that the opposition can manage, though, then Macron has a real chance of succeeding where his predecessors, right or left, have failed. It’s always tempting to apply Anglo-Saxon parallels to French politics. The French live in their own world, and the English Channel is, ideologically speaking, wider than the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland. But here, the parallels are obvious. The ideological path to reform was broken first from the right by Sarkozy, who was attacked as a “Thatcherite” and “Reaganite” for doing so; and then from the left by Hollande, who attempted the centrist triangulations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair but fell on his face.

Macron has the means to push France toward reform. His party, En Marche! (On the March!), is an instrument invented purely to serve his presidency; its initials are his, and so are all of its ideas. At the time of the 2017 election, En Marche! had no representation in the National Assembly. But the collapse of the traditional parties of the left and right, and the threat of Marine Le Pen and the Front National, gave Macron control of the assembly in the subsequent elections. Macron then used the executive powers of the presidency to cull the Senate, the legislature’s upper house.

Macron is a populist in technocrat’s clothing. He has a five-year term and no serious opposition. He may be more popular abroad than at home, but his background in finance and the civil service has taught him how to use the extensive powers of the French state—and even to undo its authority over the market. And the constitution of the Fifth Republic gives him enormous power, even greater than that of an American president. It is entirely feasible that Macron will achieve his goal of reducing unemployment from 9.5 percent—twice the rate in Britain or Germany—to 7 percent by 2022. It is highly possible, too, that he will open up the labor market and the French economy in general. And, when you consider the weak showing of the labor unions and the complete disarray of other parties, it seems highly likely that he will push French politics out of the shadow of 1968.

It also seems likely that the French, while they may profit from all this, will not thank Macron for it. In this, as in his utter contempt for politics as usual, his tendency toward on-mic candor, his background in business, his trust that the business of government is business, his conviction that his historical significance matters more than his approval rating, and his appeal to the distressed center of public opinion, Macron closely resembles Donald Trump. It is one of the curiosities of our time that American media praise Macron for the same attitudes that they condemn in Trump. Macron is lucky that way, just as he was lucky to benefit in the 2017 election from the rise of the Front National and the collapse of the conservative favorite, François Fillon, in a corruption scandal. If Macron’s luck holds, he may well transform France. 

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


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