Gaulois réfractaires?

Arthur Goldhammer
2 December 2019

This poll was called to my attention by a reader, Frédéric Lefebvre-Naré. It purports to show that while 75% of the French believe that pension reform is necessary, 64% do not trust the present government to produce an equitable reform.

These results epitomize Macron’s problem. He has said that “les Gaulois son réfractaires aux réformes,” but the truth seems to be rather that they are hostile to him, distrustful of his intentions, and afraid of being duped if they assent to sweeping changes of their social model.

But perhaps this assessment is unfair to Macron. It is common in recent years to see polls suggesting that “the people” of this or that country favor massive though vaguely specified reforms yet to find actual, concrete reform proposals rejected on the grounds that the speifics are unpleasant or that an existing government, despite being duly elected, cannot be trusted to achieve the desired end. This is one of the recurring paradoxes of democracy at a time when hard choices seem to be necessary.

Still, that is no reason to let Macron off the hook too easily. He has earned the distrust of the electorate. Now he has to win it back. How he handles the events of Dec. 5 and after will likely prove whether he is or is not equipped to do so.

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6 Comments

  • Geoffy says:

    The reaction to Black Block violence may be more important abroad than in France. Macron, to his great delight I’m sure, is now the face of the EU. I can imagine an undecided British voter watching images of burning cars and asking “Do we really want to be part of that?” Coming a week before the vote, the French strike could make a big impact.

  • marcel says:

    To me this pension reform is necessary to reduce the public deficit and perennity of the french social model. It also simplify the 40+ pensions schemes, from the paris opera to the comedie-francaise to the public transport to the senate and house of representatives: each entity has its own state pension scheme, some losing money.

    very true geoffy, who wants to be in an union with lecturing french citizens denying in very conservative, selfsish and violent ways reforms that have been applied in other eu states.

    very true art, democracy has many paradox especially in france where procrastination towards reforms has been a constant ? president macron and pm philippe are the first to tackle appropriately this.
    Albeit easier, the reform on pay-as-you-earn-income tax has been a brilliant success, not even talked about these days. This country was so late on this too for the wrong ideological reasons.

    In essence, as tocqueville wrote in 1830s, reconciling equality and liberty is a dead end.
    Can we all live in this strike mess together ? I don’t know and am rather pessimistic.
    Unfairness and totalitarianism of “some people” here is real.

    a concerned french citizen

  • Bernard says:

    You remembered Aron’s “ce peuple est encore dangereux ” with such a propos a year ago. This not the time to forget it. I do suspect that Macron is in serious trouble.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    Oh, thanks for the mention — even if it’s a bot painful to deserve it thanks to a sarkozist influence channel.

    As yours (Art), my feeling is balanced. Pensions reform just does not answer to any acute request by the people. These who pushed it since years and years are think tanks / intellectuals, CFDT/CGC and UDF/MoDem in the first place, including myself for such a tiny part (!). Yes the problem it addresses exists, and is acknowledged by most people, yet the problem isn’t problematic enough to undergo so broad a change — it seems. After all, not many countries did it (yes, Sweden…).

    And Emmanuel Macron (and his quasi alter ego, Edouard Philippe) also played a part. As you write it, Macron finessed the Gilets Jaunes by pushing the game until an election (June 2019) they weren’t at all prepared to run (not to say, to win). So he let the French before the choice “Me or chaos”, and a good 20% of them chose him, which was enough, in front of no alternative. But many of the 20% were reluctant, for sure. I can’t anymore meet anybody who seems to understand where this administration intends to go (if anywhere else that remain in place, the Hollande way). Well, still some columnists or senior politicians (including local ones) appreciate the “rational” approach, as opposed to the many dangers of “populist” politics. For sure, on the “0 = heart to 10 = brain” scale, Macron may approach 9. But rationalism never provided, as far as I know, the support basis for any deep change.

    So, “thought experiment” : if the head of state was approaching 1 on the same scale, and was in favor of a pensions reform looking like “get the same pension rights for any 1 € you gave”, would he/she succeed better and push less people in the streets? I doubt to. Heartful approaches of politics may work in front of unescapable tragedies, in these moments when people just have to accept the previous world is lost, and gather their courage to build another one. So far, State debt or the little nightmares in our pensions system just don’t look like that.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    (spellchecker fixed… even if the expression remains approximative !)

    Oh, thanks for the mention — even if it’s a bit painful to deserve it thanks to a sarkozist influence channel.

    As yours (Art), my feeling is balanced. Pensions reform just does not answer to any acute request by the people. These who pushed it since years and years are think tanks / intellectuals, CFDT/CGC and UDF/MoDem in the first place, including myself for such a tiny part (!). Yes the problem it addresses exists, and is acknowledged by most people, yet the problem isn’t problematic enough to undergo so broad a change — it seems. After all, not many countries did it (yes, Sweden…).

    And Emmanuel Macron (and his quasi alter ego, Edouard Philippe) also played a part. As you write it, Macron finessed the Gilets Jaunes by pushing the game until an election (June 2019) they weren’t at all prepared to run (not to say, to win). So he let the French before the choice “Me or chaos”, and a good 20% of them chose him, which was enough, in front of no alternative. But many of the 20% were reluctant, for sure. I can’t anymore meet anybody who seems to understand where this administration intends to go (if anywhere else that remain in place, the Hollande way). Well, still some columnists or senior politicians (including local ones) appreciate the “rational” approach, as opposed to the many dangers of “populist” politics. For sure, on the “0 = heart to 10 = brain” scale, Macron may approach 9. But rationalism never provided, as far as I know, the support basis for any deep change.

    So, “thought experiment” : if the head of state was approaching 1 on the same scale, and was in favor of a pensions reform looking like “get the same pension rights for any 1 € you gave”, would he/she succeed better and push less people in the streets? I doubt so. Heartful approaches of politics may work in front of unescapable tragedies, in these moments when people just have to accept the previous world is lost, and gather their courage to build another one. So far, State debt or the little nightmares in our pensions system just don’t look like that.

  • Roy Price says:

    Harmonizing 40+ different pension systems has obvious merit but it will not solve three far bigger problems. 1) French retirees get a much bigger share of national income than in other countries, almost double according to some studies. That means correspondingly less cash and less incentive for those who work. 2) Most French people do not understand, or even believe, that pensions need not be a state monopoly. Countries where the state system avoids poverty for the elderly but encourage everyone to provide the rest individually work much better. 3) Highly productive people are forced, almost manu militari, to retire around age 65. This applies to everyone, at all levels, who work in hospitals, schools or scientific research, and almost everyone working in a large organization, private as well as public. The economic waste is horrendous. The human costs to individuals is tragic.

    It’s a good thing that Marcron is young. He has decades of postponed reforms to catch up on. He surely does not have solutions to all of France’s problems, much less those of Europe and Nato, but his French political opponents offer no solutions at all.

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