Both sides have reason to be satisfied with the mobilization of Dec. 5. The unions are pleased that the strike received broad support. The number of demonstrators was large, though not unprecedented by French standards. The government is pleased that order was maintained, in no small part thanks to careful planning by the unions, which were able to maintain discipline within their ranks. Whether this will continue as the strike unfolds remains to be seen.
What is clearer than ever, however, is that the two sides are speaking different languages. The government, taking its lead from the investment banker-in-chief, has examined the spreadsheets and determined that the deficit of France’s 42 separate pension funds is likely to rise to more than 1% of GDP by 2025. In their view, this is unacceptable, and the only way to deal with it is, first, to “rationalize” the system by combining the 42 separate caisses into one–they call this the phase of “social reform”–and then to phase in, more or less gradually, rules changes to slow the outflow of cash–“budgetary reform,” which is precisely what the strikers fear is the real purpose of the entire exercise, which in a sense it is.
The strikers, on the other hand, see what one of them called “the world’s best social model” and a government out to “destroy” it. This model is what the French like to call un acquis–the word speaks volumes. Pensions, on this view, are the spoils of war, the booty won after years of bloody struggle in the trenches. This is not a false image, though to the managers with their eyes fixed on the bottom line of the budget spreadsheet, it is at best a romanticized one that ignores the alleged necessity to keep the system solvent (while, conversely, the managers might be accused of ignoring other options in their zeal to make things simpler for themselves while eliminating potential political roadblocks along the way).
The result is an impasse in which for the moment dialogue seems impossible. The demonstrators have the wind in their sails, the government finds itself on the back foot, and as yet the inconveniences of transport paralysis have not exhausted the patience of the broader public.
On top of this there is a widespread desire to vent displeasure with the president. Having successfully finessed the Gilets Jaunes uprising, he has regained some of the pride that so many of his countrymen find so irritating. While they applauded his iron handshake in his first confrontation with Trump, they viewed his second encounter with the American strongman–“Let’s be serious,” he told Trump to his face at the NATO gathering–as a false façade intended to disguise his weakness at home, where he survives only because of the unique powers of the presidency under the constitution and the fact that the only political alternative is the unacceptable Marine Le Pen.
So while Trump may have been the laughingstock of the coterie of “world leaders” consisting of Macron, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson, and … Princess Anne, the laughingstock in France is Macron, who takes himself for de Gaulle while in the eyes of many of his countrymen he is closer to Giscard d’Estaing–a president elected by a fortuitous combination of circumstances and maintained on sufferance for fear of the alternative.
For now, however, Macron’s luck has held, and the status quo remains: a total impasse at the level of dialogue that nevertheless leaves room for the government to temporize and maneuver at the level of policy. So the pension reform will be “adjusted” and “ameliorated” in the weeks ahead, while the strikes continue, tempers fray, and the parties rearrange themselves in a desperate search for the right combination to beat Macron without handing the country to Le Pen.