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Correspondence from Paris. France’s pension reform, the sign of a democracy in crisis. Why are the French so angry? 

Only ten months after his re-election, French President Emmanuel Macron, who wanted to forcibly push his pension reform, is facing an unprecedented political crisis. The French are mobilising not only against the extension of the legal retirement age to 64, but also against a denial of democracy, the practice of solitary governing, without listening to the people.

Marina Rafenberg, a French-Greek journalist based in Greece since September 2014, correspondent for Le Monde in Athens and contributor for Agence France Presse and other French publications (Le magazineGEO, Le Courrier des Balkans, Le Journal du Dimanche), explains for PressOne where the anger of the French, who have been protesting against the pension reform for almost two weeks, actually stems from.

I left France more than seven years ago. I am a correspondent in Greece for the newspaper Le Monde. But when I arrived in Paris a few days ago, I found my country angrier than ever, and the French people more tired than ever of not being heard by their leaders. Transport is at a standstill, garbage collectors are on strike, high schools and universities are occupied by students, the situation is explosive.


In Athens too, a series of demonstrations has been ongoing since the end of February, following the rail disaster that killed 57 people. In Greece, the demonstrators are denouncing the government’s lack of action to preserve public services, expressing their frustration with a government that does not heed the warnings of the unions about the failings of the railway system and that does not listen to young people, who are up in arms about police violence and thirsty for social justice. 

For almost a decade, the Greeks have been subjected to harsh austerity measures imposed by the country’s creditors (European Central Bank, European Union, International Monetary Fund). Stunned by austerity, falling wages and rising unemployment, the Greeks have acted with resignation in recent years and there weren’t any major mobilisations. They only woke up a few months before the legislative elections, upset by the death of those young students in a train accident that could have been avoided if the Greek state had been more protective to its people.

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At the end of the day, in both countries the aspirations of the young people for a social state and against all forms of authoritarianism are the same. The same crisis of confidence in a power that is disconnected from the concerns of the population is present. The same violence in the management of outbreaks during demonstrations can be observed.

In Paris, on March 23rd, the French population marched relentlessly, with enthusiasm and determination, in gigantic processions – 3.5 million people took to the streets in France according to the General Confederation of Labour -, arousing the admiration of some Greeks. „At least they are fighting for their rights,” one Greek was pointing out on a social network. 

The demonstrations were generally peaceful, but were marred by violence at the end, with police claiming that around 1,500 „thugs” had infiltrated Paris, at the end of the march route. Rubbish bins were burnt, Molotovs and stones were thrown at the police, who responded with tear gas and bludgeons.

The television channels and government representatives were quick to accuse the extreme left in order to discredit the peaceful movement and to scare that part of the French people that are afraid of chaos. On social networks and in some media, testimonies of forceful police arrests are multiplying. In an audio recording obtained by Le Monde, a young man is humiliated by the motorised brigade, who hurl homophobic and racist insults at him. One officer even threatens the protester – of Chadian origins – that he’ll make him leave the French territory. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, declared herself alarmed on Friday, March 24, by the „excessive use of force” against demonstrators in France.

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„Sporadic acts of violence by some demonstrators or other reprehensible acts by others during a demonstration cannot justify the excessive use of force by state agents. Nor are such acts sufficient to deprive peaceful demonstrators of their right to freedom of assembly,” she continued. 

The NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also pointed out that journalists covering the rallies were „subjected to numerous arbitrary arrests, assaults and intimidation by the security forces”, despite the fact that they were all „clearly identified” as press professionals.

For the 10th time in a row, on March 28th, French trade unions called for demonstrations against the pension reform which plans to shift the legal retirement age to 64 in 2030 and to accelerate the extension of the contribution period to 43 years from 2027. This reform was adopted on March 16th by way of Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows the government to „forcibly pass” a law without needing an absolute majority in the National Assembly. 

Since three quarters of the French people are against this measure, this passage by force has crystallised the anger of the population. The words of President Emmanuel Macron too. On Tuesday March 21st, shortly before the demonstration, he declared that the „crowd” in the street had „no legitimacy in front of the people who express themselves sovereignly through their elected representatives”. 


He failed to mention that the latter had not been able to vote for or against the bill because of the use of Article 49.3, and that a motion of censure presented by the opposition failed by only nine votes. After his televised appearance, polls have shown that more than 70% of the people who had watched were convinced by the president’s intervention, who was trying to justify the need for this reform. In the demonstrations, Emmanuel Macron is depicted in full regalia as King Louis XVI, who was executed in 1793 during the French Revolution. To add insult to injury, on March 28th the French president was due to welcome King Charles III to the Château de Versailles. The visit was eventually cancelled due to the unrest in France.

The president’s arrogant tone, his disdain for the „crowd”, his solitary practice of power, ignoring the unions, all these had already been decried by his opponents and by the French people during the „yellow vests” movement that started in October 2018, following the increase in the price of car fuel and during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

During his re-election in 2022 against Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right party, Le Rassemblement National, Emmanuel Macron had promised to have understood that he had to review his method of governing.  „The French are tired of reforms that come from above,” he said a few weeks later. 

The day after the results of the second round of the 2022 presidential elections, Pierre Rosanvallon, a specialist in the history of democracy and the French political model, said on France Inter radio: „If the current president has become a great professional diplomat (…), he is still a not very advanced student in terms of listening to society, and if we had to put him on a track for personal progress in the coming years, it would be in this area, that of listening, empathy and sensible understanding of citizens”.  If the president would not make progress in this area, the historian warned, it would be „in the streets and through outbreaks of violence that a whole range of anger and frustration could manifest itself”. 

Pierre Ronsavallon was obviously not listened to by the President of the Republic. 

Behind this rather late mobilisation of French youth on the issue of pensions, there is an aspiration for more democracy, for a renewal of the exercise of one’s power as a citizen, which cannot be limited to voting and elections. For Pierre Rosanvallon, democracy cannot be summed up by showing up at ballot boxes every five years. The State must be an actor of consultation.

Yet France, like other European countries, is suffering from a crisis of representation. A gulf separates elected representatives from citizens. French voters systematically vote to block the extreme right and not for a programme, out of conviction or ideology. Absenteeism is constantly increasing and candidates are only elected by a minority of citizens. 


This crisis of our democratic systems is, in the end, the most serious threat. If European countries like France fail to keep their democracy alive and sink into an authoritarianism which is far from the ideals that guided the creation of a European community after the Second World War, they risk going down into abyss. 

Iran is already delighted to see the European country usually preaching on human rights sinking into chaos and ironically called on France on March 24th to avoid violence and to „listen” to the demonstrators. According to a recent Ifop/Fiducial poll for the JDD and Sud Radio, it is also the extreme right, Rassemblement National, which is strengthened by this current protest, and by the exercise of power by a president who clearly no longer seems to represent all French people. 

The fate of the reform is now in the hands of the Constitutional Council, which will determine whether its content and the way in which it was debated comply with the Constitution. The mobilisation does not seem to be running out of steam. Every day, spontaneous rallies happen in major cities. President Emmanuel Macron’s second term in office has only just begun, but announces itself long and complicated.


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