The postponement of a state visit to France by King Charles III had become almost inevitable: The optics of President Emmanuel Macron dining with the British monarch at the Château de Versailles as Paris burned were not just bad, they would have looked like a brazen provocation to the blue-collar workers leading a wave of demonstrations and strikes across the country.
Those massive protests have shifted in character over the past week. They have become angrier, and in some cities, more violent — especially after nightfall. They have been less about the fury over the raising of the retirement age to 64 from 62, and more about Macron and the way he rammed the law through parliament without a full vote.
Finally, they have broadened into something approaching a constitutional crisis.
“We have moved from a social crisis on the subject of retirement to the beginnings of democratic crisis,” Laurent Berger, leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest and most moderate labor union in France, said in an interview. “Anger is rising, and before us we have a president who does not see that reality.”
Graffiti scrawled on the wall of one Paris building — “You elect me, I decide, and you shut up” — summed up a growing view of Macron as a top-down, dismissive ruler waving away the people. Another — “Charles III, do you know the guillotine?” — captured the way the now-canceled royal visit had led to a conflation of the British king and a French president seen by his critics as monarchical.
France likes to dream of revolution, ever reenacting the popular uprising of 1789 that led to the guillotining of the king and queen and the abolition of the monarchy three years later. The country is almost certainly not on the brink of some new transformative convulsion.
But the French seem to feel Macron crossed a red line.
He imposed his will to secure a law that never got voted on by the lower house of parliament, at a time when polls showed two-thirds of the people opposed the measure. His support has plunged to 28%, according to polls, the lowest since the start of the yellow-vest social uprising in 2018.
Article 2 of the French Constitution says that the principle of the republic is “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Article 3 says that “national sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives and by means of a referendum.”
But Article 49.3, now used 100 times since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 and 11 times by the government of Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister chosen by Macron last summer, allows the government to push through a bill without a vote as long as it puts its own survival on the line in a parliamentary vote.
The government narrowly survived this no-confidence vote this week.
Of course, a vote on a bill and a vote on the survival of a government are two different things. They carry different weight.
Indeed, it is precisely because Macron judged that his bill raising the retirement age might not survive a vote, but his government stood a better chance of doing so, that he opted to use the top-down 49.3, viewed by his critics as anti-democratic.
It was a risky gamble, and the blowback has been intense.
A blog hosted by Mediapart, an online investigative website, suggested that a more accurate version of Article 3 of the constitution would be: “National sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives and by means of a referendum, except in exceptional cases where the wish of the sovereign people is judged inappropriate by the president.”
The growing rejection of the all-powerful presidency conceived by Charles de Gaulle for the Fifth Republic, after the parliamentary chaos of the Fourth Republic, was fanned by Macron’s intransigent television interview this week.
In it, he said he would “not accept either insurrectionists or factions” at a time when “the United States lived what it lived at the Capitol.”
Many people found Macron’s analogy between the French protests against an unpopular law, which only lurched into violence over the past 10 days, and the 2021 mob storming of the Capitol in Washington provocative.
“What we have seen is the extreme verticality of Mr. Macron’s power,” Berger said. “Our union would like to engage in negotiation and reach compromise, but for that you need two.”
Since January, he said, he and his union had not been received by Macron, Borne or Olivier Dussopt, the labor minister.
In the television interview, Macron also said he felt a solemn sense of responsibility to ensure that the French pension system remained viable, arguing that this was impossible with active workers being asked to support ever more retirees living longer.
The overhaul, in Macron’s view, is essential for a stable and dynamic economy. Earlier economic reforms during his presidency have led to a sharp drop in unemployment. Job creation and foreign investment have surged. The French tech sector has grown exponentially.
But much of France is now too angry to listen to Macron’s economic lessons.
“More people are at a point of combat, and they don’t want to listen to the language of moderation,” said Guy Groux, a specialist on French unions at Sciences Po in Paris. “Protesters are splitting off from the unions and going into the streets all night.”
Another big demonstration and strikes have been called for Tuesday, one reason for the postponement of the British royal visit. With more than 1 million people in the streets Thursday, according to the Interior Ministry (union estimates were much higher), the protests show no sign of ebbing.
Nor has Macron shown any sign of making a conciliatory gesture.
“It’s time for Mr. Macron to show empathy, to cool things down, to reassure people,” Berger said, calling for dialogue and a pause in the application of the law. “He needs to listen to the French heartbeat.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Berger added, “We put the human back at the center of life and did some amazing things. And now suddenly we revert to where we were before. You can’t do that. People want consideration, they want to be heard, and they want to be protected.”
For now, there is little sign of that from the government.
But, said Philippe Labro, a writer and political commentator, the last-minute cancellation of the visit of King Charles III suggested that “the centers of power are now afraid.”