LEO MCKINSTRY: The infantile demonstrators in France refuse to face economic reality

Some years ago a French civil servant called Aurelie Boullet got so frustrated about her depressing experience of working at the regional council in Aquitaine that she decided to write a book about it.

The resulting work, ironically entitled Absolutely Snowed Under, documented the soul-destroying effects of idleness.

‘It was a sheer waste of time,’ she wrote. ‘There were plenty of people and not enough work. I was getting destroyed by my job because I had nothing to do.’

On one occasion she was given an entire week just to change the typeface on a report, a task that took her 25 seconds.

Her experience was by no means untypical. The truth is that much of the French state is notorious for its waste and extravagance. Overstaffed and underworked, this bureaucratic leviathan – which exhibits many of the failings of our own NHS – drags down the French economy, heightens the tax burden, and swells the national debt.

French President Emmanuel Macron talks to media at the end of the second day of an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium

The entrance door of the city hall of Bordeaux on fire during a wild demonstration

The entrance door of the city hall of Bordeaux on fire during a wild demonstration

Yet, despite its destructive impact, reform of the sclerotic public realm appears to be almost impossible, as President Emmanuel Macron is discovering with his attempt to change France’s absurdly generous state pension.

First elected in 2017 on a platform of making the economy more dynamic and the government machine more lean, Macron is seeking to implement a package of measures designed to reform the increasingly unaffordable system, including an increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64, and a merger of 42 different state-subsidised schemes into one.

Such a programme is hardly drastic. After all, even at 64, the French retirement age will still be lower than in any other major European country. It currently stands at 67 in Italy, 66 in Britain, 65 years and seven months in Germany and 65 in Spain.

Moreover, because of longer life expectancy and the strain on their public finances, many European nations are currently in the process of raising these thresholds, with the state pension age due to go up to 67 in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain, and 66 in Belgium.

But in France, Macron’s modest plan has provoked such a wild reaction that the country has been plunged into chaos. There have been weeks of paralysing strikes and mass demonstrations, culminating in last Thursday’s ugly protests when more than one million people took to the streets.

The sense of meltdown was reinforced by the sight of the historic town hall in Bordeaux engulfed in flames, and walkouts at several oil refineries which have sparked growing fuel shortages.

Indeed, the situation grew so serious that President Macron was last week forced to call off a state visit planned by King Charles and Queen Camilla for fear of it prompting even greater unrest.

It was a profoundly humiliating move that heaped embarrassment on the President and his beleaguered Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne, both of whom now look isolated and impotent.

Protesters holds a banner that reads 'no to the Darmanin law' during a protest against the Asylum and Immigration bill of French Prime Minister Gerald Darmanin in Paris

Protesters holds a banner that reads ‘no to the Darmanin law’ during a protest against the Asylum and Immigration bill of French Prime Minister Gerald Darmanin in Paris

A spirit of epic self-indulgence prevails among the protesters, who, insulated by their cocoon of state support, have lost their sense of perspective and refuse to face up to economic or demographic realities. Rarely in modern European history can a major populist uprising have been predicated on such a weak cause. What we are really witnessing is an infantile spasm in defence of a failing status quo. As the writer Sylvain Tesson puts it: ‘France is a paradise inhabited by people who think they’re in hell.’

That strength of feeling stems partly from the country’s revolutionary traditions that go back to 1789 when the Bastille was stormed. The impulse to take to the barricades goes deep into the soul of France, not least because the overthrow of governing regimes by street agitation has so often proved effective in the past.

The final downfall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1830 can be attributed to public unrest, as can the creation of the Paris commune, which wrested power from the national government for three months in 1870 and the departure of Charles de Gaulle in 1969, who resigned after waves of student and trade union unrest.

Almost every modern French President has been blown off course by rebellion, though Macron initially proved more resilient than his predecessors when he was confronted with the so-called Gilets Jaunes, protesters named after their trademark hi-viz yellow vests, during his first term in the Elysee Palace.

Forged by anger at rising fuel prices and the cost of living crisis, the Gilets captured the popular imagination for a time but, leaderless and disorganised, they were eventually crushed by Macron.

The French President now has a far more formidable task, not least because he has sought to impose the pension change by decree without any vote in the National Assembly. It is a tactic that has exacerbated his reputation for being a quasi-monarchical autocrat, full of contempt for the will of the people.

His position is made even weaker by his having no broad base in France’s party system, for his En Marche movement was only created in 2017 as a vehicle to support his Presidency. Brilliant, eloquent but aloof, he is now a badly isolated figure, with his approval rating down to just 23 per cent. At the same time, nearly three quarters of the French public support the demonstrators against pension reform. But that just illustrates how deeply the culture of state-backed dependency and entitlement is woven into French life.

For all the present outrage, Macron’s changes are badly needed since the present arrangements are hopelessly unsustainable. The protestors like to hark back to a supposed golden age in the three decades after the war (‘Trentes Glorieuses’ or 30 Glorious Years), when the French state presided over healthy growth and was said to guarantee a comfortable retirement for all its citizens.

But this is just a nostalgic delusion. In truth, the effective retirement age in 1970 was 67 and male life expectancy was just 68.

The situation is very different today. Pensioners now account for a quarter of France’s population, have an average life expectancy of 82 – 20 years beyond retirement – and have £340billion-a-year spent on their support, the equivalent of 14 per cent of French GDP and far above the average in the developed world. Comparisons with Britain cannot be made directly, for in France there is no universal official pension. Instead, each payment depends on the amount paid in social security contributions, but the French state-run system tends to be significantly more generous than ours.

On average, French pensioners receive 74 per cent of their pre-retirement earnings, whereas the figure is just 58 per cent for the United Kingdom. In monetary terms, the average French pension is roughly £1,330 per month, whereas in Britain the full state pension will go up to £203.85 a week in April – the equivalent of £816-a-month.

But this Gallic generosity will ultimately lead to disaster unless it is checked. Putting back the retirement age and extending the period that workers make contributions could raise an additional £18billion, whereas the pensions budget is likely to have an annual deficit of over £12billion before the end of the decade if there is no change.

In the longer-term the picture is even more dire. By the middle of this century, it is estimated that, on present trends, six employed people in France will have to pay for five pensioners. ‘If we don’t enact these reforms, the French system is in danger,’ says President Macron. But those words could be applied across the entire French public sector, which is too large and uncompetitive.

Central government spending in France is worth 59 per cent of GDP, the highest level in Europe, and far more than in Britain (48.4 per cent) and Ireland (just 24.8 per cent).

In the same vein, the state payroll, at 22 per cent of the national workforce – compared to 17 per cent in Britain – is woefully uncompetitive. Reports of spectacular waste are common, like the mismanagement at a Justice Minister’s office which had 22 chauffeurs for a staff of 17 or the group of 30 civil servants in Toulon who were paid their salaries for 25 years for literally doing nothing after the water industry in their city was privatised.

This is the world that Macron pledged to transform but has so far failed to do so. If he wants to leave a worthwhile legacy and avoid becoming a lame duck President now that he is in his second and final term, he must recapture his original, radical spirit.

His only hope now is to stand firm. Surrender would condemn his Presidency to failure – and his nation to penury.

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