Opinion

In France, the past has a habit of shaping the present

The people of France don't want to retire later - and who can blame them? But where does that leave the country?

Illustration of the French Revolution

The French Revolution reminds the people of the sacrifices they have made for a system they want to keep. Image: The Granger Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

I lived in France 20 years ago for a year, and 30 years before that I lived there for four months. The French are definitely different from other Europeans. They do believe in their tradition of not accepting the rules if they disagree with them. It is almost a cliche that they will demonstrate and possibly set fire to dustbins, and at times even throw Molotov cocktails if they are driven to it.

Macron, who sees himself as a moderniser like Thatcher, has run into the biggest problem: the French believe in a quality of life that working way into old age undermines. They don’t want to be Americanised as they see it. They want to be a society that has time for the small things; like wellbeing and taking things more leisurely.

Why do millions travel to Paris and to visit the country’s beaches and pleasure spots? To eat and enjoy, and to drink their fine wines and eat their fine cheeses. Even the simplest of fare seems better served in France than almost anywhere else. So the idea that they should not retire at 62 but 64 pushes many of them into a rage. This is tearing apart the social contract that they have with each other, with their employers and with the state.

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Each year I go to a campsite half an hour from the Dunkirk ferry and next to a nuclear reactor. It is a pleasant place and I know it so well that the week spent there involves returning to many places I have loved for the last 15 years. There is order and community. There is a kind of refreshing helpfulness, a sharing of things. There is an expectation that we all click along together. This is not just a holiday but a social manners education. But the French Revolution of 1789 echoes through their minds as if to remind people that, like the Americans, they had to have a big bust-up to create the modern republic that they live under. In the US it was to sever all relationships with the mother country; with France it was the revolution that tore up the old monarchical order.

You could say that the French’s attachment to this fall-back position – we can overthrow what we don’t like – is a French version of the US’s right to carry arms, enshrined as the Second Amendment to their constitution.

Both are views of the past that dominate the present and the future. Obviously, the fact that you are 20 times more likely to be shot in the US than any other of the developed countries shows what happens to founding principles when times and nations change. Tragically, last week, a young woman with assault rifles rushed into a school in Nashville, Tennessee and murdered three children and three adults on a day when France was once again exploding at the thought of having to work longer. 

History trips up the present, with us running around in the leftovers of unfinished business. Here, according to the governor of the Bank of England, the loss of more than 130,000 older workers not returning to work after Covid has pushed the UK into the worst inflation among the developed countries. So all that inflation deepened by people in their 50s and 60s who, like the French, think that work doesn’t do it for them. Added of course to the effects of the Ukraine war’s inflationary pressures, those leaving the workforce will help create a shrinking of the economy of the UK. Fewer taxpayers, fewer economically active, less room for supporting those in need, runs the story.

Of course what the UK, the US and France will have to do something about soon is address the fact that a future young workforce will have to bear the costs of older people living longer in certain parts of society. That is one of the biggest threats to future generations. And you can understand, though not necessarily agree with, why Macron wants to keep people at work longer. A longer active life with a longer working life seems sensible, so keeping people working longer is Macron’s silver bullet for the future wellbeing of France.

I do remember the increase of pension age in the UK from 65 to 67 involved no burning bins and wrecked cars, no crippling strikes. England, though, did have a republic for 11 years between 1649 and 1660; but so divisive was the politics and so unsettled the country that they settled for a titular monarchy, a figurehead king. Our forefathers just could not agree, and that’s how we ended up with a Charlie, Billy and Harry. 

I was personally blessed by the French tradition of being pissed off with the ‘system’ every now and then. Arriving in Paris aged 21, it challenged all my narrow-minded, racist thinking and converted me to a defender of human rights, and not an abuser of them. I am therefore pleased that I could taste the legacy of 1789 in recent days. But, like many France watchers, I hope they can sort their shit out soon enough. I will, though, be taking my trip to Dunkirk irrespective of whether it’s all been sorted.  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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