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Protest and Power in France

French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to bypass the National Assembly to implement his controversial pension reform arguably fueled the violence that erupted at May Day protests this year. With the government’s legitimacy fraying, the flaws in the political structure of the Fifth Republic have become glaringly apparent.

LONDON – Too much repetition can diminish the impact of even the most dramatic events. Such is the case with mass protests in France, which erupt so often and persist for so long that much of the world hardly takes notice. But the current bout of protests – which culminated in violent clashes with police on May 1 – warrants reflection about French society’s political alienation and what can be done about it.

Coming three years after the last major protests – an unusually long period of docility for France, brought about by the pandemic – the current wave of demonstrations was triggered by President Emmanuel Macron’s push to enact pension reform. Peaceful marches, millions-strong, were sustained for weeks, but to no avail: in March, Macron’s government raised the retirement age by decree, invoking Article 49.3 of the constitution to bypass the National Assembly.

Now, the protests have taken a violent turn. The May Day protesters clashed with police, leaving more than 100 officers injured and resulting in nearly 300 arrests. The extent to which this escalation can be blamed on Macron’s decision to bypass the legislature is impossible to say. But there is no doubt that many citizens viewed it as a slap in the face by a president who, following last year’s elections, no longer has the support of a parliamentary majority.