Intense political conflict has consumed France for more than two months now, with President Emmanuel Macron pushing an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Protests and strikes began in January, when he introduced the plan, and escalated after he used an arcane constitutional tactic to pass a bill on it without any vote in the National Assembly. That move led to two rare no-confidence motions in the legislature, the first of which Macron’s government barely survived.

Meanwhile, the protests and strikes have continued—with more than a million people recently taking to the streets for a day of demonstration—but havoc is now increasingly accompanying them: Dozens of government buildings have been vandalized and burned, and the Council of Europe has condemned excessive force in the response by French police. How has a bill changing the retirement age by just two years led to all of this?

Marc Weitzmann is a French journalist and the author of 12 books, including Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). To Weitzmann, the retirement issue and the way Macron’s handled it have brought fundamental tensions to the surface of French political life—tensions within the country’s traditional political culture, and tensions between this culture and Macron’s more contemporary style of governing.

The immediate effects have been intense disarray—in the National Assembly as well as in the streets—along with a major power shift that neither Macron nor many analysts of the French scene expected: a return of labor unions as significant players in French politics. But there’s potentially a bigger shift beyond the chaos of the moment: a strengthening of the far right as champions of order. Soon, France’s highest court will rule on the law—and a possible referendum over it—which could settle the issue at Macron’s expense. Or it could go the other way and “compound the crisis of authority in France.”

Eve Valentine: What do you think these protests say about French life right now—and Macron’s position in it?

Marc Weitzmann: They say a great deal. There’s a deep crisis of authority and power in this country—and you can see different aspects of this crisis converging in the protests.

At the heart of it, France’s power structure isn’t working anymore. France has long been a very centralized country with an enduring nostalgia for absolute power. Its current system of government, the Fifth Republic—which was founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958—works almost like a secular monarchy, with tremendous power concentrated in the presidency. In some ways, Macron wants to fit the part of a Fifth Republic secular monarch; but in many ways, he just doesn’t fit it—and doesn’t want to fit it—above all, because he’s too much of a technocrat, delegating and deferring to a host of specialist policy experts.

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