We French are not lazy, that’s not what today’s strikes are about

The belief that a separate ‘French way’ exists is still deep-rooted collectively in our minds

Strikes are a cultural phenomenon in France, but they are instrumental in helping us keep our hard-earned rights
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Several English-speaking commentators have voiced similar opinions on France’s recent strikes, often a sense of bewilderment trumpeting liberal tropes on how French people live in an ‘alternative reality’ or questioning their laziness.

Read more: ‘Workers striking against French pension reform are avoiding reality’

Reforms on retirement have always been a hassle for French governments and political journalists and pundits have been writing repetitive opinion articles on the topic for the last 20 years.

It is not just the opinion pieces that repeat themselves - the current strikes are a copycat of what former President Nicolas Sarkozy experienced when he raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010, with three million people on the streets and refineries shut down.

It is not so much that French people do not want to fall in line with other European countries but rather that most unconsciously have the belief - you may call it arrogance - that another way of organising society is possible.

The legacy of General de Gaulle

It was not so long ago that presidential candidates across the political spectrum parroted on TV, radio and newspapers about their relative closeness to or similarities with General Charles de Gaulle, aware of the benefits from being associated with the towering post-World War Two French political figure.

Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, among others, all took that route during the presidential elections of 2012 and 2017.

In the 2017 election this rhetoric fell short of hampering Emmanuel Macron from getting elected on a neither-right-nor-left campaign, going against traditional party logic, and rejuvenating the prestige of the job. He was quick to pledge allegiance to the general’s legacy once he had taken office.

Gen de Gaulle’s independent position on the international scene is still very much taught in French schools, with history books often emphasising his contempt of NATO, suspicion of Americans’ warmongering nature or his policies that made France envied and respected across the globe. Such policies included social security measures, nuclear weaponry and a strong army.

France’s retirement age - while not established under Gen De Gaulle - benefits from being seen as one of France’s crowning achievements and elevated to the level of gaullisme - the French word used to characterise anything related to Gen De Gaulle.

While French people have seen these bastions of Gen de Gaulle’s time in office slowly decline, they have continued to defend the existence of these policies - showing the independent psyche of the French people, and the belief that a separate ‘French way’ exists is still deep-rooted collectively in our minds.

A protest against Macron, and Macronism

The strike is also meant to display a show of force against a president that turned more liberal than expected, and whose obstinate behaviour in regards to the retirement reform gives more reasons for unions to play their part in hopes he will be forced to back down.

Mr Macron is similar in some ways to Nick Clegg, the UK’s former deputy prime minister turned Facebook’s president of Global affairs; a politician who has understood that high political office is no longer the crowning career achievement but the best route for a seat in the European Union or a powerful role in a Silicon Valley company.

It is no secret that Mr Macron is enamoured by California, Big Tech, ubérisation and American consulting cabinets. The president seems to replicate the managerial tools from big tech companies, the forceful obligation to bow to technology often veiled behind the illusion of greater liberty and opportunities.

His presidency is often characterised as being brutal and his style arrogant, a view boosted considerably since both presidential elections he won could be considered aggressive hijacks by a president who would reveal he is not ideologically different than his predecessors.

He used a rhetorical arrogant twist against strikers as well, suggesting in a quote to BFMTV that it is not as if French people had reelected him six months ago knowing the reform was part of his agenda.

Mr Macron is not stupid - but nor are the French people.

He knows only a minority of the French population voted for him, and that French people believe he used the presidential election process to help Ms Le Pen reach the second round since she would be the easiest - or perhaps only - candidate he could win against.

Not just an impact on the old

It is notable to observe that strikers today come from all ages, the buzzing presence of French youth having right-wing commentators mocking them for caring about retiring while not having graduated with their Baccalauréat yet.

The truth is that many of my generation already know the retirement system will have disappeared by the time we could utilise it, much like my friends in medicine tell me the social security system is already over.

While it looks like France is doing better than its neighbours, our hospitals lack beds, inequalities have flourished, our level of education is declining, our elderly appear to be treated like numbers to rationalise on an Excel spreadsheet. And the list goes on.

Mr Macron’s narrative is that raising the retirement age is the condition for our survival. Many do not buy it. Not due to laziness but because they expect better from society.

Lowering the retirement age “is a central element to which French people are deeply attached. It is perceived as the necessary trajectory to ensure societal progress,” said the polling institute Ifop after carrying out a survey of French people.

That was in February 1968.

Théophile Larcher is a 29-year-old French journalist at The Connexion. He previously interned at the New York Times’ Paris bureau and the San Francisco Examiner in California. He still drinks considerable amounts of coffee despite evolving among tea-loving British journalists.

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