Macron Unreformed

Madeleine Schwartz; photo by Carleen Coulter

Madeleine Schwartz; photo by Carleen Coulter

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

On January 19 protests and strikes broke out in cities and towns across France in response to an unpopular proposal by President Emmanuel Macron to raise the basic retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. Last month the measure was forced through parliament despite widespread opposition from the left and right, and contrary to, as Madeleine Schwartz wrote in the NYR Online last week, the advice of French economists: “You won’t find many economists defending this reform,” one tells her. The civil unrest has continued unabated and now enters its tenth week.

Schwartz, a former editor at The New York Review, now lives in Paris, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Dial, an online magazine that has just published its third issue. Taking up the mantle of the old American publication of the same name, the new Dial aims to be “the world’s little magazine.” Each issue observes a theme—reproductive rights, energy, reparations—in its international permutations.

This week, I e-mailed with Schwartz to discuss what might come next for the protests in France, the floundering left, and what can be gained with an international perspective.

Daniel Drake: Last week Thursday, a few days before your essay was published, a million people participated in protests across France. On Tuesday this week, there were 750,000 people in the streets of Paris alone, and the Eiffel Tower was closed. The protests do not seem to be going away. Is there a possibility that Macron will reverse course? Or if he does not, what do you think will end the unrest? Are we looking at another 1968?

Madeleine Schwartz: Part of the reason that the anger about this reform has sent people into the streets is that there aren’t otherwise many democratic avenues in which to debate it. To pass it, President Macron used a constitutional tool that allows him to legislate without support from parliament. This has occasioned a no-confidence vote that the government narrowly won, but also warnings from constitutional experts and an ongoing review by the constitutional court. As a result, there’s a good deal of uncertainty about what the final law will actually look like.

For many people in France, this series of maneuvers highlights how centralized power in the country is. While pictures in American media have focused on Paris—where the streets have been, indeed, filled with garbage—there have been protests throughout the country, including in small towns. Much of the anger about this reform represents other anxieties: increased inequality, the rising cost of living, and a sense that many French people have that if they’re outside of Paris they’re totally cut off. 

We have published several articles about the floundering Socialists—how is the broader French left responding to this crisis? What have the counterproposals from politicians in the NUPES alliance been? And what about the right? Is there a sense that Marine Le Pen’s party may be gaining support?

Everyone is floundering. The dwindling remains of France’s center right have now split; Macron’s party appears increasingly divided. And the left, while buoyed by its opposition, faces some awkward disagreements about nearly every policy point. There have also been disagreements between the unions and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party. All of this benefits the far right. Polls show that if the government were dissolved today, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) would have a seven-point gain in seats in the National Assembly. 

More striking is just how thoroughly integrated the RN has become into the national debate. Last June’s election saw the largest ever number of RN members enter the National Assembly. They are now well on their way to becoming a political party like any other: they participate in debates, political pundits comment on their moves. They’ve managed so far to be seen as a “serious” party, unlike the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. The cordon sanitaire is fraying.

Your essay’s contention, that Macron proceeded heedless of evidence or advice from experts about how to address the looming pension crisis, would suggest that his reform has different ends in mind. What might he hope to get out of this?

Probably less than he thought he would get. Much of this is a mistake in political calculus. When Macron ran for election in 2017, he presented himself as a great reformer who would bring France into the contemporary era. The last few years—between Covid and the energy crisis in Europe—stymied many of these reforms. Now in his second term, he’s eager to reform, reform, reform, but has lost much of his support and must rely on Les Républicains, a right-wing party, to pass legislation.

As the economists I talked to for my piece noted, there’s a lot that’s missing from this current pension reform. It’s actually pretty narrow. It doesn’t do much to solve the fact that France has forty-two separate, industry-specific pension plans, for example—a real problem in an economy where people change professions many times over the course of a career. Instead it focuses on the question of age—which just so happens to be a centerpiece of the Républicains’ pension reform. Many political commentators in France believe that Macron chose this approach to ensure that his reform would pass, that he could point to his legacy as a reformer. The strategy backfired. 


The American attitude about the situation in France seems to be a sort of bemusement and envy—of their retirement age as well as their seeming capacity for protest. Is there a strain of conservative political thought in France that points to America’s system—no pensions for anyone!—as a possible solution?  

I have an American family and a French family; I grew up trying to explain one to the other. So I bristle when I hear Americans share silly stereotypes about the lazy French, or French people complain about crass Americans. For better or for worse, this is much of my professional life.

Among the stereotypes about the French social system is the idea that things in France are “free”: healthcare, childcare, pensions. Individual French people pay dearly into the social system for these services, and this is part of why they have so many expectations from it. 

In recent years, as the country’s population has aged, many of these social systems have come up against potential deficits: pensions, of course, but also the healthcare system, which is really struggling on the other side of the pandemic. There’s been a disturbing rise in medical deserts in rural parts of the country. The social welfare system—set up after World War II, in a country with very different demographics—will no doubt need to change to survive. This is true not just in France but in most of Europe. How to change it—in a way that is equitable and fair—is a question many people are grappling with. But very few French would like the country to become more American. 

You are now three issues into The Dial. Have you encountered any surprises so far, as you edit the pieces or read submissions and pitches? Have there been unexpected patterns or contradictions across the essays, and perhaps therefore across the globe?

Whether it’s the rise of the far right or our unequal world economy or climate change, there’s hardly a problem these days that isn’t an international one. Our goal, with The Dial, is to create a space where journalists and writers from around the world can share what they’re seeing on the ground. For readers, it’s a chance to have a window into what’s happening elsewhere and to discover new writers and ideas about the big changes that they are also facing. 

In our issue on reproductive rights, for example, we had a piece on how American evangelicalism has shaped Ghana’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, and another about how Turkey’s president has been espousing the great replacement theory—a staple of authoritarian discourse in the US and Europe. Juxtaposing this reporting can also bring out new wrinkles and questions. In our issue on energy, we had several articles on the downsides of “clean” energy—pictures from the environmental devastation caused by lithium mining and an investigation into the poisoning of a town through battery production. It’s a constant process of discovery. There’s so much beyond what’s featured in an English-language media diet.

What are some non-English publications—or writers for that matter—that you are reading lately, or that you’d recommend to our readers?

One of the best parts of my job is reading and perusing publications from around the world. The Dial publishes journalism in translation, and we have partner magazines all over the place: we work with revista piauí in Brazil, Reporters in Ukraine, and Átlátszó in Hungary. Reading our partners’ reporting always gives me a sneaky feeling of finding things out before they are deemed important by editors in New York; it has also given me access to the wonderful varieties of forms nonfiction writing can take. Roundtable, narrative, memoir, oral history…there are many ways to bring the truth to readers.

And in my spare time—well, revolution is in the air, so I’ve just picked up A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel’s novel about Robespierre and co. 

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