The sociopolitical crises. Not a literal nuke.
The French have to be given credit where it's due, through the angst, ecstasy and brutality of the French Revolution of 1989 and the Reign of Terror lasting till 1795 they played a critical role in establishing the modern social contract that binds the nation-state with its people. You know, liberty, equality, fraternity; something that no democratic country wanting to be taken seriously can deny as universal rights. Of course, French republicanism's initial iteration has since undergone several transformations. Along the way, the French developed a reputation for belligerence at perceived state stupidity.
Any instance of perceived, or actual misgovernance, and the French take their constitutional rights to the streets. Strikes and protests are part of the political culture. In some historiographies, the years from 1945-1975 are known as Les Trente Glorieuses (the thirty glorious years). I guess hindsight is 20/20, or perhaps rose-tinted; they had unprecedented economic growth. Yet in 1968 they toppled the 4th French Republic. What started as a nationwide strike of workers and students evolved into a full constitutional crisis.
Just giving y’all a primer as to what we’re dealing with here. A culture where strikes, demonstrations and protests are embedded in the blood and bones; a republican culture birthed by Volante Generale (the General Will of the people), by mass political demonstration and violence; because that's how practical realities, human aspirations and flaws allowed it to manifest.
The summer of 2023 has been difficult for France. It’s burning, and climate change seems to be the last thing on their mind. Instead, it’s the civil discord. The protests and riots. For some, the oppressive brutality of the state and police and the treatment of minorities. For others, it’s a perceived threat from the increasing plurality of cultures in France, spurred by immigration. A coin and its sides. For ultimately, both sides it’s the failure of state and society.
On the 27th of June, in a Paris suburb, the police stopped a Polish-registered Mercedes-AMG speeding. The cops stopped the car but the interaction with shots being fired as Nahel Merzhouk had attempted to drive off. He would die later that night. All the festering frustrations and wounds would pour out the next day.
People started to gather to protest police brutality, racial profiling and discrimination, and state indifference. But the anger soon devolved into violence and rioting. Across Paris. Then across France. The issues were not new. They had been brewing for decades. Commentators compared it to the riots of 2005, once again the result of two Muslim teenagers' death while evading the police, and the death of Adama Traore in police custody in 2016 (often viewed as France’s George Floyd moment).
France’s struggle with the integration of immigrants, especially Muslims, has also been visible in its anti-hijab policies and the backlash from Muslims and progressives. The far-right anti-immigrant political movement also illustrates this tension in France’s increasingly cosmopolitan society. In fact, the protests and riots of July from the left-wing and minority communities sparked counterprotests and violence from those with right-wing sympathies. Now left-wing or right-wing discontent, the state is supposed to guarantee harmony. But the French state has been on the defensive for much of this year. Because the neglect, compromise and bureaucratic indifference of the state appears to be felt by all sides.
At the beginning of this year starting the 19th of January, France was facing protests all over due to the government’s new pension reform bill, one that would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, in order to foot the growing bill of national income deficit. Parliament wasn’t having it, parliament was doing its democratic due diligence, but President Emmanuel Macron’s executive government forced the bill through using the controversial Article 49.3 of the constitution. As the protests raged across the country, organizations like Reporter Without Borders, the Human Rights League, and the Council of Europe criticized the state for using police intimidation and excessive force.
The use and abuse of state instruments of power take another dimension when one looks at Macron’s history of trying to control and censor; the most relevant for this context being the proposed ban on people filming the police and sharing the videos online. The proposed law was dropped in 2021 for being unconstitutional. Nonetheless, it is indicative of where Macron’s sympathies lie. Not with the people, it appears.
TLDR EU’s “Is France Heading for the 6th Republic?” is an illuminating video essay. There has been growing discourse about the need for the 6th Republic in France. The French have, maybe, mastered the art of rebooting and troubleshooting their republics and constitutions; I mean they did it in their supposed Le Trente Gloriueses. The 5th Republic declared in 1968 was intended to give the president and executive more power with the aim of ensuring more political stability. In the 50+ years since then, concerns have emerged about the excessive powers of the president.
As the coercive and didactic nature of the state becomes apparent to the populace, the inequities of the political economy add to it delivering a bit of a one-two punch. France remains one of the more egalitarian advanced economies. But there has been an observed stagnation of income growth for the majority of the population since the 1980s, except for the top managerial-executive white-collar class (and obviously the capitalist-business class). A 2018 VoxEU CEPR column by Goupille-Lebret, Picketty and Grabinti (some heavyweight economists) demonstrates that since the 1980s majority of the population had a real growth rate of 1%, while those at the top percentiles enjoyed a real growth rate of 3%. A sustained pattern that has cumulatively, in all these decades, created a growing rift between the rich and poor.
The general capitalist tendency for the wealthy to accrue more power, along with institutional factors like declining labour bargaining power, abolition of rent control and corporate privatization policies are seen as the cause for such a rift. The Covid pandemic only exacerbated things, with the conditions of the urban poor being cited by some mayors of French towns as a cause of the anger and frustration catalysing the riots.
Complex as they are, the problems of France appear to have ghosts of the future-past all coming together. And explosively so. Economic inequities, immigration and changing demographics, an excessively controlling executive state and state brutality all have led to these moments. The riots, violence and emotions have no doubt been uncomfortable to watch (as have the events that precipitated them); but mass democratic movements, strikes, and protests have never been about comfort. It has always been confrontational. At times it leads to ugliness, violence, and suffering. And it sucks that it does, but look through time to see, that’s just how it goes. The French with their storied political history and long tradition of mass movements like strikes and protests know it.
One way or the other (hopefully) they’ll get through it.