France’s waves of strikes and protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda have invited comparisons with the iconic upheaval of 1968 and the strikes that killed similar reform efforts in 1995. But it seems this time may be different.
Rail workers, students, civil servants, lawyers and home-care workers have all protested over recent weeks against the government’s programme to streamline public services.
As the 50th anniversary of May 1968 approaches, it may seem tempting to draw a parallel between that famous wave of civil unrest and the strikes and demonstrations in 2018 France. Like this year’s protests, those of 1968 combined student sit-ins with workers’ industrial action.
With 8 million people on strike, the French economy was brought to a virtual standstill in 1968. Violence escalated when police confronted the students and strikers; then President Charles de Gaullesecretly fled to a military base in Germany. On May 30, he dissolved parliament and announced new legislative elections to be held on June 23. The Gaullist party won a landslide victory.
Although the strikes and protests in 1995 lack the epoch-defining resonance of May 1968, they were effective in forcing the government to back down. In November 1995, newly elected President Jacques Chirac’s Prime Minister Alain Juppé put forward an extensive programme of public sector cuts. The following month, strikes paralysed the country’s transport network and the government conceded defeat.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Jim Shields, professor of French politics and history at Aston University in the UK, argues that 2018’s strikes and protests are likely to be less effective than their illustrious predecessors.
How do the strikes and protests of 2018 compare to those of 1968 and 1995?
The most pronounced parallel between 1968 and 2018 lies in the coming together of public sector strikes and student protest – but both are much weaker today than in 1968. The numbers tell their own story: compare the 8 million strikers who brought France to a standstill in 1968 with the estimated 120,000 who took part in the “day of mobilisation” across the country on 19 April. The workforce is more fragmented today and their demands more disparate, and the students exhibit nothing of the heady idealism or the calls to overthrow the regime and wider system that characterised May ’68.
The parallels are stronger between 1995 and 2018: a president newly elected to office tested in his resolve to reform; rail workers as key players in the resistance; and economics, rather than social and cultural values, providing the dynamics of the confrontation.
What made the strikes and protests of 1968 and 1995 successful?
The key to the success of both was their ability to gather momentum, generate public support and bring together different groups in a collective movement of resistance. The main problem for a reforming president is not opposition from specific groups (Macron faced that back in autumn with his labour market reforms) – it’s concerted opposition that unites different groups and moves from being sector-specific industrial action to becoming a social movement of opposition. This happened in 1968 when workers joined the students in their protests against de Gaulle and paralysed the country through a general strike; also in 1995 when different sectors of the workforce came together to form a wall of opposition to Chirac’s welfare cutbacks. In both cases too, public opinion was solidly behind the protesters, at least at the outset. So far, 2018’s strikes lack those three vital ingredients: growing momentum, solid backing from public opinion, and unity of purpose among the protesters.
Has the national mood now changed?
To judge by opinion polls and by the comparatively low numbers of protesters taking to the streets or occupying university amphitheatres, there has been a change in the public mood. Macron was elected on an openly reformist agenda. He cannot be accused, like Chirac in 1995, of promising one thing (to heal France’s “social fracture”) only to deliver another (making that “social fracture” worse through welfare cuts). What the French saw with Macron in the presidential campaign is exactly what they’re getting now: a president with a clear agenda to reform. After ten years of economic stagnation and obstinately high unemployment, there seems to be growing recognition of that need for reform. So Macron’s telling of uncomfortable truths appears to be finding a more receptive audience than Chirac’s half-hearted attempts to do the same in 1995.
So far the Macron approach has been more subtle and less costly to his political capital, learning lessons from de Gaulle and Chirac. His handling of the labour market reforms last autumn was a masterclass in negotiation and tactical savvy. But the bigger test is now. This feels like a presidency-defining moment, a moment that could make or break Macron’s reform agenda. We’re witnessing a high-stakes contest that neither Macron nor the unions can afford to lose – and so far at least Macron appears to be retaining the upper hand.