I lived in France 20 years ago for a year, and 30 years before that I lived there for four months. The French are definitely different from other Europeans. They do believe in their tradition of not accepting the rules if they disagree with them. It is almost a cliche that they will demonstrate and possibly set fire to dustbins, and at times even throw Molotov cocktails if they are driven to it.
Macron, who sees himself as a moderniser like Thatcher, has run into the biggest problem: the French believe in a quality of life that working way into old age undermines. They don’t want to be Americanised as they see it. They want to be a society that has time for the small things; like wellbeing and taking things more leisurely.
Why do millions travel to Paris and to visit the country’s beaches and pleasure spots? To eat and enjoy, and to drink their fine wines and eat their fine cheeses. Even the simplest of fare seems better served in France than almost anywhere else. So the idea that they should not retire at 62 but 64 pushes many of them into a rage. This is tearing apart the social contract that they have with each other, with their employers and with the state.
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Each year I go to a campsite half an hour from the Dunkirk ferry and next to a nuclear reactor. It is a pleasant place and I know it so well that the week spent there involves returning to many places I have loved for the last 15 years. There is order and community. There is a kind of refreshing helpfulness, a sharing of things. There is an expectation that we all click along together. This is not just a holiday but a social manners education. But the French Revolution of 1789 echoes through their minds as if to remind people that, like the Americans, they had to have a big bust-up to create the modern republic that they live under. In the US it was to sever all relationships with the mother country; with France it was the revolution that tore up the old monarchical order.
You could say that the French’s attachment to this fall-back position – we can overthrow what we don’t like – is a French version of the US’s right to carry arms, enshrined as the Second Amendment to their constitution.