PARIS — A big day has come for French high school student Elisa Fares. At age 17, she is taking part in her first protest.
In a country that taught the world about people power with its revolution of 1789 — and a country again seething with anger against its leaders — graduating from bystander to demonstrator is a generations-old rite of passage. Fares looks both excited and nervous as she prepares to march down Paris streets where people for centuries have similarly defied authority and declared: “Non!”
Two friends, neither older than 18 but already protest veterans whose parents took them to demonstrations when they were little, are showing Fares the ropes. They’ve readied eyedrops and gas masks in case police fire tear gas — as they have done repeatedly in recent weeks.
“The French are known for fighting and we’ll fight,” says one of the friends, Coline Marionneau, also 17. “My mother goes to a lot of demonstrations … She says if you have things to say, you should protest.”
For French President Emmanuel Macron, the look of determination on their young faces only heralds deepening crisis. His government has ignited a firestorm of anger with unpopular pension reforms that he railroaded through parliament and which, most notably, push the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.
Furious not just with the prospect of working for longer but also with the way Macron imposed it, his opponents have switched to full-on disobedience mode. They’re regularly striking and demonstrating and threatening to make his second and final term as president even more difficult than his first. It, too, was rocked by months of protests — often violent — by so-called yellow vest campaigners against social injustice.
Fares, the first-time protester, said her mother had been against her taking to the streets but has now given her blessing.
“She said that if I wanted to fight, she wouldn’t stop me,” the teen says.
Critics accuse Macron of effectively ruling by decree, likening him to France’s kings of old. Their reign finished badly: In the French Revolution, King Louis XVI ended up on the guillotine. There’s no danger of that happening to Macron. But hobbled in parliament and contested on the streets piled high with reeking garbage uncollected by striking workers, he’s being given a tough lesson, again, about French people power. Freshly scrawled slogans in Paris reference 1789.
So drastically has Macron lost the initiative that he was forced to indefinitely postpone a planned state visit this week by King Charles III. Germany, not France, will now get the honor of being the first overseas ally to host Charles as monarch.
The France leg of Charles’ tour would have coincided with a new round of strikes and demonstrations planned for Tuesday that are again likely to mobilize many hundreds of thousands of protesters. Macron said the royal visit likely would have become their target, which risked creating a “detestable situation.”
Encouraged by that victory, the protest movement is plowing on and picking up new recruits, including some so young that it will be many decades before they’ll be directly impacted by the pushed-back retirement age. Their involvement is a worrisome development for Macron, because it suggests that protests are evolving, broadening from workplace and retirement concerns to a more generalized malaise with the president and his governance.
Violence is picking up, too. Police and environmental activists fought pitched battles over the weekend in rural western France, resulting in dozens of injuries. Officers fired more than 4,000 nonlethal dispersion grenades in fending off hundreds of protesters who rained down rocks, powerful fireworks and gasoline bombs on police lines.
“Anger and resentment,” says former President François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, “are at a level that I have rarely seen.”
For Fares, whose first demonstration was a peaceful protest in Paris this weekend, the final straw was Macron’s decision to not let legislators vote on his retirement reform, because he wasn’t sure of winning a majority for it. Instead, he ordered his prime minister to skirt parliament by using a special constitutional power to ram the bill through.
It was the 11th time that Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne had to resort to the so-called Article 49.3 power in just 10 months — a telling sign of Macron’s fragility since he lost his parliamentary majority in an election last June.
“It’s an attack on democracy,” Fares said. “It annoyed me too much.”
Her friend Luna Dessommes, 18, added hopefully: “We have to use the movement to politicize more and more young people.”
At age 76, veteran protester Gilbert Leblanc has been through it all before. He was a yellow vest; by his count, he took part in more than 220 of their protests in Macron’s first term, rallying to the cry that the former banker was too pro-business and “the president of the rich.”
Long before that, Leblanc cut his teeth in seminal civil unrest that reshaped France in May 1968. He says that when he tells awe-struck young protesters that he was a “soixante-huitard” — a ’68 veteran — they “want to take selfies with me.”
This winter, he has kept his heating off, instead saving the money for train fares to the capital, so he can protest every weekend, he said.
“My grandfather who fought in World War I, got the war medal. He would rise from his grave if he saw me sitting at home, in my sofa, not doing anything,” Leblanc said.
“Everything we’ve obtained has been with our tears and blood.”