France is shaken by demonstrations against President Macron’s retirement reform for two weeks. With the demonstrations showing no sign of stopping, Macron flew to China to meet Xi Jinping.
Is France bound to the retirement reform due to its financial situation?
What are the drivers of nationwide protest from the Yellow Vests movement to the recent demonstrations? Are there any serious differences or disputes between President Macron and the US?
We asked these and more Elie Hatem. Hatem is committee member of French Actions (Action Française). He has also been the editor of the newspaper “L’Action Française Hebdo” of that institution, for decades.
Elie Hatem is also the founder of the Foundation for the Francophone (la Fondation pour la Francophonie), which “works to strengthen the French-speaking world and French culture.”
Elie Hatem was Jean-Marie Le Pen’s advisor.
There are huge demonstrations about the reform that President Macron wants to introduce. How do you evaluate the reform and protests?
First of all we have to underline something that is very important: France, as well as some other countries in the EU, is facing very serious financial problems. Those problems in France have been accumulated through the policies of previous governments. This is basically due to the very tough socialist program, which has been employed by all parties in the government.
Secondly, we have the problem of many immigrants. That has very hard consequences for France. I would say not economical, but financial. We have social security offered to anyone who comes to the French territory and whenever someone has health problems, the government supports her. Moreover there are many subventions given to foreigners as pensions and monetary aid, even if they don’t have the needed documents in order to get that kind of subvention.
Thirdly, the sanitary crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has aggravated the already existing problems. In this period the governments had to provide a lot of subventions.
So that’s why the French government and the state are not far from bankruptcy. We have to reduce the public expenses and we have four big sectors at hand to do that.
Cutting public spending: But from which sector?
The first: The army. We cannot touch it because its budget has already been cut very much in the last 10 years.
The other big sector is education. In France, universities and schools are free of charge and the government gives huge subventions to them. So we need a lot of money for education and we cannot cut the budget here too.
The third big sector is social security. Social insurance, in other words medical insurance, is much more difficult and delicate to touch. France is considered maybe the best in the world in that sector, because the government pays approximately 70 percent of the service recipient’s costs, and the private insurance the remaining 30 percent. When a person sometimes cannot afford to have private insurance for that part of 30 percent, the state takes into consideration that you don’t have enough money to pay that part and in this situation you are covered for 100% of all your medical expenses. When you think about this issue you also need to take into consideration that people live much longer than before because of medical development and science. So the expenses increase.
Why the retirement pension?
As a result there remains the retirement pension. The pension sector is the most plausible sector to cut public expenditure. Why? Because the people are not paying directly here. When you have a health problem, it will be more difficult for you to go to the hospital if you don’t have subventions for medical insurance. We would see many people dying because they cannot have treatment for many health problems like cancer. Instead of that, working two more years is better. Also note that the retirement pension is given not only to civil servants but also to people in the private sector.
And this is what Mr. Macron wants to do. Till here, we dealt with the issue from the government’s point of view – which faces difficulties and tries to find a way to reduce the expenses.
On the other hand, we also have to understand the people. In France, people are facing many problems. Firstly, we have the consequences of COVID-19. Secondly, inflation and the costs of living are increasing – due to the situation in Ukraine, along with other reasons. The price of many products doubled. What we could buy for 100 euros a year before, costs now 200 euros.
Demonstrations: pouring oil on fire
As for the demonstrations, I would say the oil has been put on fire. There was already the fire and the people were waiting for an argument to take to the streets. That’s why the demonstrations are very tough.
Besides, this retirement reform is being planned to be adopted by a very specific constitutional procedure recognized by provision 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass the reform without a vote unless the parliament votes a motion of no confidence. This is another driver for demonstrations.
In all, I can say that there is a huge distance between the state and the people (or the government and the people). Watch out, this kind of social-economic problem is not only in France. We saw also demonstrations and strikes in Germany, Spain and Italy. And in Italy it was very clear that people opposed the government’s support to the policy of the US. The people were questioning the consequences of NATO membership and asking: Why we had to take part in this adventure in Ukraine and suffer from the sanctions on Russia?
Today this entire situation is due to the foreign policy of the European Union. We need to stop that. As I said, the opposition to that policy was seen clearly in Italy. We can also see similar features in demonstrations in France.
Macron is aware of the challenge
You said that France, like other European Union countries, is facing huge financial problems. Is there not another solution to that other than cutting retirement pension? Or is there no other way but to cut public expenditures?
Emmanuel Macron knows that the retirement reform is not popular at all. That is why the president and the government are working on this very slowly. They postponed it in the last September to February. Why? Because Marcon is well aware that it will harm his popularity. According to the French constitution, someone cannot be reelected as president for a third term and this is already Macron’s second term. Macron was either to face serious economic and financial problems in the coming months or to fight with public opinion. He chose the latter.
Maybe there could have been a solution of leaving the EU – like what England has done – and recovering our sovereignty and our independence. In this case, we would have paid less to the EU. As you know France, like all the state members of the EU, is also subjected to pay money to it.
Cumulative financial problem in France
Do you see any continuation between these latest demonstrations and the Yellow Vests movement?
Of course there is a continuation. Because there are serious financial problems in France for like over 20 years because of the social institutions.
Even right-wing parties and leaders like Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Chirac applied socialist economical policy. This is also the case in all other EU member states. All these problems are somewhat cumulative. The balance of France is like some other countries like Italy and Spain (maybe also Portugal) is really suffering and not far from bankruptcy.
For this reason, President Macron had to pass some laws concerning fuel and other things when he was elected. The demonstrations of the Yellow Vests showed that French society is fed up with paying so many taxes.
There is another problem. There are many foreigners who do not pay taxes and they are now approximately 25% of the French population. They are taking advantage of the subventions of the state and we all know that those subventions are coming from the taxes paid by the French people. Public opinion is really annoyed at seeing their money is spent by the states on foreigners who came to France illegally.
There were some hands behind the demonstrations of the Yellow Vests putting oil on the fire in order to create more tension in France.
Is the US behind the Yellow Vests movement?
What do you mean by those ‘hands’ behind the protests?
French intelligence services were wondering why these demonstrations came just after Mr. Macron said that it is time to create an EU army and that NATO is in “brain dead”.
It was the first time that there is a kind of clash between Macron and the US. Maybe Soros, the Americans or some other centers of power pushed those demonstrators seeing that the conditions are favorable for them.
France seems to be taking a similar stance with the US in the war in Ukraine. Still, from time to time Macron makes statements against the mainstream US policy. For example, when President Macron visited the US, said “Europe needs to prepare its security architecture with Moscow for the future” and “as president Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.” And these statements sparked backlash. Do you think that President Macron is completely aligned with the US or there are some serious differences and disputes between them?
It is a very important point. President Macron, when he has been elected in 2017, wanted to change the foreign policy of France.
‘Totally servant to the U.S. since Sarkozy’
French foreign policy has changed dramatically and became totally servant to the U.S. since Nicolas Sarkozy. When Mr. Sarkozy became president, France came back to the military commandments of NATO, which was not the case since General de Gaulle, the founder of the Republic. Nicolas Sarkozy changed everything even in the ministry of foreign affairs. We had some civil servants totally subservient to the US and new conservatives Americans. Mr. Bernard Kouchner became the minister of foreign affairs and his team was totally pro-NATO.
After Sarkozy, François Hollande became president. Hollande maintained the same policy as Nicolas Sarkozy by following word by word what NATO and the US decided in international policy. Remember the position of France toward Syria during Hollande’s presidency.
Macron’s ‘NO’ to be a servant
Mr. Macron said “No!” to that, “We need to return the independence of France of not taking part in any conflict but working like a mediator to solve international problems”.
The second aspect of the issue is that France is amongst the big 5 powers after the Second World War together with England, the US, China and Russia. Macron started to appear in the international society and make a competition with Germany inside the EU. Mrs. Merkel was weaker than she was in the term of François Hollande. So, Macron started to bring back France on the international scene, and the Americans and the Anglo-Saxon world began to worry. We must not forget that there is a sovereignist tradition in France, inherited from General de Gaulle and then Jacques Chirac.
‘Leading France’ to confront the Anglo-Saxon world
The other important aspect is this: There is a permanent competition (sometimes conflict) between England and France (one can say Catholic world). The Anglo-Saxon world led by the US became the leader in Western Europe after World War II. Note also the rupture that occurred regarding the AUKUS treaty, which had a significant impact.
Macron sought to confront the Anglo-Saxon world with “leading France”. Proactive foreign policy and leadership within Europe were important components of this policy and Macron has taken significant steps in this direction. The US has taken measures to thwart this.
‘The US pitted Türkiye and France against each other’
In Libya, for example. The US, acting together with Türkiye, wanted to get France out of Libya and erode France’s international reputation. The US pitted Türkiye and France against each other in Libya. The relations between the two countries remained tense for a long time.
The recent campaign against France about Africa is parallel to this. There is propaganda to create anti-French sentiment in Western public opinion. Does anyone talk about the colonialism of England, the Netherlands and Belgium? Why is France being targeted? The aim is to hinder Macron’s ability to make France internationally influential separately from the US.
Macron is now visiting China. He is doing it to get “fresh air”. If you pay attention, Macron’s visit team includes important figures for the French economy and some managers of important companies.
Prospects for France-Türkiye relations
As you just mentioned, France-Türkiye relations have been tense for a long time. In particular, harsh words have been exchanged between Macron and Erdoğan. How do you foresee the future of relations between the two countries?
The US wanted to pit the two countries against each other in Libya. And at first, succeeded. This is a classic method of imperialism: Divide and rule. But then the two countries saw through the US ploy. Now the tension is over.
France and Türkiye have deep historical and political ties. There have been ongoing relations since François I became the king of France. Recall the capitulations granted to France by the Ottoman state at that time.
There is a strong US influence and lobby in France. But on the other hand, the free world is rising: China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, etc. The more these countries and the free world get stronger, more Macron and France will be able to act more comfortably and independently from the US.
I know Macron personally and I see what he is trying to do.