The rest of the world (mainly the U.S.) looked on in sheer disbelief at the French commitment to protesting. It was viewed with a combination of admiration and disdain. The former emotion stemming from Americans wishing they had les couilles to do something like that themselves. Alas, the only time Americans have ever been capable of truly rebelling was when they were still Brits rebelling against Britain. Ever since their British progenitors started to get more and more diluted in the bloodline, however, it seemed all sense of mutinous contempt disappeared (save for some missing links involved in the Capitol riots, but that wasn’t exactly fighting a “good fight,” now was it?). And so, the admiration Americans secretly had for the French was also part of the flipside of that coin: disdain. Just another form of jealousy arising from being unable to do something oneself. And no, the Americans certainly didn’t have the anti-government stamina to protest a law they hated with nearly as much consistency as the French.
Sure, there were marches here and there when something truly heinous happened, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but mostly, Americans didn’t bother with “radical” (read: merely fighting to uphold their rights) displays of “disobedience” (civil or otherwise) when there wasn’t some “very remarkable circumstance” at play. As Lorelei Gilmore once noted, “He’s totally fine having his personal freedom stripped away as long as he’s completely unaware that it’s happening, just like a true American.” François, who had gone by “Frank” while subjected to living in America, had seen the difference between these two countries’ approaches firsthand. With a French father and an American mother, he had come to apprehend the divergence of both national ideologies and decided, in the end, that France was the place he’d rather live after turning eighteen. That was in the summer of 2010, back when Nicolas Sarkozy was rallying to “amend” the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two. François arrived in the thick of protests in September. A truly French welcome indeed as he waded through enraged hordes and tried to prevent tear gas from entering his nostrils or eyes by taking his shirt off and wrapping it around his head.
When he finally got to the butter pat-sized apartment he decided to rent in the fifth arrondissement, which he had selected solely for its proximity to the Sorbonne, where he would be studying, François let out a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding. He had forgotten how filled with rage the French could actually be. What’s more, that they had no qualms about expressing that rage, as people did in the U.S. (despite the constant touting of their beloved First Amendment, they never really used it to its utmost, now did they?). He had lived in New Mexico with his mother for so many of his formative years that he had lost all sense of what it meant to be français. And what it meant, right now, was fucking shit up. This much was confirmed by what he overheard one of the protesters saying at a café near the Sorbonne: “If the government refuses to negotiate, we will not stop protesting. There are other ways of paying for our pensions apart from raising the minimum retirement age. How about raising taxes on the fucking rich, for a start?” But they would never. For governments ultimately exist solely for the rich’s benefit.
Sarkozy then, like Marcon now, did not care about the plebeian venom launched directly at him. They could burn the whole city to the ground (which they would) and he was still going to do what he was going to do: raise the retirement from sixty to sixty-two. At that time, it sounded even more incongruous to Americans that the French should get so “up in arms” about such a “still reasonable” age to retire. They could never comprehend how much it meant to the French though, whose country was becoming an exact replica of the United States, where the full retirement age is sixty-seven years old. And sure to get higher as the social security pot inevitably runs out as the ratio of workers to retirees continues to grow vastly lopsided. With Sarkozy talking similarly of the “overburdened” pension system then as Macron does now, the French unions who backed down in 2010 remembered the sting of what was done to them, triggered by it again in 2023. Macron had let the sleeping dog of his intention lie after initially stoking the beast with his plan in 2019. But then coronavirus descended upon the Earth and he figured he ought to cool it on doling out crushing disappointments for a while. François, by this point, had moved to the thirteenth arrondissement, where he had gotten a job doing what most writers have to do in order to survive: teach literature.
Where once he was a bystander to the wrath and fury all around him in 2010, he was now one of the most active participants in 2023, joining his fellow teachers in organized strikes designed to cripple the nation and show Macron’s gouvernement just how valuable the working class was to his kind. It was rather pathetic to have to constantly need to remind the wealthy of the working class’ importance, but apparently it was necessary to do so on a regular basis at this juncture. Before robots replaced all sentient humans at the working-class level.
Martine Aubry had said back in 2010 (still the Socialist Party leader at that time), when Sarkozy invoked the public beast as well, “In a democracy, when the people are on the streets, when they are more than two million and many more that support them, we need to listen.” The same could be said in the present moment, of course. And it essentially was with members of the unions pronouncing, “The government has lost the ideological battle” and “Politicians should listen to the people.” A pretty thought in theory—and what most constitutions are founded on—but less attractive to politicians in practice. At one time in his life, François had been naïve enough to consider becoming a politician to “make the world a better place.” That was before he understood that all politicians did was make the world worse. Hence, a pivot to pursuing a Bachelor’s in Literature at the Sorbonne. Not much risk of worrying about losing a precious pension that way, for he wasn’t likely to get a job at all (or so he thought) with that as his field of study.
His father, Florian, was keenly aware of this and kept nudging him to consider something with a more promising financial future, like science or engineering. But François didn’t have the head for such things. He kept trying to tell his father that, but it seemed only his mother, Rebecca, could appreciate where he was coming from—she lived in relative squalor just so she could make pottery. She was seventy years old now and still “working.” But the word should be in quotes because it never felt like work to her to be doing something she actually enjoyed. François wished he had that. But all he had now was the hope of retiring at sixty-two (going on sixty-four) on a modest pension that could carry him through the rest of his life and finally allow him the luxury of writing every day for the sheer personal pleasure of it.
But it felt as though history would be doomed to repeat itself, with the arbitrary “sweet spot” increment of raising the retirement age by two years every decade or so gradually resulting in the people giving an inch and the government taking a mile. And taking that mile so far that everyone would have to work up until they were on their deathbed. Not that many would even have a bed with the way the cost of living kept escalating while salaries remained the same. François could foresee the retirement age ratcheting all the way up to seventy by the time he was finally legally declarable as “out the game” by the government. What the fuck were they? Americans? Non. Ce n’est pas possible, he seethed. And it was he who rallied for a more dramatic form of protest among his rebellious brethren in the days leading up to the working class’ metaphorical beheading. One that François wanted to make literal.
Not everyone was ready to take such a drastic step, of course, but those who did made quite the impression the week that the law was officially put into effect. Two hundred self-slit throats at the Place d’Italie tends to attract notice, after all. The message François and his acolytes wanted to leave was: you can’t make us keep working if we’re dead. And if the only way out is death (a “permanent vacation,” if you will), then so be it. Surely it has to be better than wasting more and more of one’s life away at work.