“What this crisis goes to show,” veteran political commentator Alain Duhamel said recently, “is that there are two Frances out there. They live in completely separate mental worlds, and find it impossible even to communicate.”
As the country teeters on the edge of civil unrest, his verdict echoes like a gloomy premonition. France’s demons are back, and stalking the land.
The anger and mutual incomprehension over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed reform of the pension age show how dangerously polarised the two factions have become.
The government says pushing back the pension age from 62 to 64 is vital in order to preserve France’s much-prized “share-out” system – based on a single fund that workers pay into and pensioners draw out of.
With people living longer, the only alternatives would be to cut the value of pensions, or increase contributions from those in work.
And both those options would be even more unpopular.
What’s more, says the president, France is merely aligning itself with every other European democracy – most of which have pension ages even higher than the proposed 64.
But none of this seems to have gained traction with the public, who continue to reject the reform by a margin of about 70% to 30%.
Instead, people seem more inclined to believe the arguments of the left and far-right: first that there is no urgency because pension finances are not as bad as they’re portrayed – but also that it’s unjust.
On one side, many protesters are calling not just for an end to the reform, but actually for a lowering of the retirement age, back to where it was before 2010, when it was just 60.
On the other, voices from the right say that the Macron plan is already so riddled with concessions and exemptions, wrung under pressure during the long parliamentary process, that the savings it will make are now virtually meaningless.
In a functioning democracy the opposing arguments would surely find some form of compromise. After all, a majority of the population, while rejecting the Macron plan, also agrees that some reform of pensions is needed.
But is French democracy functioning?
Faith in conventional politics and the parliamentary system is in fact at rock-bottom. How else to explain the collapse of Gaullists and Socialists, who ran France for half a century, and the rise of the far-right and far-left?
President Macron encouraged the death of the ancien régime, that old order which he exploited to pose as the lone moderate, picking sensible bits from programmes of left and right.
Hyper-intelligent and hyper-keen he may have been, but France never liked him and he was elected, twice, by default. Because the alternative, Marine Le Pen, was unacceptable to most.
By eliminating the moderate opposition, he made the opposition extreme.
At last year’s parliamentary election, he failed to secure a majority – making inevitable the use last Thursday of constitutional force majeure known as 49:3 to push the law through.
Meanwhile, the tenor of public debate was steadily debased.
The left tabled literally thousands of amendments to the pensions bill, making its conventional passage impossible. Opponents described as “brutal” and “inhuman” a reform which in other countries would have seemed perfectly anodyne.
One left-wing MP posed outside the Assembly with his foot on a ball painted with the head of the labour minister; fearing mob violence, a leading pro-Macron MP called on Friday for police protection for her colleagues.
With scenes of looting and urban violence, hills of rotting rubbish on the streets of Paris and other French cities, and the promise of more crippling strikes to come, this is the unedifying atmosphere as the country enters the next crucial phase in the crisis.
Following the president’s invocation of the 49:3 procedure, opposition parties have tabled two censure motions against the government which will be debated this week. In theory, if one of them passes that would lead to the fall of the government, and possible early elections.
In practice, even the so-called “transpartisan” motion tabled by a centrist group in parliament – supposedly more liable to create a consensus between the mutually hostile far-left and far-right – would be unlikely to get the numbers.
If the motions fail, then the opposition can continue to battle the reform by other means: for example by appealing to the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of new laws, or by trying to organise a referendum.
The government hopes that reality will at some point set in, and that most people will dejectedly accept the inevitable.
Quite possibly a sacrificial victim will eventually have to made – no doubt in the form of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne.
But for now, the mood is too ugly for that.
In the immediate term, to every petrol depot blockaded, to every bin uncollected, and to every window smashed will be joined the accompanying refrain: “Blame 49:3. Blame Macron.”