Friday, 7 April
“What is a simple definition of democracy?
“The word democracy comes from the Greek words ‘demos’, meaning people, and ‘kratos’ meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as ‘power of the people’: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.”
Thus spoke Google.
But it’s more complicated than that. Striking the balance between people and power, as we have witnessed on two occasions this past month in France, is not always a straightforward exercise.
The French are striking tout court. Inflamed by President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, they have now stopped work and demonstrated 11 times since the reform was introduced in January.
Generally, these manifestations begin as festive affairs. At the departure point, there are stands selling food and drink. Different union chapters set off - yesterday right underneath our window...
...and walk along next to a float from which music blares or a human voice booms. It may sound slightly more menacing than an Easter Day Parade but not much.
Underneath a buoyant surface, however, lurks genuine discontent...
...a feeling that the elites are always taking advantage of the working stiffs, despite the fact that France has one of the most generous state systems in the world. It is a current that has run through French society since before the king lost his head.
The violence that flashed across screens around the world on March 23rd (and elicited several concerned emails from friends) occurred at the end of the march and was not incited by the demonstrators but by les black blocs, the anti-capitalists/anarchists/agitators who dress top to toe in black and set kiosks on fire, break windows and generally cause as much destruction as possible. Many banks around the city are now boarded up.
Even if you accept the principle, like most other Europeans do, that we are living longer and therefore need to work and pay into the system longer, you can object to the way the reform has been carried out. When the law did not pass by vote in the National Assembly, the government last month ramrodded it through via a controversial article in the constitution, le 49.3. This vehicle has been used many times before but never for a bill of this import and one which 75% of the population are known to oppose. People feel tricked by Power.
Macron and his prime minister Elisabeth Borne are not the only politicians resorting to political sleights of hand. Last Sunday the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo held a referendum on the future of rental e-scooters. Touted as the latest and greatest ecological mode of urban transport when they first appeared almost five years ago, trottinettes quickly divided the public. On the one hand, with 450,000 rentals a day, the system has proved more popular here, and by a large margin, than in other European cities.
On the other, they (or their riders) have not endeared themselves to pedestrians. Until they were given parking places, they littered thoroughfares everywhere.
User incivility and accidents (three people killed and 459 injured in 2022) have deepened dislike. And with a life expectancy of 28 days to six months, depending on the study, their ecological credentials are questionable at best.
Madame Hildalgo, itching to rid of the city of these troublesome brats, called the citizens to vote on April 2nd, and the result was a resounding 89% Non. The mayor praised it as "a beautiful triumph for democracy in our city."
Really? Only 103,084 people, a weeny 8% of the population, actually cast a ballot. Madame Hidalgo, wagering that the grumblers were more likely to express their opinion than the trottinette-istes, may have made a more savvy political calculation than, say, UK Prime Minister David Cameron did in 2016 on Brexit, but does such a sliver of the voting folk constitute "the power of the people"?
President Macron is said to be haunted by a fear that the extreme right-wing Marine Le Pen will succeed him in office. By disillusioning the demos with the political machinations of the kratos, he may be ensuring just that.