Emmanuel Macron and the Ghosts of 1968

French workers took part in annual May Day protests while the president headed overseas. But the labor movement is not what it once was.

May Day protests in France (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

PARIS—May Day, the traditional May 1 Labor Day holiday, has been particularly charged in France this year. It marks the 50th anniversary of the May 1968 student and worker uprisings that convulsed France, transforming the country and the world. It was a dramatic, romantic moment, one that shaped a generation.

Not the generation of President Emmanuel Macron. The first French head of state to come of age in the ’90s, not the ’60s, didn’t spend the holiday making speeches on the Left Bank, the epicenter of the French student protests. Instead, he hopped a flight halfway around the globe—to Australia—leaving behind a country simmering with labor unrest.

Simmering, but not quite boiling. Yes, groups of troublemaking leftist agitators threw Molotov cocktails in some demonstrations here in Paris on Tuesday, providing telegenic images that distort the bigger picture. Yes, the railway workers have called rolling strikes—two strike days every three days through June—maddening travelers. The strikes are to protest Macron’s desire to end early retirement for some railway workers and lifetime employment for new railway hires—changes Macron’s opponents believe will open the door to privatizing the national railway. Air France pilots have called intermittent strikes, demanding a 6 percent pay raise. Students have been occupying universities, protesting changes to make France’s chaotic university-admissions system more selective—and been evicted by riot police. Workers in many other sectors are upset. But the labor movement isn’t as strong as it was in the past. The seven major labor unions didn’t manage to assemble a united front in Tuesday’s annual May Day demonstrations. Fewer workers have been on strike. A recent poll found only four in 10 people in France were in solidarity with the railway strike.

Since last year’s election campaign, Macron has sought to shift the balance of power in France, or at least the perception of that balance. He has cast himself as the revolutionary, and organized labor as the revanchists holding on to a vision of the past that he argues is holding the country back. But the unions, and the leftist intellectuals of France who find Macron market-driven, cold, and imperious, are vocal in their critique. It’s an ideological struggle as much as a practical one, and it reveals competing visions of France and its economy. It’s also a fight between labor models of the past and the future, and Macron is the referee.

On national television on May Day morning, Philippe Martinez, the old-school-mustache-wearing leader of the CGT union, decried Macron’s “arrogance” in his treatment of France’s workers. Macron flies around the world, he goes to the United States and Australia, but the president needs “to get a grip on the reality” of French citizens, Martinez said. It’s that “divide” that’s worrisome, he added.

Martinez is a former Renault worker who has led the CGT, a union with historic ties to France’s Communist Party, since 2015. When I met with him in January, along with other journalists in the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris, he conceded a lot of points to Macron. He said he didn’t agree with the president on many things, but respected him as a man of his word who said he’d make certain changes and did, even if Martinez himself wasn’t so keen on those changes. “Macron campaigned on revamping the French economy,” he said then.

So why the strikes? Martinez was asked on television on Tuesday. To protest the Macron government’s social politics, including what he called “social dumping,” or companies’ hiring low-wage workers, Martinez said. There may be other factors. Martinez is fighting for reelection inside the union. The CGT has been losing members. Only about 11 percent of French workers are in unions, although anyone employed in France, unionized or not, has worker protections that go far beyond the at-will-employment model of the United States—as well as functional, if strained, national health care, and universal public education from pre-K to Ph.D.

The unions and other critics of Macron fear that those pillars of the French social-welfare model are at risk. Macron’s supporters see Macron’s job as transforming the economy to create enough jobs so that the tax base can support the social-welfare model. It’s not just a battle between left and right, it’s about competing visions of how to contend with globalization. In recent decades, some former communist workers have begun supporting the hard-right National Front. Martinez on Tuesday said the CGT had blocked that party from participating in its demonstration. “The National Front goes against our values,” he said. (Marine Le Pen, that party’s leader, met Tuesday in Nice with the leaders of other far-right parties from across Europe, pausing to place flowers beneath a statue of Joan of Arc, who looms large in their iconography as a defender of France.)

Throughout the 20th century, the French Socialists and Communists clashed over how to revolutionize society, over a vision of the future more than the past, which was fertile terrain for nostalgic strains on the French right. Macron’s strength as a leader is partly derived from his having broken, or transcended, the traditional divisions between left and right in France. But this has also left him isolated. I recently asked Benjamin Griveaux, the government spokesman and one of Macron’s closest allies, what the challenges were for Macron as a post-ideological president in a deeply ideological country. “He’s not non-ideological,” Griveaux answered. “That doesn’t mean being outside ideology. ... It’s not that I think the intelligible world is superior to the sensible world. We start from the sensible world. And that is without a doubt a small revolution in France.”

Griveaux, who like Macron is 40 and a skillful rhetorician, speaks in a way that underscores how in France, the line between power politics and abstract philosophy can be elegantly porous. France is the country of Pascal and Descartes, rational philosophers, he said, and the Macron government’s approach is more “Anglo-Saxon,” he added, more based in practice than theory. “So it’s really hard to understand what we’re doing.” Here, Griveaux began an elaborate explanation of how he believed Macron isn’t a centrist, but rather “central.” “There are probably measures in [Macron’s] program that philosophically are more to the left and others that are philosophically more to the right, if I can caricature it. But because we started from reality, not ideology—since if we were to start from ideology we’d become prisoners of it—we’re stuck and rapidly run up against the lines that have traditionally characterized French political life.”

Many on the French left who supported Macron—against far-right Marine Le Pen—are upset by what they see as a market-driven agenda that will hit the middle class. We thought we voted for Tony Blair, and it turns out we voted for Margaret Thatcher, one friend told me. Others have argued Macron is less like Thatcher, who dismantled organized labor in Britain in the ’80s in ways that are still resonating, and instead wants a Scandinavian model of “flex-security,” in which workers, not jobs, are protected.

Recently, some leftists of the ’68 generation, one Italian and one German, asked me how Macron was doing, and I said it was still unclear whether he’d prevail against the cheminots—the category of railway workers who can retire a decade earlier than most workers—and rein in their privileges. “Since when are they privileges! They’re rights,” the Italian snapped. I understood his point. But for better or worse, that world has irrevocably changed. Youth unemployment rates range between 20 and 40 percent in different parts of France and elsewhere in Europe. If the biggest struggles of the 20th century were between right and left, the biggest ones of the European 21st century so far are generational, between older workers and younger ones shut out of the labor market.

One example of that divide between an older, more idealistic generation that came of age with job protections and financial security and the younger one without it is in an interview Daniel Cohn-Bendit gave the other day to Le Monde’s wine supplement. Known as “Danny the Red” when he was the leader of the 1968 student rebellion, he’s now 73, and retired in 2014 after 20 years as a member of the European Parliament from the European Greens party. He’s been a vocal Macron supporter. He didn’t talk to Le Monde about 1968, which he’s sick of discussing, but rather about his exploits as an amateur vintner, having bought a country house in Languedoc, in southern France. “I Generally Prefer Red,” the story’s headline read. Nice for him.

Still, it’s hard to get a good read on history when it’s in progress. In the first round of last year’s presidential election here, around 30 percent of voters aged 18–24 supported Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his left-wing France Insoumise party. Reports say that younger Europeans have been rediscovering Marx since the 2008 financial crisis and have been inspired by the popularity of the French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, about income inequality. Marxism isn’t what it used to be, but in Europe at least, maybe the future looks a lot like the past.