Crowds of disappointed tourists waited in the courtyard as demonstrators including museum employees gathered outside, with one banner reading: “Retire at 60 – work less to live longer.”
Images of Bordeaux town hall in flames, of piles of rubbish bags spilling into the streets of Paris, and of teargas and water cannon being used against massed protesters in recent days have tarnished France’s image as a peaceful, modern and dynamic European country – not to mention the hasty postponement of King Charles’s planned state visit this week.
“We might not yet be in a constitutional crisis, but we are in a political and systemic crisis,” says Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences-Po university in Paris. “This is not just about Emmanuel Macron – it is about issues brewing for some 20-30 years. The country is very tense because there is no longer a dialogue between people and politicians. The paradox of Macron is that he seemed to offer a solution to this issue, but he is now seen as a problem.”
Mr Cautrès says the pension reform should not have been so controversial. “But there is no longer a communication and debate of political ideas,” he says. “France is now characterised by political polarisation. We can’t say, ‘This is what they do elsewhere, like Britain or Germany.’ People don’t want to listen any more.”
The ostensible object of the ire is the newly-passed law hiking the retirement age, although, for some, it is a more general rage against the system and Mr Macron. But whatever the motives, the protests are continuing: unions are planning more strikes and demonstrations, and the atmosphere is so combustible that there are fears Mr Macron’s government could be permanently paralysed.
Why is France in such a fiery mood? The reasons are many, some of which are more general and others that are uniquely Gallic.
Julian King, a former British ambassador to France, says that France is, like many other countries, struggling to cope with the forces of globalisation untethering established politics and economics. “Looking across Europe, it’s striking how unstable politics has been in the UK and the difficulties engulfing the coalition in Berlin,” he says. “Across Europe, leaders are struggling with economic forces that are wrecking their plans; it’s not just banks that are being stress tested.”
However, other factors make this a particularly French crisis. These include France’s historically protest-prone tendencies; the constitutional role of the presidency, which is sometimes likened to a regal position, and the haughty manner of Mr Macron himself.
On the face of it, the issue at hand, raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 bringing France more in line with its European neighbours, should not have stirred such anger. France spends 14 per cent of its GDP on public pensions, nearly double the OECD average and its population is ageing, with 17 million pensioners today, four million more than in 2004.
But it touched a nerve among unions, opposition parties and the general public – with polls saying 70 per cent of French are against the plans. The real fury is the way the measure was pushed through parliament using article 49.3, a provision that allows it to avoid a vote – reinforcing the characterisation of Mr Macron as imperious and anti-democratic.