French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Benza district in Marseille, France, 28 June 2023. Two years after the launch of transformation plan, the President Macron visits Marseille from 26 till 28 June 2023 to review the various projects undertaken in the second largest city in France. Image Credit: Reuters

The 17th Century ramparts surrounding the town of St Martin de Re enclose a prison that was the last place where tens of thousands of prisoners spent their last days on French soil before being sent off to serve out their sentences of banishment to the penal colonies of French Guiana at the top of South America, or to New Caledonia, halfway between Australia and nowhere in the South Pacific.

Up to 1938, France sent many of its worst offenders overseas, a penalty that began during the reign of Napoleon III. When you stand in the portico of the prison or look carefully at the names carved into the walls, it’s a chilling reminder today of how Ile de Re, on the Atlantic coast and hugging the port of La Rochelle in its armpit, despite all of the tanning holidaymakers enjoying fresh oysters and pommes frites, dealt with those who rebelled against French laws.

This island was made the German Naval Headquarters during the Second World War, La Rochelle and Lorient were key U-boat pens, and the prison held members of the French Resistance.

Read more

Another plaque caught the attention of this writer, one that paid tribute to the men and women who were arrested with the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 and deported to the far-flung corners of French influence. The Commune was a turbulent period of about two months where radical Communist ideology inspired by Karl Marx and Frederic Engels took root.

To this day historians are unsure of how many were executed by the communards or by republican forces putting down the insurrection — estimates vary between 2,000 and 20,000. Either way, it was bloody — another reminder of how there is a spirit of revolution that seems to be just below its surface, ready to rear again come a uniting cause.

Macron's political woes

As I rubbed my hand over the etching of the deportees as they waited to be march to the port and put on prison transport ships, I could not help but think that perhaps President Emmanuel Macron might have wished that he had the power to send his most vocal political opponents packing to Devil’s Island on the first available ship.

As things stand now, two-thirds of French voters say they are dissatisfied with Marcon, a significant slump in his support. Barely 15 months ago, he retained the presidency with the majority support of some 13.2 million voters in the second round of elections. With another presidential election not due until 2027, most French feel it’s a good thing he is serving out his second and final term.

That dramatic fall in support for the president came following his decision to push ahead with economic reforms that meant raising the national retirement age in France in the public sector to 64 years.

The proposal led to months of rioting, strikes, public unrest and was pushed through the National Assembly using a divisive constitutional clause, coming into effect in mid-April. Since then, the public protests have died down, but the anger is still palpable for many workers.

While many believe that French workers have the shortest working week among European Union nations, the reality is workers in the Netherlands work for 32.4 hours, while those in Greece and Romania put it 39.7 hours. The French are firmly in the middle of the EU pack, with the standard work week coming in at 35 hours.

But Macron’s changes meant that a worker had to toil for 43 years to earn a full pension at age 64.

The full measures are being gradually eased in from 2027 onwards, and the current statutory retirement age now of 62 will be increased every three months starting that September.

Badly needed reforms

Macron said the reform was badly needed to make the French pension system financially sustainable as its population ages. That hasn’t washed with opponents, who say he could have made companies and the wealthy pay more to make up the shortfall.

In Bordeaux, a city of about one million a couple of hours drive to the south of Ile de Re and about as far removed from the historic fisherman’s villages as you can get, the Hotel De Ville — or city hall — was torched by protesters during the height of the anti-Marcon and pension riots. There are still posters and graffiti urging citizens not to forget the “great treachery” of the reforms.

For his part, President Macron initially began a series of “walkabouts” in French cities and towns, trying to engage with those angry at the pensionable-age extension.

It hasn’t worked much, with his disapproval rating going from 58 per cent in mid-April, down to that 67 per cent level at the end of May. It hasn’t improved since then.

While he may play the statesman on the international stage or at carefully managed events, his unpopularity threatens to make him a lame duck leader unable to get any measures through the National Assembly where his En Marche! party is in a minority.

A very few are willing to work with it in government.