France encountered severe turbulence over the past 12 months, roiled by a long and bitter battle over pension reform as well as crippling droughts, sizzling heatwaves and nationwide rioting. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the top stories from a year of turmoil.
Even by French standards, 2023 was a year of exceptional social unrest, marked by France’s largest protest movement this century and the worst bout of rioting in almost two decades. From start to end, President Emmanuel Macron’s minority government struggled to pass legislation in a fractious and bitterly divided parliament, often opting to bypass it altogether. Severe droughts and unseasonal heatwaves pushed the life-threatening challenges of climate change to the fore, while a nationwide bedbug frenzy brought unwanted attention from abroad as the country hosted the Rugby World Cup and raced to prepare for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Pension battle ends in Pyrrhic win for Macron
Macron kicked off the year with a push to overhaul France’s pension system, setting the stage for a showdown with a united front of unions. The French president staked his reformist credentials on passage of the flagship reform, which raised the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 – a step his government said was necessary to balance the books amid shifting demographics. Unions countered that the reform would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers and women, successfully framing the pension debate as part of a wider fight for social justice.
The months-long tussle saw opponents of the reform stage multiple rounds of strikes and protests, drawing huge crowds in cities, towns and even villages across France. Refinery shutdowns and transport strikes caused travel chaos while a walkout by rubbish collectors kicked up a “great stink” in the streets of Paris – though unions ultimately failed in their bid to “paralyse” the country. Throughout the standoff, polls consistently showed that a large majority of the French opposed the reform, piling the pressure on a government already outnumbered in parliament.
Violence flared in late March when Macron ordered his government to ram the reform through parliament without a vote, using special executive powers. The move sparked several nights of unrest and turned the festering social dispute into a crisis of French democracy. Police crackdowns and controversial rulings by France’s constitutional court helped snuff out the movement, handing Macron a pyrrhic victory – though in the weeks that followed he could scarcely take a step outside the Élysée Palace without being greeted by protesters banging pots and pans.
Teen’s death sets off nationwide riots
Running battles between riot police and pension protesters revived a long-standing debate on police brutality in France – with human rights monitors both at home and abroad raising the alarm over officers’ “excessive use of force”. The scrutiny only increased in late June when towns and cities across the country erupted in rage at the killing of Nahel M., a 17-year-old of North African origin who was shot dead by police during a routine traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.
Social media footage of the incident, which contradicted police claims that Nahel had posed a threat to officers, kicked off several nights of rioting in France’s deprived and ethnically diverse suburbs, known as banlieues, where non-white youths have long complained of being singled out by police. Rioters focused their attacks on symbols of the state, including police stations, schools and town halls. The Interior Ministry said that more than 1,000 buildings and 5,000 vehicles were torched.
In a rare criticism of the police, Macron described the fatal shooting as “inexplicable” and “unforgivable”, while the UN’s human rights office urged France to “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement”. However, the initial expressions of outrage soon gave way to hardline law-and-order rhetoric amid consecutive nights of rioting. And as police unions openly spoke of battling “vermin” and “savage hordes”, analysts feared the real lessons of Nahel’s killing – like other past tragedies – would not be learned.
When the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas launched a murderous attack on southern Israel on October 7, triggering a ferocious and devastating Israeli response, French authorities openly voiced concern that the conflict might stoke further unrest in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations.
A spike in anti-Semitic acts sowed anguish among French Jews and politicians of all stripes took part in a Paris march to denounce anti-Semitism, though the presence of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally led some opponents to shun the rally. Meanwhile, rights groups voiced dismay as the government banned pro-Palestinian protests on the grounds that they might “disturb public order”, until judges ruled that a blanket ban was unlawful. The war also sparked a rare dispute at an annual march against gender-based violence in Paris, signaling tensions between French feminists over their response to sexual crimes attributed to Hamas.
Fears that the plight of Gaza would inspire Islamist militants to carry out attacks on French soil appeared to materialise on October 13 when a high-school teacher in northern Arras was stabbed to death by a radicalised former pupil who originated from Russia’s Ingushetia – reigniting the trauma of Samuel Paty’s beheading in 2020. In the days following the Arras stabbing, government ministers suggested the war in Gaza may have “precipitated” events, though investigators were yet to establish a formal link with the assailant, who had declared allegiance to the Islamic State group prior to the attack.
Far right hails hardline immigration law
For Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the Arras knife attack proved the need for new legislation making it easier to expel foreign nationals suspected of radicalisation. The hawkish minister had spent much of the year trying to build parliamentary support for a tough new “immigration law”, which rights groups condemned as repressive. His efforts appeared to have collapsed when opposition lawmakers banded together to shoot down the bill before it was even debated in the National Assembly.
In response, the government submitted an even tougher law to win over right-wing lawmakers, introducing measures that discriminate between citizens and immigrants in terms of eligibility to benefits. The law was harsh enough for Le Pen to claim it as an “ideological victory” for her National Rally and its passage with support from the far right sparked a crisis within Macron’s ruling party, leading his health minister to resign in protest. In a rare move, a third of French regions vowed not to comply with some of its toughest measures.
Droughts, heatwaves and climate uprisings
The ubiquitous Darmanin made headlines throughout the year as he ordered the disbanding of a range of groups he deemed extremist. They included the climate movement Les Soulèvements de la Terre (“Earth’s uprisings”), whose attempt to prevent the construction of controversial water reservoirs resulted in a pitched battle with police that left hundreds injured and two people in a coma. The interior minister accused the group of inciting “ecoterrorism”, but his attempt to ban it was quashed by France’s top administrative court.
The clashes at Sainte-Soline were indicative of mounting tensions between corporate farming and environmental activists as the country grappled with recurrent and increasingly unseasonal heatwaves, which put further stress on fragile ecosystems already weakened by crippling droughts. The climate emergency cast a spotlight on livestock farming and eating habits, with meat consumption the biggest contributor to food-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Adapting the way farmers use water resources was one of 50 measures included in a water-saving plan unveiled in March, following an exceptionally dry winter. Extraordinary measures were required to help the Indian ocean island of Mayotte, where the worst drought in decades forced the government to send a military cargo ship stacked with drinking water. And in Paris, where scientists warned that temperatures could reach 50C by 2050, volunteers used a pioneering tree-planting method to create pocket forests offering shelter from the heat.
Paris Olympics feel the heat
As the French capital grappled with the challenges of climate change, organisers of next year’s Summer Olympics struggled to back up their pledge to make the Paris 2024 Games the “greenest” yet. In May, they backtracked on a promise to eliminate more greenhouse gas emissions than those generated by the event, while insisting Paris 2024 would still halve the carbon footprint of previous games. But delays to transport upgrades threatened to jeopardise emissions targets, while climate activists described carbon-offsetting plans as little more than “greenwashing”.
Ambitious plans to host the opening ceremony along the River Seine – rather than inside a stadium – also came under scrutiny as officials released an 11-page security protocol aimed at shielding the event from the threats of terrorism, drone attacks and other risks. The protocol triggered a rare protest by the French capital’s famed bouquinistes, whose iconic riverside book kiosks will be dismantled for the occasion. The Seine churned up more headaches for organisers when pollution levels repeatedly forced the cancellation of trials for swimming events set to be held in the river.
Hosts fall short at Rugby World Cup
Doubts about France’s ability to host large sporting events had simmered since the Champions League final hosted at the Stade de France in May 2022, when French police notoriously doused Liverpool fans with tear gas and pepper spray amid a chaotic build-up marred by train strikes and issues of fake ticketing. This year’s Rugby World Cup, hosted at the same venue and in eight other French cities, was a chance for France to make amends and prove its readiness – a challenge organisers largely pulled off.
The seven-week rugby extravaganza kicked off with a memorable French win over old rivals New Zealand, which bolstered the home nation’s hopes of winning a maiden World Cup title. Those hopes took a blow when a fractured cheekbone stripped the hosts of their talismanic skipper Antoine Dupond. The fly-half returned with a face mask for the crunch quarter-final against title holders South Africa but could not prevent an agonising one-point defeat for Les Bleus. After edging England by the same margin in the semis, the Springboks went on to grab the narrowest of wins over the All Blacks in the final, clinching a record fourth World Cup title.
Bedbugs, tiger mosquitoes and trotinettes
Midway through the tournament, concern over an increase in the number of bedbugs rapidly spiralled into national hysteria, with the bloodsucking pests making headlines both in France and abroad. Cinemas, trains and Paris metros were said to be crawling with the tiny insects and one lawmaker brandished a vial of bugs in the National Assembly, urging the government to address the “explosive situation”. But officials insisted there was no scientific evidence to suggest any explosion in bedbugs, and that images posted on social media did not necessarily mean growing numbers.
Health authorities appeared more concerned about the spread of the Asian tiger mosquito as evidence emerged that the black-and-white striped insect had settled in 71 of the country’s 96 mainland départements (administrative units). With climate change creating perfect conditions for its proliferation, experts warned that the invasive species threatened to spread diseases like zika, dengue and chikungunya.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tackled a very different type of nuisance when she called a referendum on banning self-service e-scooters, citing irresponsible use and a rising accident toll. The April vote was billed as a showdown between trottinettes-hating boomers and Gen Z, the service’s main users. But only the former showed up for the low-turnout ballot, and the e-scooters were duly banished from the streets of Paris.
Ukrainian art, Gainsbourg and a fiery Palme d’Or
As always, the French capital’s museums and galleries served up an abundance of art shows, dedicated to the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall and Berthe Morisot. Paris exhibits showcased Ukrainian art work evacuated following Russia’s invasion last year, taking the fight for the country’s heritage to the world-famous Louvre. Photographer Robert Doisneau’s little-known work forging documents during the Nazi occupation was the subject of a groundbreaking show near Paris, and the iconic Left Bank home of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg finally opened to the public – its ashtrays still brimming with Gitanes cigarette butts.
Down on the Riviera, French director Justine Triet won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for her thrilling courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” – becoming only the third female director to win cinema’s most prestigious award. But it was a bittersweet success for Macron and his ministers, whose cultural policies and conduct during France’s pension battle she proceeded to rubbish in a fiery acceptance speech broadcast live on national television.
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