March 27, 2023 - 3:25pm

Shocking scenes emerged this weekend from Sainte-Soline, a rural district in Western France. Police vehicles burned as protestors hurled rocks and fireworks. At one point, police officers on quad bikes used what appeared to be light mobilised infantry tactics against the protesters, who opposed the building of a large water reservoir to be used for farm irrigation. 

The clashes in Sainte-Soline come after similar scenes across the rest of France. Two weeks ago riots broke out on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, with 120 arrested after a night of violence and chaos. These protests were not due to waterworks, but because President Emmanuel Macron announced that the retirement age was to be raised from 62 to 64.

Commentators were quick to point out that pensions have long been a hot topic in France, liable to generating protests and public backlash. As far back as 1995, the country saw mass strikes against proposals to raise the retirement age. The so-called Juppé Plan — named after Alain Juppé, then newly Prime Minister — was quickly put aside after the largest mass protests since 1968. Coupled with an outside perception that France is a country uniquely prone to civil unrest, this provides enough context for most commentators.

Yet what does pension reform have to do with a reservoir in Western France? Why did the scenes look so similar in Paris and Sainte-Soline despite the fact that they had radically different causes? Some of this is probably explained by the involvement of far-Left agitators in both events. Yet this explanation only begs the question: why are these radical elements so easily able to whip up a mob?

Perhaps the best way to understand what is happening in France — and why it may have broader importance for other European countries — is to consider when the recent protests actually started. Without much fanfare, on 16th October of last year, tens of thousands of Parisians took to the streets. The protests were organised by Left-wing opposition groups, including the same trade unions that organised the recent pension reform protests. Their concern? Rising living costs. Similar protests followed in January, with thousands of workers marching across the country to demand solutions to the cost-of-living crisis.

Polling has been indicating that this has been a major issue for some time. A European-wide poll taken in October last year showed that a majority of voters in Europe’s four largest countries expected social unrest and public protests in the coming months due to rising living costs. Perhaps these voters’ prognostications were not so much accurate as self-fulfilling. Interestingly, the poll showed that the problems were getting particularly acute in France. In Britain and Germany one in five people said that they were coping well with rising living costs; in Poland and France only one in twenty gave the same response.

All this leads to the conclusion that pensions and reservoirs might only be precipitating factors in the social unrest we are seeing in France. The real cause may well be rising living costs. The first event of the French Revolution — the so-called Day of the Tiles — was nominally caused by aristocrats refusing to relinquish their fiscal privilege. But the events were precipitated by rising living costs, in turn caused by poor harvests, leading to high costs for bread.

This raises the uncomfortable prospect that what we are seeing may not be unique to France. Living costs are rising across Europe, driven by an energy crisis partly caused by western sanctions against Russia. Notably, in January, electricity prices were raised by 15% in France; without government subsidies they would have doubled. Meanwhile, gas imports into Europe this year are at historic lows. Liquefied natural gas has replaced some of the Russian gas, but not nearly enough. This suggests that we have a hard winter ahead of us — likely much harder than the last. What we are seeing in France may be the beginning of much larger social unrest across Europe in the coming months.

Philip Pilkington is a macroeconomist and investment professional, and the author of The Reformation in Economics