France’s Latest Way to Sound Anger Over Pensions Law: Saucepans

Spreading across a highway so that no cars could pass, 100 or so protesters banged saucepans in a deafening racket that echoed through this remote valley of eastern France last month. They were marching toward a nearby castle where the French president was due to arrive, determined to stand in his way and create cacophony around the visit.

Suddenly, a helicopter carrying President Emmanuel Macron appeared overhead, the sound of its blades briefly drowning out the din. Although the boisterous demonstrators didn’t stop the French leader’s visit, the scene was an earsplitting reminder of the fury that has dogged his government since it enacted a highly unpopular pension overhaul this spring that raised the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.

For weeks, opponents of the change have been harassing Mr. Macron and his cabinet members by banging pots and pans on their official trips. In a country with no shortage of kitchenware, the protests, known as “casserolades,” after the French word for saucepan, have disrupted or stopped dozens visits by ministers to schools and factories.

Like the “yellow vest” protest movement of 2018-19 that began over fuel prices and then expanded to include multiple grievances, the pan beating has also become the symbol of a broader discontent in France after months of large street demonstrations failed to push the government to back down on the pension changes.

“The desire to deafen and respond with noise reflects a kind of discredit of the political discourse,” Christian Salmon, a French essayist and columnist for the online publication Slate, said in an interview. “We are not being listened to, we are not being heard after weeks of protests. So now we are left with a single option, which is not to listen to you either.”

Mr. Macron’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement is based on his conviction that the country’s current pension system, which is based on payroll taxes, is financially unsustainable. Because retirees supported by active workers are living longer, people must also work longer, he says.

The pension law was pushed through using a constitutional provision that avoided a full parliamentary vote. Mr. Macron defended the move in a televised interview on Monday as an act of responsibility, noting that key government decisions in the past, such as building France’s nuclear-weapons force, had used the same mechanism.

The casserolades began a month ago during a televised speech by Mr. Macron that was intended as a way to move on from the pension upheaval. Determined to keep up the fight, protesters gathered outside City Halls across France to bang pots and pans. In Paris, many residents joined in from their apartment windows, filling entire neighborhoods with metallic notes.

The culinary battle cry spread fast. Before long, members of the government were greeted by a cookware cacophony on official trips across the country.

“We want to show them that we’re not giving up the fight,” said Nicole Draganovic, a protester who was banging a saucepan on the highway at La Cluse-et-Mijoux in eastern France last month.

Around her, amid the red flags of labor unions, were the sounds of myriad utensils from a typical French kitchen: sieves, lids and frying pans banged in rhythm with metal and wooden spoons. Demonstrators without pots were clanging on metal fences that lined the highway.

“It’s like a symphony,” Ms. Draganovic said.

Several people involved in the weeks of protests said the main message was anger over the government’s decision to push through the pension overhaul without the support of a majority of voters or of labor unions.

“It’s a total denial of democracy,” said Stéphanie Allume, 55, who was bashing a stainless-steel saucepan during a May Day demonstration in Paris. “When it’s no longer possible to dialogue with our government, we drown out their voices with the noise of our pots.”

The casserolades — the latest stage of a protest movement that began with peaceful marches that drew millions into the streets and then spawned some “wild protests” marked by heavy vandalism — also reflect a centuries-long protest tradition in France.

Pan beating dates back to the Middle Ages in a custom, called “charivari,” that was intended to shame ill-matched couples, according to Emmanuel Fureix, a historian at University Paris-Est Créteil. The tradition then took a political turn in the 1830s, under King Louis Philippe I, with people banging pots and pans at night under the windows of judges’ and politicians’ homes to demand greater freedoms.

Those saucepans, Mr. Fureix said, were “an everyday object, an instrument that embodied the voice of the people” at a time of poor political representation — a theme echoed in today’s casserolades. “The revival of gestures that belonged to an undemocratic age, the 19th century, is precisely the symptom of a democratic crisis,” he said.

Mr. Macron has been visibly annoyed by the pan beating, saying that “it’s not saucepans that will make France move forward” — to which Cristel, the French cookware manufacturer, responded on Twitter: “Monsieur le Président, at @cristelfrance we make saucepans that take France forward!!!”

The French leader has also strongly rejected the idea that the country has reached a democratic crisis, noting that the pension law was adopted in accordance with the country’s Constitution. In the televised interview on Monday, he tried to move past the contentious reform by announcing tax cuts valued at 2 billion euros, about $2.2 billion, for the middle class before the end of his term.

“The country is moving forward,” Mr. Macron said.

But unions have called for another nationwide day of protest early next month, and the government’s response to the casserolades speaks to the unease.

Many ministers now announce their travel plans at the last minute for fear of being surprised by saucepan bangers. And the police have used antiterrorism laws to ban several protests and, on one occasion, confiscated demonstrators’ pots after the local authorities banned “the use of portable sound devices.”

Mr. Fureix said that the government had been “trapped” by the casserolades, just like Louis Philippe I in his time.

“If they repress, they make a fool of themselves,” he said. “That’s the case today, as it was in the 19th century when trials were transformed into political platforms for opponents. If they do nothing, the phenomenon grows.”

And grow it has.

A website created by a union of tech workers now ranks French regions for casserolades based on the level of cacophony and the importance of the affected government official. At a recent protest in Paris, demonstrators held up a giant pot and spoon made of cardboard, instantly providing the surrounding crowds with a mascot to rally around.

The ubiquity of the pots and pans has been such that Mr. Salmon, the essayist, drew a parallel to the “yellow vest” protests. Both, he said, are objects “on which everyone can project their own meanings” and demands.

At the May Day protest, Ms. Allume said she saw wide-ranging significance behind the saucepans, including the struggle to put food on the table and the desire to voice one’s anger. She said that her own pot that she was banging had once been used to cook pasta and then to melt depilatory wax.

“It has had several lives, and now it ends up in a protest,” she said.

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