In these dreary days one of my few remaining distractions is perusing the readers' comments at the foot of online articles about Covid in French newspapers. It's like being ringside at a ferocious boxing bout. In the blue corner the Millennials, and in the red corner, the Soixante-Huitards, the 68ers, the French term for Baby Boomers. Neither generation is pulling their punches.
The Millennials are fed up with their sterile existence in which bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres have been closed since October. Liberte! they cry. They've seen the stats, that of France's 76,000 Covid deaths, the overwhelming majority are aged 65 or above; only 0.5 per cent are from the 15 to 44 demographic. Last week, the hashtag #JeNeMeConfineraiPas (I won't be confined) trended on Twitter, and an op-ed in Les Echos from the Millennial philosopher Gaspard Koenig that lamented the emotional and economic effects of the restrictions went viral. There are many Millennials who think that any future lockdown should restrict the movements only of the old and the vulnerable.
The 68ers are, in general, content with their lot. They may miss the odd night out but they believe the lockdown measures are justified. And the idea that they should be locked down while the young and healthy are allowed to resume a normal life is beyond the pale for most. Fraternite! they cry. Recently the president of the Senate, 71-year-old Gérard Larcher, dismissed the idea of an age-based lockdown because he believes it would be divisive.
Meanwhile professor Jean-Paul Stahl, 70, a prominent doctor with a strong media profile, appeared on TV last week and disparaged what he regards as the whining of 'spoiled children' who have been deprived of their liberty for a few months. Think of the young in Syria, he added.
The Millennials' gripe is that 68ers have spent their whole life thinking of no one but themselves. As for the charge of being spoiled, entitled brats... C'est L'hôpital qui se moque de la charité is the French for the 'pot calling the kettle black'.
Last March, I suggested on Coffee House that the strategy of Macron, who is neither a 68er or a Millennial, was to 'sacrifice' the nation's young to ensure the support of the elderly at next year's election. The 68ers are his most fervent supporters. In the 2017 presidential run-off with Marine Le Pen, 78 per cent of over-70s voted for Macron, while the leader of the National Front polled best among the 25-49 demographic. This age group is suffering most from the fact that the French economy, which shrank 8.3 per cent in 2020, is in its deepest recession since the second world war.
At the start of last week, much of the French media claimed Macron was on the brink of ordering France into a third lockdown amidst fears over the new strain of coronavirus making its way over the Channel. But he did not. Instead he urged the nation to respect the existing restrictions, which include a nationwide curfew at 6pm and the wearing of masks inside and out.
Macron may have been spooked by the riots in Holland last week, and the warning from his former interior minister, Christophe Castaner, that a third lockdown could result in widespread civil disobedience. The rebellion is already underway: on 28 and 29 January, police raided twenty four Parisian restaurants that had opened on the sly. In Nice, a restaurant reopened last week. It was soon shut down, but not before it had done a roaring trade with supportive diners.
That the pressure is getting to Macron was evident in his intemperate outburst on Friday against the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine for the over 65s.
Throughout his presidency, Macron has encouraged comparisons between himself and Charles de Gaulle. But the one similarity he will wish to avoid is the ignominious end to the latter's political career.
De Gaulle suffered irreparable damage to his authority in the protests of 1968, limping on for another year before resigning. The generation who did for de Gaulle now looks to Macron for protection while their grandchildren want their freedom. The decision he must make this month is whether to save the 68ers with a third lockdown or start giving the young back their liberty.