“No withdrawal, no Olympics.” The slogan spread across social media after President Emmanuel Macron signed a law raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in fiery protest. Macron, who undemocratically fast-tracked the legislation, has seen his popularity slump like a wet baguette. A recent poll showed that if last spring’s election between Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen were replayed today, the neofascist would trounce the centrist president 55 percent to 45 percent. Activists even torched the awning of one his favorite brasseries.
“No withdrawal, no Olympics”—or #pasderetraitpasdeJO on social media—speaks to the mood of the country. Danielle Simonnet, a member of France’s National Assembly from the left-wing populist party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), told us, the new law signals an “authoritarian drift” under Macron and that linking the pension law and the Paris 2024 Olympics indicates “a deep political crisis marking a strong aspiration for a Sixth Republic so that the president stops behaving like a monarch against the people.”
Simonnet added, “Connecting the rejection of the Olympics with the rejection of the pension law marks the level of popular awareness of the same logic that underlies them: a policy for the profits of a handful, at the expense of the overwhelming majority.”
Last month, a French labor union cut power to Olympic sites—including the Olympic Village and the Stade de France stadium, the Olympic Stadium for Paris 2024—to protest the French Senate’s vote in favor of the law. Now, with the law on the books, calls to disrupt the preparations for the Paris Games, if not the actual Olympics themselves, are ricocheting across France.
Paris-based anti-Olympics activist Natsuko Sasaki told us that people in France “use the #pasderetraitpasdeJO because they think sabotaging the Games is a good idea to make Emmanuel Macron lose face.” Sasaki, an organizer with the anti-Olympics group Saccage 2024, noted that the upsurge presents a political education opportunity for activists: “People who use the hashtag may not know that some dedicated anti-Olympics activists, like myself, have been working for years. Many of them may not know workers’ gardens were destroyed for an Olympic training pool, immigrant workers lost their home for the sake of the Olympic Village, a new onramp for the Games runs directly alongside a school in Saint-Denis Pleyel, a public park was privatized for the media village. They may not know that France became the first European country that allows AI video surveillance for the Games.”
Because the Olympics touch so many parts of the host cities, the games animate activists who are already working on an array of issues, from gentrification to ecological sustainability to the economy. Activists tend to form anti-Games coalitions in the lead-up to the Olympics, but then, once the Olympics end, these coalitions dissipate as protesters slide back into their everyday activism. When you add the efforts to repress these activists through special rules and laws passed for the Olympics, it starts to look like a game of activist whack-a-mole.
Before and during the 2012 London Summer Olympics, activists demonstrated against gentrification and intensified policing in the five host boroughs for the Games. Racial-justice protesters used the Olympics to raise awareness of racist policing in their communities. In Rio de Janeiro, protesters rallied against the displacement of people whose homes in favelas were being destroyed to make way for the 2016 Olympic Games. In Tokyo, protesters marched in the Shinjuku district against greenwashing and the misspending of public money.
Macron deserves much of the credit for turning the Olympics, which were largely flying under the social radar in France, into a target for activist ire. Benoît Bréville summed it up this way: Macron “imposed his pension reform brutally, ignoring a protest movement whose size and determination he should have been able to grasp.” The juxtaposition of shrinking pensions and a lavish sporting spectacle makes for an obvious symbol of Macron.
The question facing France is going to be who benefits politically from this collision of an anti-Olympics movement with working-class anger. The left needs to be a home for French discontent. If it does not become one, the right, as it did in Brazil, can swoop in, fasten itself on the issue of Olympic corruption—linked, of course, to racist scapegoating—and find a path to power. Polls show support for left-wing initiatives like protecting pensions, but it’s Le Pen who is leading in the polls. The mere thought of Le Pen in power should be enough to make sure that anti-Olympics rage is used to organize movements for hope—and not divisive despair.