Last Friday in Paris a protestor challenged the police with a smoke grenade, his face made up like the Joker, a comic book killer that only Joaquin Phoenix could humanise and endow with a complex personality in a world gripped by violence, injustice and disturbing madness.
The Joker was preceded by the Dalí masks of Money Heist and Anonymous, which have turned them into icons that connect with the rage of our time. Many people whose lives and hopes are free-falling identify with them as they struggle to survive and try to protect themselves from power, which they perceive as an alien, abusive entity. They push their own strength and mental health to the limit in a world where indiscriminate violence against the weak is not limited to Warner movies and the characters created by DC Comics.
In France the unnamed Joker was protesting against Macron’s announcement that he will reform public retirement pensions, reviewing the forty-two existing systems and streamlining the special ones from which workers in transport and many other sectors benefit. Macron and his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, want to bring in a universal system whereby an employee’s retirement pension will be determined by their entire working career, not just their best twenty-five years or, in the case of civil servants, the last six months prior to retirement. This will lead to an overall drop in the payable pensions and will axe some of the consolidated benefits of France’s generous welfare state.
Even though the government’s draft has not been published, France’s general strike is an attempt to repeat the 1995 protest which prompted president Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Alain Juppé, to ditch a similar plan after the country ground to a halt for three weeks with huge street demonstrations that brought together over one million people. Back then protestors beat the French government like the gilet jaunes did a few months ago with the proposed rise in fuel prices, following days of unprecedented violence that empowered those who nowadays feel —and are— the losers in an economic change that strains and impoverishes the middle classes.
Protests and violence in politics are hardly new: they have gone hand in hand with numerous struggles that led to securing many collective rights and, in France, they are part and parcel of the country’s own political system. However, it is precisely because we know the precedents that we realise how easy it is for rage to turn into a violent outburst accompanied by a de-ideologising wave of anti-political sentiment that populism and authoritarianism learnt to use in the past. Likewise, the Joker is a disturbing character because we sympathise with the victim-turned-despicable executioner.
CONNECTING WITH FRUSTRATION
In the past we have seen how movements that banked on the people’s frustration have written some of worst pages in Europe’s history and how collective anxiety has been used by fascism and authoritarianism. Germany’s Angela Merkel knows this and was brave when she stated that “the memory of Nazi crimes is inseparable from German identity” during a trip to Auschwitz, in the south of Poland, the largest extermination camp ever built by the Nazis. During WWII over one million people were murdered in Auschwitz and that is exactly where this woman, a leader who has stood up for her country and a certain idea of Europe, admitted to being “deeply embarrassed by the atrocious crimes committed by Germany”.
Merkel’s words resonate beyond Germany's borders when she says that “remembering the crimes, naming the culprits and offering the victims a proper tribute is an endless responsibility. It is non-negotiable and inseparable from our country. It is part of our national identity”. Merkel knows that rage requires building floodbanks to contain it and her attitude is a call to acknowledge that there can be no justice without a prior agreement on the facts. That is a motto that journalists and historians should embrace, as well as an obligation for some political leaders who couldn’t be further from it in countries such as Spain. Spanish democracy will take a huge leap once a majority admits that justice is impossible unless there is agreement on the facts. Right then the debate will become more honest and progress will be possible for those who hold different views. For now, Pablo Casado’s Partido Popular and Vox are working in the exact opposite direction, bastardising the interpretation of the Franco regime, the spirit of the political Transition that ensued and the usefulness of the Constitution.
It it time to make democracies democratic. It is time to defend our imperfect democracy in the time of the Joker.