The Bright Side of Merde

Hopeful thoughts about France's national strikes


Marseilles, never the world's cleanest city, has become the rat capital of the world this week. Garbage men (like much of the state workforce) are striking to protest proposed pension reforms, so the trash is piling up on sidewalks under the hot sun, and the port vermin are gorging on cheese rinds.

Elsewhere in France, the protest kids are lighting the mounds of rubbish on fire and rioting at the National Opera, while their Communist Party sympathizers are serenading the National Assembly with "The Internationale." My wife, who is there for a visit, has spent much of her vacation driving various family members hundreds of kilometers because the rail network has been effectively shut down. Lucky for her this time, the farmers aren't burning sheep on the highway.

For those who have come to view France as the harbinger of a second Holocaust or the Islamic Republic of France, it is tempting to interpret this latest round of unionista chaos as the first stages of a violent revolution. But one does not need be a frog-loving Fifth Columnist to see a few bright sides to this depressingly familiar story.

First, is the existence of the reform proposal itself. Unlike some other countries you could name, France has recognized that its low rate of childbirth will cause its pay-as-you-go retirement system to go bankrupt if not reformed, and quick. Center-right Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former government minister in charge of small business, wants to increase the amount of time state employees must work before receiving full retirement benefits from 37.5 years to 40 years, putting them on equal footing with private-sector workers by 2008. In 2012, that would be bumped up to 41 years; by 2020 it would be 42.

This sends a welcome message to France's umpteen million fonctionnaires: why the hell should people always be encouraged to work for the state? As it stands, college graduates have responded to decades of double-digit youth unemployment by fighting like wolverines for safe positions as teachers, librarians, and the like. The resulting bloat and societal schism has meant that people still talk about "the private sector" as if it's an exotic and slightly dangerous foreign country (as in, "Jean-Marc isn't showing much solidarity with the strikers." "Yeah, well, that's because he works in the private sector.")

Raffarin's common-sense proposal, as UPI points out, is being spurred on by the European Union. (Yes, that same famously bureaucratic body that has forced France to privatize state industries, allow more foreign competition and investment, open its borders, and adhere to something approaching fiscal discipline.) He has also been carefully laying the political groundwork for reform since coming to power last May, reports the Guardian's Jon Henley.

"Even the most hardline of trade unionists admit that some kind of change to the country's pension scheme is necessary," Henley writes.

This is new. Raffarin and President Jacques Chirac are convincing more and more people that they won't back down. With the governments of Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden and Great Britain all attempting to tackle pension reform, it's becoming possible that Europe will actually confront one of its most pressing crises.

Another reason to be optimistic is that the population appears, at long last, to be getting at least slightly annoyed with the nonstop confrontation and inconvenience.

Here's the news from today, for example: "Protests against the French government's pensions reform proposals faltered Thursday…More than half a million high school students were able to begin sitting their leaving examination—the baccalaureat—after striking teachers responded to popular pressure not to boycott the tests." (Amusingly enough, one of the questions on today's national philosophy exam was: "Is dialogue the route to truth?")

Eight years ago, there was enormous popular support for a series of national strikes against the center-right government of Alain Juppe, who tried to ram through a similar pension proposal (plus other austerity measures) and was promptly booted out of office. "Striking workers from the state railway SNCF," writes Henley, "have said they no longer dare wear their uniform to go to rallies because of the insults it attracts, and one poll published yesterday suggested only 52 percent of the public backed the protest, against 66 percent a couple of weeks ago."

As Henley points out, state employees already receive a host of preferential benefits, from early-retirement options, to lower rates on bank loans, to special fonctionnaire stores. If the private sector finally says "enough," France's moribund politics could change in an awful hurry.

Already, the Le Pen scare from last spring, and the resultant national discussion on rising crime rates in run-down suburbs, have given rise to "the French Giuliani"—the controversial and popular Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who many see as Chirac's likely successor.

Sarkozy has already managed to transform what had become a demoralized, law enforcement vs. racism debate, and now Raffarin has deputized him to sell the pension policy to a public trained to view every "reform" as the thievery of hard-fought rights.

If Sarkozy helps stare down the public unions—and that's still a huge "if"—could the French Giuliani be auditioning to become the new French Thatcher?

Probably not. Still, just 15 years ago, America was quaking at the same Western European economic model it mocks now. And 10 years before that, England seemed far more likely to export coal-miner syndacilism than an historic wave of privatization. In French politics, one clings to whatever optimism one can find.