France: This isn't just about pensions
19 octobre 2010
What with service stations out of petrol, protesters setting cars on fire, schools closed, the mass demonstrations against the pension reform are plunging France into chaos. But it’s not just about pensions: the people are up in arms about what many consider an unjust system.
Now the truckers are at it too. Since last weekend they’ve been blockading roads to vent their wrath at the pension reform. Oil refinery workers have already barricaded petroleum depots in an effort to stop the supply of petrol to the entire country, and railway workers have been on strike for days. Secondary school and university students are making moves to spearhead the movement. And they all intend to take to the streets again today for the seventh day of nationwide protest to date.
Sociologists have already warned of the risk of a conflagration. The nation’s nerves are raw. Emotions are running high, especially since the wave of strikes produced a martyr in the eyes of the resistance movement: 16-year-old Geoffrey Tidjani, hit by a rubber bullet in clashes between youths and riot police, might be left permanently blind in one eye.
French people for reform, but for strikes too
Social scientist Michel Fize is already drawing parallels to the legendary events of May 1968. Then again, times have changed. Back then, faith in collective happiness, a vision of a better society, inspirited millions of French people, especially the young. But now there is no such faith, no vision. On the contrary, young people now bemoan a total lack of future prospects.
Union leaders and opposition politicians insist that the demonstrators are specifically seeking to derail what they feel is an unfair pension reform. And yet that interpretation is not terribly convincing, it falls short of the mark. The pension reform is certainly imbalanced in some respects, but that alone is not enough to explain the mass protests.
As clearly shown in opinion polls, most French people accept the fact that, with an increased life expectancy, they’ll have to work longer to draw full benefits. So how come the overwhelming majority of them are now fighting tooth and nail against a reform that they accept in principle?
Labour minister tainted by scandal
72 per cent of the French surveyed say they sympathise with the protesters and are in favour of striking indefinitely, if need be, to prevent passage of the amendment. It is certainly unfair that, should the statutory retirement age be raised as planned from 60 to 62, those who start working right after high school will have to slog away for 44 years till they draw a pension, whereas executives can mop up full benefits after only 41.5 years on the job. But it’s hard to believe two-thirds of the population advocate bringing the country to a standstill for that reason alone.
No, these protests are also about the principle of the matter. What is driving millions into the streets is not only a partly unjust pension reform, but injustice per se. Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency has added abundant fuel to the fire of a deep-seated suspicion: that “those at the top” expect the people to make sacrifices while they themselves are living off the fat of the land.
When it emerged that labour minister Eric Woerth, tasked with winning the electorate over to the pension reform, had pocketed donations for the ruling UMP party from the tax-dodging billionaire Liliane Bettencourt, that was but the latest in a series of inglorious scandals.
Protesters have rammed their message home
Hence the French outrage, as they clamour for égalité and fraternité, like so many times before, in the spirit of the French Revolution. Who should help equality and fraternity to victory if not the people?
The constitution of the 5th Republic, which took effect in 1958, gave the president quasi-monarchic powers, in the interest of political stability, and restricted “interference” by parliament and political parties to a bare minimum. On the other hand, seeing as only 8% of the nation’s workforce is organised, French labour unions are actually weaker than their punchy slogans would suggest. So, given the dearth of checks and balances, the people, traditionally deeply mistrustful of the powers that be anyway, feel it incumbent on them to rein in the authority of the state.
The protesters have rammed their message home to the politicians. The government, which intends to stand by its pension reform, has declared its willingness to abolish the tax ceiling for the rich: budget minister François Baroin says the “tax shield” introduced by Sarkozy has become a symbol of injustice. Whether that will satisfy the people is another matter, though so far it sure doesn’t look that way.
Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz