The French are known for striking, but this time their cries may not be heard, writes Marianne Madden
The French strikes are a never-ending saga. The protesting instinct is deeply embedded in the nation’s psyche and they appear to strike as a knee-jerk reaction to any cutbacks to their comprehensive social system.
The current strikes have generated much intrigue but low levels of international sympathy. The workforce is protesting against proposals to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018, and to raise the full pension age from 65 to 67. The question is whether the French are simply getting worked up instead of, well, working?
French workers receive extensive social security benefits, enjoy a 35-hour week and five weeks compulsory vacation. The French have a life expectancy of 81 compared to the Irish life expectancy of 78. So, under the new policy, the French will work three years less than the Irish, while living an average of three years longer. Accordingly, the longer people live, the more they cost the state in health and pension costs. Indeed, it is the success of the social system in providing such comprehensive healthcare which helps people to live longer.
A shifting demographic renders the current system unsustainable. A larger workforce is needed to contribute, but they are refusing. The social system is therefore a victim of its own success.
Could Sarkozy have it right for once? The French president has backed his political career on the pension reform and his popularity has fallen as a result. But in the face of emptying coffers, this reform may be more a question of necessity than of policy.
Irrespective of how costs were cut, the French would have taken to the streets regardless. There is irony in that the controversial president might end his political career on a measure that is actually beneficial in the long run. The Socialist Party has promised to return the retirement age to 60 if elected in 2012. Public dissatisfaction with President Sarkozy proves that people should be more careful who they elect, as not every inept leader can be bullied.
Pension reforms have been met with strong disapproval in the past – strikes were successful against Chirac’s similar proposals in 1995. But this time the government will not back down; the problem is that neither will the people. Consequently, a confrontation has ensued, with Sarkozy ordering the opening of barricaded fuel depots.
The strike represents a modern-day Bastille, a standoff between French citizens and their leaders – essentially, this has always been how the country has achieved social change. Indignant cries of ‘non!’ may have inspired nations to follow the example of French revolutionaries, but in a modern context we are left looking blankly on. All nationalities complain; the difference appears to be that the French expect something to be done about it.
However, public vigilance is what creates favourable social policy in the first place. The French are demanding, passionate and some would say annoying when it comes to enforcing their socialist ideals. Unions have mobilised large sectors of society. Students in particular have taken to the streets in huge numbers, protesting on behalf of parents and grandparents.
The French are struggling to maintain the current retirement age because lowering it in the first place represented such a victory for the Socialist Party in 1983. The reform represents a step backwards, with social benefits achieved by past generates being dismantled. The strikes seem ridiculous from an international perspective, but are somewhat rationalised in a domestic context.
Disruptions are widespread; imposing fuel shortages, cancelling flights and taking students out of the classroom. A law has been established ensuring that minimum service levels in sectors such as transport are maintained. Consequently, the effects of the protests have not been as damaging to the economy as they could have been, while airlines and oil refineries have been the worst hit industries.
However, if students are to inherit an economy similar to the one they grew up in, they might do well to recognise the growing financial burden of pensions and the crushing cost of long-term strike action on private enterprise and on the state. The French are reacting as any indulged child would when their playtime is cut short – by having a good bawl. But with riots and economic self-harm among the possible repercussions, can we not expect the oldest population of Europe to finally grow up?
How the latest mobilisation will end remains to be seen. The senate has passed the bill and the government is hoping that the finality of the reform will settle the riots. People power appears to have failed, having become something of a modern myth.
Maybe working the French harder and longer will leave them with less energy to devote to the popular national pastime of taking to the streets. One thing is for sure though, the costs of the disruptions will have significant repercussions. Principles aside, the question remains: is two years extra paid work in a lifetime worth the additional wounds in an already flailing economic beast?