October 12, 2010


The French: a guide for the perplexed (Tim King, 12th October 2010, The Prospect)

But ordinary people—I mean adults—are willing to lose a day’s pay walking up and down a Boulevard shouting slogans about something that’s already history?

It is crazy, but today is a real trial of strength. Sarkozy knew the only way to get his reform through was to do it fast, without discussion. Once you ask a Frenchman his opinion you’ll be there until the bottle is empty and neither of you can remember what you’re talking about. So Sarkozy opened the formal discussions on the eve of the summer holidays—everyone was trying to calculate whether they could fit all the kids, bikes, boats into the car, what the rented house would be like, how far the beach, where the nearest two-star restaurant. When Sarkozy began the debate in parliament in early September some members were still wiping the sand off their feet – and by the time they’d dug the sun cream-smeared text out of the beach bag the bill had already passed through. Same thing last week in the Senate – we were told to expect 3 weeks’ debate, then, at the end of the second day, the main clause is voted through. None of the rest matters. Sarkozy’s plan is to make today’s strikers look irrelevant—Die-hard Socialist Dinosaurs. He’s betting most people will agree it’s irrelevant and won’t show up. Then Sarkozy can say, on prime time TV news this evening (which he has already booked), “I knew with time and careful thought the French people would come round to my way of thinking.”

But he may have it wrong. There’s a lot hanging on today. If the unions can convincingly claim around 2 million have turned out (police figures would have to be a little under half that) then a lot of public sector workers—trains in particular, dockers, but teachers too, and school-kids—will start a series of rolling, indefinite strikes which will spell real trouble for Sarkozy.

And all this for a pension reform that’s already signed and sealed?

When the French take to the streets in large numbers it is rarely for the stated reason and certainly not for one single reason. Friday’s vote in the Senate heralded the end of la grande illusion. Retiring at 60 symbolises all that is best and most glorious in France. Established by Presidential decree in 1982, it became the corner-stone of the 1980’s fiction that from now on we would all work less, with the state picking up the tab, assuring everyone a happy, long, well-educated, cultured, healthy life. An offer, it goes without saying, unique to France. Now the state itself is the problem, everyone having to work longer to bail it out. Doctors appear on television to admit the public health system is a mess, despite being one of the world’s most expensive. Poverty in France used never be mentioned, now it is a fact of life. French universities are recognised as trailing behind other countries. Unemployment does not go down, nor does the public debt. Even the state-aided national champions—Alstom high-speed trains for example or Dassault jet-fighters—no longer sell. Welcome to the 21st century.

Behind and above all this, many people feel France under Sarkozy has lost its grandeur, without which, as De Gaulle said, it cannot really be France.

In fairness to the French, the End of History was easy for us, it just confoirmed that the Anglospheric resistance to the Enlightenment had been right all along. For continental Europe generally, and the French in particular, the failure of the Age of Reason meant not just that they'd pursued false gods for several centuries but that all the blood of its victims traced directly to their Revolution. Easy to see why they're so discombobulated by it all.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 12, 2010 6:21 AM
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