Shock therapy

Sarkozys mistake

It’s no surprise. For over two centuries, protest has been a part of the political genetic code of French society. In addition to being constitutionally guaranteed, street protests and strikes are natural ways of fully exercising citizenship. Each new generation considers that participating in cyclic fits of social anger is a rite of passage to become a full member of the democracy.

This time the crisis was triggered by the French president. Discredited and besmirched by various rank scandals, blinded by the International Monetary Fund and credit rating agencies, Nicholas Sarkozy is proving oblivious to people’s concerns and is trying to demolish one of the crown jewels of the welfare state: the right to retire at the age of 60.

Won after decades of struggle, this social victory is seen in the French collective imagination as untouchable. Sarkozy, who in 2008 promised to respect it, has underestimated the public’s attachment to this right. Taking advantage of the shock produced by the global economic crisis, he is trying to push through a reform that would raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 62, increase the contribution period to 41.5 years, and raise the age at which you can collect a full pension from 65 to 67 years.

Some believe that Sarkozy’s real goal is dismantling the public social security system based on solidarity among generations, and replace it with a private scheme that would represent a market of between 40-100 billion euros. They note that the insurance company that would benefit most from such a move is the Malakoff Mederic group, whose CEO is none other than Guillaume Sarkozy, the brother of the president.

The reaction of the major unions is unanimous. Without rejecting the proposal entirely, they are demanding changes, arguing that the cost of the reform would fall primarily on salary workers, already reeling from the crisis, and that this would create greater inequality. They organised a few days of protests before the summer. But the government arrogantly maintained its blanket refusal to negotiate.

That was a major error. When people returned to work in September after the holidays, the general assemblies met in hundreds of workplaces and salary workers reaffirmed their ‘not a step backwards’ position. They were convinced that giving up something as sacred as retirement at 60 would trigger an avalanche of additional cuts in social security, health care, education, and public services.

These meetings demonstrated that union leadership was much less radical than the rank and file, exasperated by the constant erosion of social advances. Immediately after, there was a rash of collective actions across the country; millions took to the streets; the prolonged general strike slowed transport to a crawl; certain cities, like Marseilles, were entirely paralysed. With every addition day of actions new elements of society joined the protest, which assumed unprecedented forms.


The most original is the blockade of refineries and oil depots. The most notable is the massive incorporation of secondary school students into the protests. Many assumed this was the Facebook generation, autistic and self-absorbed, but their confrontational energy revealed an anxiety about the future and a fear that for the first time since 1945, if nothing changed, they would be worse off than their parents. The new neoliberal model destroyed the social ladder.

The protests are the crystallisation of a profound social malaise and an accumulation of woes: unemployment, precariousness, poverty (there are 8 million poor), the hardships of daily life. Thus it is not merely a matter of pensions but a fight for another social model.
What is most important is that a sizable majority of the French people — 60 per cent to 70 per cent — support the protests. How is it possible that the France of 1945, ravaged by World War II, could afford a welfare state and yet today’s France, the fifth greatest economy in the world, cannot? Never before has there been such wealth.

In 2009 the five largest banks reported profits of 11 billion euros while the 40 largest companies cleared 47 billion euros. Why not tax these colossal sums to benefit the pensioners? The European Commission estimates that a small tax on financial transactions would bring EU governments between 145-372 billion euros per year — certainly enough to shore up the pension systems.

But neoliberal dogma requires that capital remain off limits for taxation, which would be increased instead on individual income.

And thus the current mood in France. The general feeling is that neither of the opposing forces can give in. The unions, driven by a groundswell of radicalisation, remain united after months of their offensive. To give in would be a defeat like that of the British miners by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, which spelled the end of workers resistance in the UK and opened the door to ultraliberal ‘shock therapy.’

Sarkozy has the backing of the EU, the IMF, and European banking and business sectors, which are terrified that the ‘French spark’ could ignite the whole continent. The defeat of his reforms would condemn him to defeat at the polls in 2012. The social history of France teaches that when protests spread to the extent they have today, they will never recede. They always win.


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