Sarkozy's Perfect Storm French Fury Goes Beyond Pensions

REUTERS

A Commentary by Ullrich Fichtner

Part 2: A Declaration of War against the Unions


The word has spread in France that the contributory pension system can only remain viable if it is modified to conform to demographic and financial necessities. The current situation is, roughly speaking, comparable to the situation in Germany before the changes of recent years. The legal retirement age is 65 (and is expected to increase to 67), and the contribution period is 40.5 years (and is expected to increase to 41.5 years). The fact that the numbers 60 and 62 are constantly appearing in news reports is the result of confusing terminology, cultural differences and an attempt to stultify the positions of the unions and the Socialists.

In fact, 60 is merely the earliest possible retirement age for workers who have been paying into the system for at least 40 years. Anyone who retires at 60 in France without having completed the full contribution period must accept substantial reductions in benefits. The only problem is that Sarkozy clearly has no interest in initiating a socially accepted reform that has the support of the unions. In fact, such a reform has hardly been discussed at all. Basically, the outcome was announced before the beginning of any debate on the issue. The bill was endorsed by Sarkozy's cabinet at a meeting on July 13, in the middle of the country's summer vacation. Since then, its key points have been portrayed as non-negotiable.

In other words, the government -- and in recent months Sarkozy alone is ultimately France's government -- never sought the possibility of a sustainable, widely accepted solution. Instead, it used pension reform as a declaration of war against the unions, the Socialists and other adversaries. The intended message, from the very beginning, was that the administration was unwilling to collaborate with these elements, and that it was not going to allow anyone to water down its plans. There was certainly also a hope that the left would become radicalized again, which would deprive it of some of its appeal in the coming elections.

The outcome is now one-sided and warped. Workers, particularly civil servants, are taking on virtually the entire burden of the reform, while employers emerge largely unscathed. Worst yet, workers with extremely long contribution periods are penalized, women are put at a disadvantage and hardship cases are not sufficiently taken into account. It is, in a nutshell, a socially unjust reform. The manner in which it was (not) negotiated is, in a political sense, perhaps the greatest scandal of all, while the current turmoil is the logical consequence.

It was former President François Mitterrand who once noted that the exercise of the office of president in France amounted to a "permanent coup." Sarkozy is taking Mitterand's words at face value, as he tenaciously expands his power. His team of ministers has long been little more than an arm of the Elysee Palace, while Sarkozy's majority group in the French parliament has deteriorated into a club of presidential yes-men. Edwy Plenel, the head of a news website called Mediapart, now refers to Sarkozy as a "Caesar-like hyper-president," a man who gets his way "at any price, as fast as possible and, if necessary, by force."

Fears of a Misguided Transformation of French Democracy

The current strike and protest movement began on Sept. 7. Since then, millions have taken to the streets on a series of national action days, and by no means all the protestors were organized by unions, opposition parties and other organizations. Some of the people who are now getting involved have never taken part in protest marches before. They are the freshly politicized and unorganized who fear a misguided transformation of French democracy and are deeply suspicious of the supposed common sense that the French government prefers to invoke in place of the constitution today.

The opposition movement, the overwhelming majority of which is peaceful, is now being regularly joined by representatives of the disoriented youth of the low-income suburbs -- the same people that Sarkozy, when he was interior minister, referred to as "scum," and who Sarkozy, as president, has treated as scum. Now it seems that everything he had promised them, in the form of his so-called "Marshall Plan for the suburbs," has dissolved into lies and vanished into thin air. Now, not surprisingly, they are seeking the tumult of the street -- to set cars on fire, loot shops and smash windows. And it wouldn't be surprising if scenes like those that unfolded during the 2005 riots were repeated in the near future.

Nowadays, the uncomfortable truth in France is that everyone is constantly anticipating new eruptions, and that Sarkozy can never find a conciliatory word. He never even attempts to bring calm to the situation -- instead, he constantly manages to escalate things even more. And each new outbreak of violence is subsequently used as ammunition against the protesters.

Since the Roma expulsions began, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux has behaved as if he were experiencing the most pleasant weeks of his life. Commenting on riots in Lyon last week, he said: "France does not belong to hooligans, to pillagers and hoodlums," although it wasn't quite clear whether he was also referring to the peaceful protesters as well. And Prime Minister François Fillon said, in reference to the ongoing strikes: "No one has the right to take a country hostage."

That may well be true. The only question is: In France today, who exactly is the hostage and who is the hostage-taker?

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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