France: Rien Ne Va Plus

Europe’s social politics are coming undone. Financially unsustainable national pension systems have forced country after country to face up to painful reforms and tighten the belt. Proposals to cut retirement benefits or increase the age of retirement, however, have fueled protests across the continent. First in Germany, then Austria, Italy, and now France: Union workers are determined to fight back. “[France] is suffering from ‘social malaria,’ ” claimed Christophe Barbier in L’Express (June 6), “A chronic disease that won’t kill it but will sap all
its strength.”

The country is caught up in crippling union-led strikes and sometimes violent mass demonstrations. “A trial of strength has begun between the government and sections of the population,” observed Jean-Marie Colombani in Le Monde (May 27). On May 13, dubbed “Black Tuesday” by the French media, and again on June 3, transport came to a standstill. And in contrast to what the editors of Le Figaro had claimed (June 4), that the protest movement seemed to be running out of steam, June 10 brought another round of strikes and demonstrations.

On May 28, France’s center-right government had approved a draft bill that would gradually increase the required period of contributions to pension funds. In addition, the retirement age would be adjusted from the current average of 55 to 60-65 in 2020. “One word…sums up the spirit of this decisive month of June,” opined Barbier in L’Express (June 6). “The word is confusion.” Analysts predict that without reforms, France’s pension system will collapse in 20 years, and the country will follow Germany into a deep recession. “There is no alternative,” observed Jean-Marcel Bouguereau in Le Nouvel Observateur (June 4). “[Fance] allowed itself for the past decade to be lulled by the comfortable illusions of the leisure society...for which we may now have to pay dearly.”

The French media strongly criticized Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s willingness to push through rigid reforms no matter the costs, and some commentators called for a referendum on the issue. “[The government] has committed the sin of arrogance,” snipped a Le Monde editorial (May 22). “The failure to act by successive governments has merely augmented the cost and the urgency of reform,” added Charles Wyplosz in Libération (June 2). “All of the choices are difficult, but we are going to have to live with them.”

The central bone of contention is the government’s attempt to stop favoring the public sector, where workers retire earlier, over the private sector. Public-sector workers are determined not to lose their privileges. “The revolt of the civil service” is how Ivan Rioufol, writing in Le Figaro (May 30), mockingly described the opposition movement. “It is trying to get a foothold with the encouragement of the left....What a fine masquerade!” 

Polls show that there is no enthusiasm for the reforms—“Since when do sheep sing praises of their shearers?” Philippe Mudry wrote in La Tribune (June 4). But private-sector workers are not joining the protests; they have nothing to lose.