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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Merci, Alain!

Well, I guess you know that the situation in France is out-of-hand when Lady Gaga, or should I say "Madame Gaga," cancels her Paris concerts. Perhaps in solidarity with the multitudes of people across the age spectrum protesting President Sarkozy's attempts at major pension reforms, but for certain because, in addition to cross-generational protests, there have been ongoing country-wide strikes, including strikes by workers at fuel refineries and depots. No fuel = no ground transportation for Lady G. and her entourage.

Things are, indeed, quite out-of-hand in France. The situation, which I briefly wrote about in my last blog posting, can be seen from multiple positionalities and perspectives, and it reverberates widely, impacting many people (including international rock stars!). As well, it illuminates something very interesting and quite specific about what happens in France when citizens are pissed off with the government. They take to the streets. They shut stuff down. They fight.

So, I had an ulterior motive lurking behind my first posting on this subject: In the spirit of provocation, I wanted to instigate critical analysis and discussion about a really timely socio-cultural, historical event happening in another country that's sort of like the U.S. in some ways, and, well, sort of not in many ways. Guess what? I succeeded!

Me and my colleague Alain, who grew up in France and still goes back yearly to visit his multi-generational family, have been engaged in a dialogue this week about his life-experiences and family history, and how they shape his interpretation of the current discord in France. He’s generously agreed to let me include some of our dialogue in this post. I also want to thank other colleagues who have emailed me articles from the international press – mainstream and alternative – reporting on the situation from various, often conflicting, standpoints. I’ve learned a lot.

(If you want to read some of the stuff I've been reading, thanks to my friend t-sloan, start with "Work Harder to Earn Less" by Diana Johnstone, at

So, here’s what Alain had to say in response to my original post on this subject:

"Yes, “In France, high school students are marching alongside elders to protest changes in policies around retirement age” and that can indeed be understood as an indication of positive inter-generational support. However, having grown up in France and being somewhat acquainted with the system, I am afraid that the political reality underpinning the current movement has more to do with partisan politics than inter-generational understanding. The simple truth is that whenever a government, whether Republican or Socialist, has tried to bring change to France, it has failed. For example, when French Philosopher Luc Ferry, a scholar in the field of Secular Humanism who holds an Agrégation de philosophie (l975), a Doctorat d’Etat en science politique (1981), and an Agrégation de science politique (1982) and was Maître de Recherche at several major French universities tried to implement a needed reform of French universities, unions pushed students in the streets to protest against a reform that they did not even understand and represented the only chance for French universities to maintain and/or improve their international standing.

Several of my family members are educators. I remember some of them telling me that many of their colleagues were AUTOMATICALLY against Ferry’s reform because we was Minister of Education in a conservative government, regardless of the fact that he is a brilliant mind, was totally right on the issue, had the best of intentions and knew the sad economic reality of French universities.

For 30 years, I grew up in a system where “the left” passed legislations that France just could not afford. The latest one was “les 35 heures”; a legislation promoted by Martine Aubry out of absolute ambition as her and Ségolène Royale want to enter history as France’s first female President – one of the reasons why they so dislike each other so much... They will stop at nothing, including pushing high-school students to strike instead of studying, to shamelessly gain a political advantage.

The bottom line is quite simple: to their credit the French have built, like many other European nations, a great social welfare system that has, in many regards, prevented some of the excesses and injustices of the American system. The system worked as long as the tremendous resulting costs were absorbed by a growing economy. However, over the past 20 years, France lost 10,000 of it 100,000 small and mid-size firms (the ones that create employment) because they were asphyxiated by unreasonable social security and other charges. The French like many other people just can’t live longer, lose their economic infrastructure to low labor countries and expect to maintain a social system built upon 30 years of economic growth. Something just does not add up.

My Dad is 87 and has been retired since age 62. In truth, the French system has been very generous to him. However, he earned his retirement by working for 50 YEARS from age 12 (yes, age 12 doing logging for my grandpa as he was the single son of a poor French logger) to 62. Contrarily, two of my cousins are high-school teachers; they work 14 hours a WEEK – not per day – per week! Because he earned his doctorate in Mathematics, their son, who started working at age 32, will NEVER work more than 12 hours a week… Hence, should he even retire at 62, he would have only contributed to the French economy for 30 years, at a 12-hour weekly rate; not even a 35-hour (the world’s lowest work week). One of my friends is a P. E. teacher; he works 20 hours a week. Another cousin has worked for the French Tax Administration for 30 years; she told me that she has so much free time that “she does not know what to do with it…” The longshoremen of the port of Marseilles work 18 hours a week, earn $5,000 a month and want a $500 bonus; they are on strike…

It is very simple: something has to give. All that I learned in America in 25 years is that everything has a cost, and sooner or later someone must absorb that cost. The problem is that we French are schizophrenic. We are a creative and generous people, but a schizophrenic people. The students protesting in the streets of Paris just don’t understand that they are being manipulated by a handful of leftist leaders. Moreover, they don’t even realize that they may never be able to retire or will do so at age 70 after working for a Chinese company, once France’s socio-economic structure has been destroyed.”

A compelling first-person account, yes? Alain reminds us of the complexity of seemingly straightforward issues, the ways such issues reach into the past and the future, and how individual lives are shaped by how the issues get addressed and resolved. His narrative fills in some of the spaces in between the various “official accounts.” And there are many other stories to be told, of course.

The news this morning--the French Senate passed the pension plan reform through a fast-track process. It isn't quite a done-deal, but damn close to it.

I am fascinated by this event, professionally and personally, and I must admit that I sympathize with the workers on strike, the protesters young and old; I offer solidarity with their cause by following what's happening, writing a bit about it and hopefully instigating critical, thoughtful reflection and conversation, and praying for the best outcome for as many humans as possible. And as much as I disagree with how Sarkozy and his comrades have been handling this situation, I acknowledge that the French government is trying to solve a complex, significant problem that the U.S. and the U.K. and other western nations are facing given many factors and forces, in particular population aging and it consequences.

So, what do you think about all of this? Reactions? Ideas? Inspirations? Agitations?

1 comment:

Joe said...

Fascinating... Perspective is everything. My grandma, who was an Eisenhower Republican, found boundless love for Jimmy Carter when he raised the retirement age. This was because she personally loved her nursing work and wanted to keep working! She would have preferred to work until she felt it was right for her individually to retire, and no sooner.

Perhaps it's the case that our French friends have no realistic option but to sacrifice the gains they've made in workers' rights, but I'd be curious to hear the French Progressive rebuttal to that contention. Regardless, I think it says something wonderful about France that the young people care so much about this issue, and are standing up alongside their elders to Nicolas Sarkozy's right wing establishment. It certainly serves as an inspiration to our country, and to the rest of the world. May the French nation find a peaceful way to represent the most people in the progress they seek, and in support of their individual liberties per long-standing French tradition.