The Republic slows to an economic standstill today as hundreds of thousands of workers — Le Monde puts the figure at 230,000 in Paris alone — turn out for another of a series of strikes aimed at President Sarkozy’s controversial plan to raise France’s retirement age from 60 to 62, with full state benefits arriving at 67.
The strikes, spearheaded by labor unions like the nearly one-million-strong Confédération Générale du Travail (la CGT), affect nearly every lower and middle-class industry in the country, including rail, manufacturing, oil and energy, education and many, many others. My class day came and went unchanged, as most of our teachers came into work today, but every state employee enjoys the right to take leave in protest, and some did. With the frequency of strikes increasing as retirement reform moves through the national legislature, I expect that the profs will enjoy several more opportunities to have their voices heard en masse.
The rationale behind a strike of this magnitude might not mesh well with readers from outside l’héxagone; Americans, in particular, tend to prefer striking as an option of last resort, after exhausting every other legitimate avenue. The French tend to view the process of negotiating in reverse (from an American point of view), opting to strike as a show of force before sitting down at the bargaining table. The CGT has a long and successful tradition of securing and maintaining benefits for its workers, as well as dictating major policy through sheer numbers and intimidation. This strike is unique in that it may outlast the typical 24 hour period, meaning that Sarkozy could be dealing with a very real problem: the threat of long-term airport closures, stalling production and hiccups in mass transit (Al-Jazeera English). All this brouhaha may seem extreme in light of the actual issue at hand — a two year increase in the retirement age, but it is not without precedent, and it is certainly a hallmark of France’s representative democracy.
France is unique in that it has a long and colorful history of social activism by its lower class and student populations. One of the historical gems that helped to solidify my bond with this country centered around university and social reforms in May of 1968.
Students and workers across the country revolted against General Charles de Gaulle’s government, which they saw as a threat to popular sovereignty, rejecting the perceived benefits of economic liberalization and social conservatism advocated by de Gaulle’s administration. In a series of intense and sometimes violent clashes with the police and government officials, mai ’68 symbolized the dawn of a new social order in the republic based in the ideals of social liberalism, erasing the links between the state and its historically conservative Catholic sensibilities (More from Wikipedia). If modern France were to have a state religion, it would most closely resemble the cartesian concept of reason, supporting itself with rational choice and a near-technocratic understanding of how progress should be realized in the state. This isn’t to say that France does not retain several far-right, religiously grounded ideas, principally in its approach to muslim immigrants, but it is just as easy to frame that conflict in economic terms (I’ll touch on that one day when I have way more time.)
Today’s strikes carry on the French understanding that its government ought to hear from its people from time to time, and that to best breach the sound-proofed windows of the National Assembly and the President’s offices, the people must be loud, angry, and ready to take to the streets in the name of their beliefs. In my opinion, the striking tradition helps to make up for a democratic deficit within the government, a functionally closed door operation, run by a sort of political fraternity (nearly every French politician attends the same small group of exclusive, top-tier universities). In a state that enjoys some of the industrialized world’s highest political and civil liberties (see freedomhouse.org’s interactive map), the freedom to assemble in this way gives a voice to a significant part of the population that would otherwise go unheard.
It seems to me that the French people have an excellent grip on what it means to be a democratic republic, and have no intention of allowing their government to change what a large portion of the population believes to be a central part of their lives, an early retirement with a state pension. Whether or not this is beneficial, economically speaking, the striking tradition is certainly a democratic one.