Crisis reveals character. The French, a creative, artistic, and -- by their own account -- intelligent people, are not at their best in times that require steady nerves. The country's costly, self-imposed crisis over pension reform reveals, once again, the flawed French character at its spiteful, wrongheaded worst. Ever skilled at Jesuitical mental dexterity to justify shooting themselves in the foot, they just can't resist the pleasure of saying non to authority.
During their centuries of absolute monarchy they developed the habit of submission to the royal whim. To counterbalance that they would occasionally rise in revolt, then return to passive acceptance. Any suggestion of change was assumed to be bad; the default response was non. In the 1970s an exasperated prime minister despairingly called his country "the blocked society." The late political philosopher Raymond Aron lamented that instead of evolution there were sporadic explosions of mass discontent, followed by more socio-economic gridlock.
This past week has seen France's fourth crippling national strike and seventh day of violent street protests against the government's reform proposals. Labor unions have paralyzed much of train service and other public transport, along with half the flights at Orly airport and a third at Roissy. (They often block airport access roads, making luggage-laden passengers trudge hundreds of yards to the terminal.) Riot police in RoboCop body armor grapple with hooligans spoiling for a fight; some 3,000 have been arrested so far, dozens of police officers injured. School children, egged on by their leftist teachers and mouthing labor union slogans, join the joyful chaos. (One group of apprentice Robespierres in short pants raided a bakery to steal bonbons.) University campuses are beginning to rumble, raising the specter of another May 1968.
On orders from the largest French labor union, the communist-backed CGT, workers in oil refineries and ports have taken a strangle hold on energy supplies. Ten of the country's 11 active refineries are blocked, along with many of its 219 fuel depots, while dockers refuse to offload oil tankers. Some 3,000 gas stations have run dry. Tons of rotting, uncollected garbage pile up in major cities like Nantes and Marseilles. Tens of thousands of businesses have been hit by the transport disruption and lack of fuel. The national railways have been losing $26 million a day, the chemical industry $130 million.
Object of this mass hysteria? An attempt to save France's pension system by gradually, timidly raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and increasing by one year the contributions to it. (It had long been age 65 until Socialist President François Mitterrand, for purely ideological reasons, made it 60 in the early 1980s.) In Europe, Germany, Britain and Italy (Italy!) passed similar measures without trauma. Britain went further last week, with the steepest public spending cuts in over 60 years, curtailing welfare benefits, eliminating nearly half a million public sector jobs, raising consumption taxes. As one amazed French commentator sputtered in disbelief, "The British are being pragmatic, not ideological. They're trying to find ways to make the plans work instead of blocking them."
It should have been a piece of cake, simply moving France into line with other industrialized nations. Public opinion and the unions initially understood and favored pension reform. But Nicolas Sarkozy's government botched it by taking an uncompromising, my way or the highway line, preventing the unions and Socialist Party opposition from the usual face-saving motions. Now the unions are trying to get back in front of their extremist members, announcing more strikes and demonstrations next Thursday and in early November.
With this costly standoff Sarkozy has painted himself into a corner because of his hidden agenda. He wants to appear tough on debt reduction to be a convincing head of the G20 and G8 when France's presidency starts in a few months, a platform he hopes to use to raise his international stature and boost his standing in France. And if he backs down, as his mentor Jacques Chirac did in 1995 on similar pension reform, he loses street cred as he prepares his run for re-election in 2012. With his numbers in the basement at around 26 percent, he sees this fight as essential to his comeback. As one of his UMP party propagandists brags, "this guy's got balls."
Nice in some circumstances, but in politics not always enough. Today the strikes and demos are as much about him and his personal style as about pension reform: the lavish lifestyle, the supermodel third wife, the upcoming presidential jet designed to rival Air Force One, the perception that he panders to the rich. Despite the inconvenience, a majority of the population supports the strikers. For all his gonadial prowess, the tone-deaf Sarkozy seems to have reckoned without the French character and their perverse pleasure in saying non.