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Wall Street Journal

 

France's Perpetual Revolution

October 21, 2010

By Guy Sorman

The left seems to have forgotten Marx’s line about history repeating itself as tragedy and farce.


The French have a long tradition of taking to the streets as an irrational answer to economic reforms. In 1848, when a democratically elected government tried to contain monetary inflation, the nascent Socialist Party raised barricades in Paris. Alexis de Tocqueville, then a member of the parliament, wrote in his “Memoires” that the French knew a lot about politics and understood nothing about economics. The current disruption of French cities by strikes and riots illustrates the continuity of this political culture.

The pretext for the current “social movement,” as we call it in French, is a perfectly rational initiative by President Nicolas Sarkozy to raise the legal age of retirement to 62 from 60. It had been lowered to 60 from 65 in 1983 by the socialist Fran�ois Mitterrand. Going up to 62 is thus a modest return to sanity: 62 happens to be the average in the European Union.

The rationale behind this reform—an aging population—can be understood by all the French. Longer life expectancy and slow economic growth offer no other choice to save the public pension funds from bankruptcy. Why then such a violent reaction from the street?

The leftist unions that have started the strikes represent the public sector, a quarter of the active population. For them, any change in the pension-fund regulations is but a first breach in the welfare state. The French left sees how the Scandinavian, German and British governments are cutting spending in the name of sound finance and stronger growth.

The French unions fear that France will follow. Since they represent the public sector, they are not that interested in reviving the market economy. Moreover, the welfare state is perceived by the French left as a historical conquest on the road to socialism, which remains the ultimate goal. Knowing who the unions represent allows us to understand their choice for violence over negotiations: France is not a northern European, pragmatic country.

This does not suffice to explain the support for the strikers by high school students and the mild sympathy from a majority of the French—or at least the passivity of the silent majority. Mr. Sarkozy’s character may explain, in part, the mixed feeling of the French toward the strikes and the riots. The president is a polarizing figure who is generating stronger hostility from the left than his older conservative predecessors did.

What’s more, the French are proud of their Revolution: To replay it, in a less bloody and more theatrical form, is often perceived as a patriotic and cultural duty. It does not help that in the French school curriculum the 1789-1793 Revolution is taught with enthusiasm by leftist teachers. They apparently missed Marx’s line about history repeating itself as tragedy and farce.

For the young, street riots are a sort of generational rite of passage. They replay the Revolution as their parents did in May 1968. The comparison is somewhat irrelevant: May 1968 was a Parisian rebellion of rich kids asking for more personal freedom in a still-authoritarian society dominated by the haughty figure of Gen. Charles de Gaulle. At that time, there was no unemployment, no fear for the future. Also in May 1968, there was no equivalent of the violent mobs we see today. This new kind of gratuitous violence is the regrettable outcome of decades of uncontrolled immigration, a lack of opportunities, and police tolerance for vast lawless suburban zones.

The current violence will subside when the French citizenry gets tired of the theatrics and demands order. In 1968, the de Gaulle government was able to re-establish order when the French could not find any more gasoline at the pump. The same d�nouement can be expected this time, and nothing will be resolved: The pension age will be raised to 62, but the real battle will take place later.

The debate over how to strike the right balance between the welfare state that Europeans love and a dynamic economy started many years ago in the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, for one, came up with the creative concept of “flexisecurity”: The labor market has been deregulated, and dismissed employees are immediately sent to training schools and must accept the first new job offered to them. Less regulation has actually created more jobs. Germany has rekindled the job market by reducing unemployment benefits. The United Kingdom under David Cameron is shifting welfare support from the middle class toward the real poor. In France, Mr. Sarkozy—who was elected on a free-market platform—has in office become enamored with statism, like all his predecessors.

To conclude that France never changes, however, would be slightly mistaken. In spite of a Napoleonic right and a Marxist left, the French economy has become much more market-oriented than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The best and the brightest now want to become entrepreneurs, not top bureaucrats. Such an evolution was not desired by political leaders but instead has been forced on French society through the liberating influence of globalization and the European Union. This confrontation between Mr. Sarkozy and the unions doesn’t mean much compared to those historical trends.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304741404575564354040144426.html

 

 
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