Monday, November 15, 2010

Strikes in France

cAdd to Google Reader or HomepageWhen John et al. were here, we had conversations about the French strikes, French lifestyle and the meaning of life (which usually means having had too much wine). We talked about the frustration (for Americans) of ordering a coffee and then spending the next 30 minutes trying to get the attention of the waiter to bring the bill so that we could pay it and leave. In Vaison la Romaine unlike most restaurants in the states, there is absolutely no pressure to “turn a table,” so you can sit at the café as long as you want. This is antithetical to Americans who want to keep a schedule and are frustrated that their commitment to a schedule is not shared by their French wait staff. Life moves along more slowly in France. In France, most stores are closed between noon and 2:30 PM for lunch. In the US, lunch “hours” are rarely that – more often 30 minutes.

As we discussed the differences, Arleen, who has collected data on the millennial generation, told us about the different approach to life and work of the new American workforce. Her comparisons between our generation and the millennial generation reminded me of the old Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes” in which the protagonist asks: “Do we live to shovel sand or do we shovel sand to live?” (The answer for the millennial generation is: ‘We will work – and we will be productive while multi-tasking while working – if it doesn’t interfere with life.’)

The question in “Woman in the Dunes” is, of course, a parable of life anywhere but Americans of my generation view work as life-defining whereas it seems that the French view work as a means to support their lifestyles.

These are very essential differences. Americans celebrate individualism and believe that everyone can become a success if one works hard enough. The French prefer looking at life as “the tide raises all boats” and work to keep the tide rising. Even though times have changed, the differences between individualism and the collective provided an insight for me as to why the French put up with daily life-crippling strikes and demonstrations. The French believe that collectively they have the capacity to develop surprisingly strong and demonstrative changes through strikes and demonstrations. On the down side, it also appears that at the individual level, there are some who use this “collective umbrella” to manifest personal discontent through vandalism such as breaking car windows, setting fires, etc.

The strikes and demonstrations across France have mostly ended but friends in the states remain concerned about how safe it is in France. From my narrow view of the world, the strikes and demonstrations were never a threat to our safety. True, there were a few violent incidents that attracted a lot of press coverage. Unfortunately, the press picked up on these incidents and made the focus of the stories about violence. In reality, people across France were angry but showed their anger in peaceful demonstrations and strikes. The unions managed the strikes and demonstrations so that they had the maximum impact without violence or injury. Two years ago, the president of France had dismissed strikes as unimportant and of no consequence. Désormais, quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit", s'était amusé Nicolas Sarkozy le 6 juillet 2008 devant des militants UMP (Le Monde, 5 novembre 2010).

The French people participated in and/or supported the strikes because they were upset not only about the plan to change the age of retirement eligibility; they were equally angry about how the Sarkozy-led government has changed national policies, leaving French low and middle class people exasperated by increasing inequalities with the upper classes in taxes, salaries and employment as well as by Sarkozy’s nepotism scandal. (Even teenagers have demonstrated against the new retirement rules, something about which teens usually don’t think until they are in the workforce.)

Our friend sent me a wonderful description of her perspective on the strikes. I have included much of what she wrote because I think that she does a good job of describing the situation. (I have also shown this to a few French friends to be sure that I was not guilty of “disinformation” à la Reagan administration.)

“The media coverage has been a bit simplistic and overly dramatic. Our daily lives have been unaffected by the strikes and the political turmoil. We have to go out of our way to see a demonstration, and we have not seen any violence. My husband takes the metro to his French classes and his commute has not been disturbed at all. There were some problems with garbage pickup in Marseille and other cities. There have been a few travel delays on trains, but that seems to be over. I think that some teenagers burned a car in a suburb of Paris. That footage has played over and over making it look like the city is on fire. There is real frustration among many segments of the society, and the strikes give people an opportunity to voice that frustration. 

“There has also been coverage of the long lines at the gas stations.  Refinery workers and some truck drivers were on strike, but that is over.  We rented a car for four days to drive to Alsace, and the longest we waited in line for gasoline was about five minutes.  An innkeeper in Alsace told me that the exaggerated media coverage had hurt his business because clients from Germany or Belgium saw the news and think that France is in a civil war.

“The media also make it sound like the “lazy” French don't want to work past 60. The age to get the minimum retirement benefits will be raised from 60 to 62. That is like me taking my Social Security at 62, and not getting full benefits. The age for full benefits has been raised from 65 to 67. The number that I find to be truly amazing is that now in France one must work for 41 years to qualify for full government benefits. I know a lot of Americans that take their Social Security that have not worked for 41 years. If a doctor manages to finish his or her training and begin to work by age 29, he or she would have to work to age 70 to get full pension benefits. Of course, people who earn middle to high incomes can invest in private retirement funds, but many people cannot afford to do that.

“The unemployment rate in France has been between 8% and 10.5% for decades.  Just as in the US, unemployment tends to hit the youngest and the oldest workers the most, as well as workers in certain industries.  The lower-paid workers, who cannot afford a private pension, may lose out on full government benefits due to extended periods of unemployment.  A worker who is laid off or down-sized after age 50 does not have a good chance of finding another full-time job and may never be able to log 41 years of work.

“Due to some tax policies 20 to 30 years ago that encouraged people to have a third child, France is one of the few developed countries that has enough young people of working age to support the retirement system.  With a high rate of unemployment, many of those younger people cannot find work until the older workers retire.”

The major protests are over. The French Senate approved the Sarkozy plan to change retirement ages as proposed.  President Sarkozy signed the bill into law on November 10, 2010. The Left has pledged to continue the pressure against what many in France consider their birthright. (In 1982, the Mitterand government established the retirement age at 60.) The Left will focus their demonstrations and strikes on generating the sentiments necessary to overthrow the Sarkozy government in 2012 and reverse the policy.

I thought the differences between France and the US were significant but then I read the press release on the “deficit-reduction committee” recommendations. It seems as if “equality” gets trumped (again!) by liberty. The Americans and the French have similar items on the national agenda. The difference is that the French plan to use collective action to do something about it.