The French, long considered expert in the pleasures of love and food are, once again, demonstrating their skills in yet another area. This is the area of the government-challenging general strike.
French President Macron’s attempt to reform the pension system is meeting intense and widespread opposition. The strike is showing signs of a serious challenge to the regime.
The word “convergence” is on people’s lips. This is ominous for the regime. It means that the “Yellow Vest” movement, a yearlong (see photos of 23rtd week of Yellow Vest demonstrations here ) generalized, independent and mostly leaderless protest against an economy that failed working people is now merging with the traditional Left of unions and political parties.
According to much of the French punditry, something feels “different” now. While labor struggles have typically been the struggles of specific trades in particular industries, this time, different sectors, from teachers and students to miners and railway workers, are meeting in warehouses and empty lots and talking to each other. This Yellow Vest innovation, when the “have nots”, whoever they are and across different professions, start working together, moves the situation from a labor struggle to a revolutionary one, another French specialty.
As one protester was heard to say “I’ve been waiting for this moment since 1968.”
In fact, police and firefighters have been seen to join the protests.
Macron was never much liked. A year before the Yellow Vests exploded in November 2019, Paris saw a large demonstration against him in general and his privatization ideas in particular. See photos of this demonstration here .
President Macron’s election was not a vindication of his neoliberal, free market views. He won because the extreme racist and xenophobic Right, in the person of Marine LePen had become powerful enough to be his opposition and this the French did not want. His election was a repudiation of the Right, not a mandate for neoliberal, market based “reforms”.
The current strike was triggered by Macron’s determination to “reform” France’s generous retirement system. The many categories of retirement levels were to be “simplified” into a one size fits all system. Retirement levels were to be determined by a point system, the value of each point determined by “capitalization” i.e. market speculation investment, of the monies collected throughout the workers’ working life.
Working people saw right through this. It was the old “how do we pay for it” ploy as seen in the U.S. and other developed countries whenever social benefits become an issue. In fact Macron, when not pontificating with his usual over intellectualized abstractions, had been declaring all along that it might be necessary to “work a little longer.”
Yes, France has a comprehensive retirement system. Unlike with Macron’s neoliberal, market based precepts, the French consider this a feature, not a problem. The French economy is performing reasonably well and there is much wealth in the country as shown by the high and increasing number of millionaires and billionaires.
The early (by U.S. standards) retirement age of sixty two and in some areas as low as fifty two is a reflection of much of Europe’s conception of life. Unlike in the US where retirement, if you are lucky enough to get it, is a hopefully not too painful way of killing time between working and dying, in much of European culture is considered as a potentially fulfilling third stage of life. A time when you will have the means and leisure to give back to the society and especially to the young, the skills and wisdom derived from your years of learning and working.
In this view, seniors are an asset to society, not a burden of people too old to work and to be warehoused till they die. Here, the younger the retirement age, the better for everyone.
Macron’s love of US style startup capitalism is in conflict with much of France’s values. His continual tilting of the playing field in favor of the wealthy as shown by his elimination of the wealth tax, his reduction of much rural rail service, his closure of many local health facilities, has alienated many of those he was elected to represent.
His attack on the national retirement system looks like, as they say, the drop that makes the vase overflow.
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