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22 Oct, 2010 04:34

France: time to get real

France is braced for another day of unrest after, according to trade union officials in France, over three million people took to the streets: hurling stones, torching cars and smashing shop windows.

On Thursday, protesters managed to block Marseille Airport for several hours. The disruption is now over, but of course the confusion that follows the disruption of a major airport’s operations will continue for quite a while.

In Paris, riot police chased hundreds of angry protesters away from the Senate, preventing them from entering the building, where the parliament is currently debating the controversial issue.

The people are angry at government plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 – which would still be one of the lowest in Europe.

However many citizens actually believe the protests should stop. According to opinion polls conducted by major French newspapers, almost 40 per cent of the population do not believe blackmailing the government and disrupting the daily life of the country is an effective measure of fighting against reforms that are actually economically justified. France needs to get back to reality, they say.

For Lucie Chemel, who is splitting her time between a Masters Degree and working for a large international company, the recent protests in Paris are first and foremost a personal distraction. For people like her, the numbers of protestors do not always reflect reality.

“The situation in France is like a comedy, it is just to avoid school. Six years ago I did the same when I went to high school. I went to the strikes because I could avoid lectures,” Lucie remembers Lucie.

The rowdy crowds certainly give off a celebratory vibe – singing, dancing and shouting. But while they are spending day after day protesting a reform that is aimed at assisting their country, their very actions are doing serious damage.

Business consultant Eric Krause says France's pension system is decades-old and needs to be reformed to match today's real world.

"It’s widely necessary. If they do not do it the entire system is going to go bankrupt. You cannot spend money you do not have. If the system is not reformed the people are just not going to get pensions. When the system was developed, people died in their 50s and 60s. Longevity has increased enormously in France. It has got one of the longest-living populations in the world, people are dying in their 80s. They simply cannot afford to have a 30-year pension. If people live longer they have got to work longer," Krause says.

Economist at the OECD Herve Boulhol insists that, “Basically this is the reform that can restore the balance in the public pension system, remove the disincentive for working in older ages and as well give a signal of the commitment of the government to take structural reforms that will raise the potential of the economy as well as to stop the big fines.”

The numbers really speak for themselves.

France has a huge foreign debt – the fourth-largest in the world. And unlike in the United States, there is no board advertising the numbers.

Also unlike the United States, where there is no guaranteed annual paid leave, the French enjoy the longest paid holidays – 30 days a year.

France’s retirement age, which is what the people are protesting about this time, is one of the lowest in the world.

For more on the issue read "No cash for old men"

Countries also affected by the global financial crisis, like Italy and Spain, have already increased theirs, but with less widespread opposition from the people.

So are these protests a true sign of a democracy or simply a force of habit?

Are the French people simply used to pouring out into the streets to get their way, or is this a sign the government needs to negotiate with the trade unions more?

“We have to say to the French people that it's they who chose the deputies and members of the Senate, who make laws. Laws are not made in the streets. Laws are drafted and approved not by revolutionaries. Fortunately we live in a democratic state and people whom we select to be in power, adopt laws,” acknowledged Jean-Francois Roubaud, president of CGPME Nationale. “Besides, it's necessary to respect the laws, and in a year-and-a-half we will have the opportunity to say that we made a mistake and change our leaders, but until then these are the people who run the country."

The "my way or the highway" philosophy is certainly attention-grabbing, but who will back down first is still anyone’s guess.

On the one hand it is the constitutional right of the people to protest against something they do not believe in and do not agree on. But on the other hand, as with anything, if they do it too much it becomes a farce and democracy becomes a blackmailed institution in the hands of the people.

Paul Vallet, adjunct professor of history and politics from the University, Sciences PO, says France's demonstrations are unreasonable because the two year rise of the retirement age in France is still lower than the average in other European countries.

“They have been used to a generous benefit regime and it is very difficult for them to actually accept letting go of it.”

Brian Becker from the ANSWER Coalition believes that struggling workers will not rest while they see failed financiers rake in rewards.

"The bankers are making tens of millions of dollars a year in bonuses, but they tell the workers ‘You cannot afford and we cannot afford to have you have decent pensions. You have to tighten your belt.’ But there are bankers untightening their belt. This contradiction is going to lead to class polarization and mass protest not only in Europe, but I believe in the United States," he says.

Antoine Diers from the “Stop the Strike” movement says the reform needs to be approved to save the system that the French economy is based on.

“Tomorrow our generation is going to pay the pension for our parents, our grandparents. You know that today in France one pension out of ten is paid by debt, so the youth are going to have to pay the debt in the next years, and with the demographic issue it’s going to be worse. So we have to reform our pension scheme today, we have to work two more years so that we can save the system,” he said.

Pierre Concialdi, economist from Economic and Social Research institute, believes that current situation is the fault of the government in many ways.

“What would be the consequences of the strikes? It depends on what president Sarkozy will do,” Concialdi told RT. “People are not rushing to strike. They are pushed by the government, who didn’t want to hear them for months. [They were] asking for negotiations and President Sarkozy just refused it. That’s the reason why people are now protesting.”

“You have to know that in France we have reformed very much our pension system,” he added. “And the consequence is that pension-wise we’ll be drastically reduced by as much as in Sweden. People don’t want it. They don’t want to pay for the financial crisis, which is one of the main reasons of the current financial problem of pensions.”