French refuse to eat cake as pension showdown heats up

A man wearing a mask of French president Nicolas Sarkozy holds up a flare during a demonstration against the governmental pensions reform (AFP Photo / Kenzo Tribouillard)
Despite an outpouring of public opposition, the French Senate took the retirement reform initiative one step closer to fulfillment on Friday as protests continue to hamper the nation.

Despite a reputation that sometimes suggests the opposite, the French are a tolerant lot.

They watched with a cool je ne sais quoi as Americans dumped bottles of Bordeaux wine down the drain after Paris refused to participate in the Iraq war; they bit their lip when a Disney World amusement park went up on the outskirts of the French capital; they are even known to tolerate it with a shrug and a sigh when foreigners butcher their fair language .

But the one thing the French will not tolerate is being forced to stay a second longer at their jobs than otherwise mandated by law. On this score, the French may have the last laugh over Bart Simpson; the French are certainly no "surrender monkeys" when the question of their comfortable lifestyles is on the line.

Yesterday, the French Senate ignored the voice of an estimated 1 million protesters and passed their version of pension reform legislation with a vote of 177-153, thus bringing the measure closer to reality.

Next week, a conference committee of seven senators and seven members of the National Assembly will meet to hammer out the details between the Senate and the parliament. Then the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy will hold its breath as the final version of the document is signed into labor law.

The retirement reform measure calls for raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62; for a full pension retirement, the French will have to wait until they are 67 years old now instead of 65 as it is now.

Are French workers spoiled?

Are the French right in coming out en masse to protest this latest austerity measure to hit a European nation in the wake of the global financial crisis? Should the French be prepared to tighten up their belts like the rest of the world? Or is about time that somebody stood up against the wave of austerity measures? After all, it was corrupt corporate executives and bankers who sparked the financial crisis, not the average worker.

Still, some say the French have gone overboard in trying to tame that ugly, four-letter- word known as “work”. Chalk it up as vacation envy, or another nicotine fit at the cubicle, but the French workers really are living on Easy Street, critics say.

They enjoy a 35-hour workweek, a real healthcare package, and the most generous vacation breaks in the developed world. And now, as the French welfare machine is grinding and smoking under the pressure of an economic slowdown, the French are back on the streets, refusing to accept an additional two years longer at their jobs.

"The problem," said Marcel, an engineering student from Lyon who refused to give a last name, "is that once the government starts thinking they can make changes to our labor law, they will not stop. A drop will turn into a tidal wave."

He added the comment that the French people "have no desire to be turned into the United States where the workers have no rights."

According to international labor statistics, French workers are legally entitled to five weeks’ paid vacation plus two weeks of Reduction du Temps de Travail (Reduction of Working Time). This comes out to be 7 weeks of paid vacation annually – the most significant vacation time of any country in the world.

US workers, by comparison, have no law in their corner that requires companies to provide them with a minimal break from work. 

Employment Minister Laurent Wauquiez announced this week that 1,500 jobs have been lost daily since the strikes began in earnest on Oct. 12.

But the powerful French unions have not been deterred by the latest setback and have called for more demonstrations on October 28 and November 6.

Was democracy designed to handle this?

In light of these comfy Gallic traditions, tough-talking Nicolas Sarkozy is working overtime in an attempt to “break with the past’" and keep his aging countrymen at their jobs a bit longer. Sarkozy’s pension reform bill raises the retirement age from 60 to 62 years (for the minimum pension) and increases the age for receiving a full state pension to 67 (from the current 65). 

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This increase may not seem like a big deal for Sarkozy, 55, who – considering the way things are heading – may be eligible for retirement much earlier than he had originally anticipated.

Indeed, with French unemployment levels sky high, and the president’s job rating in the cellar, Sarkozy has found himself doing battle against a far more difficult opponent than the gypsies of Roma. He is fighting the political battle of his life against the notorious French street.

To understand how different the French are from the rest of the world, the battle over pensions is not being waged by octogenarians in woolly sweaters. No, monsieur. In France, when the unions talk, people listen. Thus, the French government is actually looking forward to an upcoming school vacation in the hopes of getting some of the estimated one million protesters off the streets.

French education officials reported that 312 of the country’s 4,300 high schools were shut down or disrupted Thursday due to protests by students. Authorities put the number of students participating in the protests at 4,000, while student organizers put the figure at more than 15,000.

Why are high school students protesting over an increase in the pension age when they should be in school? While it is touching to see youth taking to the streets on behalf of the soon-to-be pensioners, the picture seems a bit strange. It is almost tempting to suggest that the teachers gave their student body a free pass from class to add some fuel to the pension fire. After all, what teacher would welcome the prospect of remaining in the classroom for an additional two years if they don’t have to?

Student protests are a big concern to the French government, said Jean-Francois Cope, a Sarkozy supporter and member of the French National Assembly.

“I am very concerned because when students take to the streets, there is always a risk of serious problems,” Cope told a French radio station. “Students should understand the reforms are being made for them.”

The French government insists the austerity measures will save the country billions and is the only way to guarantee that citizens – including the protesting students— will get their pensions in the future. In other words, the French government is sticking to their guns.

“This reform is essential,” President Sarkozy said. “France is committed to it. France will carry it out.”

Meanwhile, France continues to face fuel shortages, because workers are on strike at all 12 of the nation's refineries, and protesters are blocking 14 of the country's 219 oil terminals.

While the authorities said Thursday that there had been a “slow improvement” in fuel supplies, with only 14 of more than 200 depots still blockaded. About 3,000 of the country’s 13,000 gas stations were experiencing supply problems, French media reported.

According to TNT magazine, “about 4,000 gas stations of 13,000 countrywide are awaiting supplies. The nation’s busiest airport, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, was forced to cancel 30 per cent of its flights, while Paris Orly canceled 50 per cent. Airport employees have been told they must walk to work and many travelers have had to transport their own luggage.”

The ongoing riots across France bring up several disturbing questions concerning the state of democracy. First, when can we say that the majority has gone too far in fighting for their privileges? Or is there no limit to how far the street should be able to go in expressing their dissatisfaction. Should the millions of French citizens who agree with the retirement age increase be held hostage to the actions of the protesters?

Or is all fair in love and politics?

Robert Bridge, RT