French Fury in the EU Cage By DIANA JOHNSTONE Paris.
„Work Harder to Earn Less“
French Fury in the EU Cage
The French are at it again – out on strike, blocking transport, raising hell in
the streets, and all that merely because the government wants to raise the
retirement age from 60 to 62.  They must be crazy.
That, I suppose, is the way the current mass movement in France is seen – or at
least shown – in much of the world, and above all in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about the current mass strikes in
France is that they are not really about “raising the retirement age from 60 to
62”. This is rather like describing the capitalist free market as a sort of
lemonade stand. A propaganda simplification of very complex issues.
t allows the commentators to go crashing through open doors.  After all, they
observe sagely, people in other countries work until 65 or beyond, so why should
the French balk at 62? The population is aging, and if the retirement age isn’t
raised, the pension system will go broke paying out pensions to so many
However, the current protest movement is not about “raising the retirement age
from 60 to 62”. It is about much more.
For one thing, this movement is an expression of exasperation with the
government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which blatantly favors the super-rich over the
majority of working people in this country.  He was elected on the slogan, “Work
more to earn more”, and the reality turns out to be work harder to earn less.
The Labor Minister who introduced the reform, Eric Woerth, got a job for his
wife on the office staff of the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt,
heir to the Oreal cosmetics giant, at the same time that, as budget minister, he
was overlooking her massive tax evasions. While tax benefits for the rich help
empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to tear down the
whole social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that
“we can’t afford it”.
The retirement issue is far more complex than “the age of retirement”.  The
legal age of retirement means the age at which one may retire.  But the pension
depends on the number of years worked, or to be more precise, on the number
of cotisations (payments) into the joint pension scheme. On the grounds of
“saving the system from bankruptcy”, the government is gradually raising the
number of years of cotisations from 40 to 43 years, with indications that this
will be stretched out further in the future.
As educationis prolonged, and employment begins later, to get a full pension
most people will have to work until 65 or 67.  A “full pension” comes to about
40 per cent of wages at the time of retirement.
But even so, that may not be possible.  Full time jobs are harder and harder to
get, and employers do not necessarily want to retain older employees.  Or the
enterprise goes out of business and the 58-year old employee finds himself
permanently out of work.  It is becoming harder and harder to work full-time in
a salaried job for over 40 years, however much one may want to.  Thus in
practice, the Sarkozy-Woerth reform simply means reducing pensions.
That, in fact, is what the European Union has recommended to all memberstates as
an economy measure, intended, as with most current reforms, to reduce social
costs in the name of “competitivity” – meaning competition to attract investment
Less qualified workers, who instead of pursuing studies may have entered the
work force young, say at age eighteen, will have subscribed to the scheme for
forty-two years at age 60 if indeed they manage to be employed all that time.
Statistics show that their life expectancy is relatively short, so they need to
leave early in order to enjoy any retirement at all.
The French system is based on solidarity between generations, in that
the cotisations of  today’s workers go to pay today’s retired people’s
pensions.  The government has subtly tried to pit one generation against
another, by claiming that it is necessary to protect the future of today’s
youth, who are paying for the “baby boom” pensioners. It is therefore extremely
significant that this week, high school and university students massively began
to enter the protest strike movement.  This solidarity between generations is a
major blow to the government.
The youth are even much more radical than the older trade unionists.  They are
very aware of the increasing difficulty of building a career.  The trend is for
qualified personnel to enter the work force later and later, having spent years
getting an education.   With the difficulty of finding a stable, full-time job,
many depend on their parents until age 30.  It is simple arithmetic to see that
in this case, there will be no full retirement until after age 70.
Productivity and Deindustrialization
As has become standard practice, the authors of the neo-liberal reforms present
them not as a choice but as a necessity.  There is no alternative.  We must
compete on the global market.  Do it our way or we go broke.  And this reform
was essentially dictated by the European Union, in a 2003 report, concluding
that making people work longer was necessary to cut pension costs.
These dictates prevent any discussion of the two basic factors underlying the
pension problem: productivity and deindustrialization.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the former Socialist Party man who heads the relatively new
Left Party, is about the only political leader to point out that even if there
are fewer workers to contribute to pension schemes, the difference can be made
up by the rise in productivity.  Indeed, French worker productivity is among the
very highest in the world (higher than Germany, for example).  Moreover,
although France has the second longest life expectancy in Europe, it also has
the highest birth rate.  And even if jobholders are fewer, because of
unemployment, the wealth they produce should be adequate to maintain pension
Aha, but here’s the catch:  for decades, as productivity goes up, wages
stagnate.  The profits from increased productivity are siphoned off into the
financial sector.  The bloating of the financial sector and the stagnation of
purchasing power has led to the financial crisis – and the government has
preserved the imbalance by bailing out the profligate financiers.
So logically, preserving the pension system basically calls for raising wages to
account for higher productivity – a very major policy change.
But there is another critical problem linked to the pension issue:
deindustrialization.  In order to maintain the high profits drained by the
financial sector, and avoid paying higher wages, one industry after another has
moved its production to cheap labor countries.  Profitable enterprises shut down
as capital goes looking for even higher profit.
Is this merely the inevitable result of the rise of new industrial powers in
Asia?  Is a lowering of living standards in the West inevitable due to their
rise in the East?
Perhaps.  However, if shifting industrial production to China ends up lowering
purchasing power in the West, then Chinese exports will suffer. China itself is
taking the first steps toward strengthening its own domestic market.
“Export-led growth” cannot be a strategy for everyone.  World prosperity
actually depends on strengthening both domestic production and domestic
markets.  But this requires the sort of deliberate industrial policy which is
banned by the bureaucracies of globalization: the World Trade Organization and
the European Union.  They operate on the dogmas of “comparative advantage” and
“free competition”.  On grounds of free trade, China is actually facing
sanctions for promoting its own solar energy industry, vitally necessary to end
the deadly air pollution that plagues that country.  The world economy is being
treated as a big game, where following the “rules of the free market” is more
important than the environment or the basic vital necessities of human beings.
Only the financiers can win this game.  And if they lose, well, they just get
more chips for another game from servile governments.
Where will it all end?
It should end in something like a democratic revolution: a complete overhaul of
economic policy.  But there are very strong reasons why this will not happen.
For one thing, there is no political leadership in France ready and able to lead
a truly radical movement.  Mélenchon comes the closest, but his party is new and
its base is still narrow.  The radical left is hamstrung by its chronic
sectarianism.  And there is great confusion among people revolting without clear
programs and leaders.
Labor leaders are well aware that employees lose a day’s pay for every day they
go on strike, and they are in fact always anxious to find ways to end a strike.
Only the students do not suffer from that restraint. The trade unionists and
Socialist Party leaders are demanding nothing more drastic than that the
government open negotiations about details of the reform.  If Sarkozy weren’t so
stubborn, this is a concession the government could make which might restore
calm without changing very much.
It would take the miraculous emergence of new leaders to carry the movement
But even if this should happen, there is a more formidable obstacle to basic
change: the European Union.  The EU, built on popular dreams of peaceful and
prosperous united Europe, has turned into a mechanism of economic and social
control on behalf of capital, and especially of financial capital.  Moreover, it
is linked to a powerful military alliance, NATO.
If left to its own devices, France might experiment in a more socially just
economic system.  But the EU is there precisely to prevent such experiments.
Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
On October 19, the French international TV channel France 24 ran a discussion of
the strikes between four non-French observers.  The Portuguese woman and the
Indian man seemed to be trying, with moderate success, to understand what was
going on.  In contrast, the two Anglo-Americans (the Paris correspondent
of Time magazine and Stephen Clarke, author of 1000 Years of Annoying the
French) amused themselves demonstrating self-satisfied inability to understand
the country they write about for a living.
Their quick and easy explanation: “The French are always going on strike for fun
because they enjoy it.”
A little later in the program the moderator showed a brief interview with a
lycée student who offered serious comments on pensions issue.  Did that give
pause to the Anglo-Saxons?
The response was instantaneous.  How sad to see an 18-year-old thinking about
pensions when he should be thinking about girls!
So whether they do it for fun, or whether they do it instead of having fun, the
French are absurd to Anglo-Americans accustomed to telling the whole world what
it should do.

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western
Delusions.Write her for the French version of this article, or to comment,