June 7, 2003


For the past few days, helicopters have been circling noisily above the center of Paris. No one I speak to knows why — there are dark murmurings that something, somewhere has been tipped to explode, or that the water supply is scheduled to be poisoned, but no one knows for sure. The choppers are making a huge racket outside my window and driving me nuts. But that’s not the big story, at least not yet. The story, which isn’t getting much attention outside of France, is that the trade unions’ protests over the government’s pension reform scheme have become outrageously violent, and France is in chaos.

The scale of the lawlessness and thuggery would generate endless anguished editorials in the English-language press if France were Iraq, and if somehow the United States could be blamed for it. The demonstrators have barricaded roads and railway tracks, ransacked and occupied administrative buildings, set fires, reversed over one another with their cars, sealed off city centers, emptied garbage onto the streets and rendered public transportation throughout the country unusable. Air traffic has been brought to a halt. Demonstrators cut off power lines at the Gare de Lyon. Tourists have been stranded everywhere. The national railway company, the SNCF, has lost $140 million in six days.

This is not a loss the shaky French economy can tolerate. And why? Because the government has proposed to increase the number of years public sector employees must work to receive full retirement benefits, from 37.5 years to 40 years — a move that would bring them in line with the private sector. Are these reforms necessary? You bet. Will France go broke if they’re not implemented? Without a doubt — retirees will account for a third of the French population by 2040, and the best projections suggest that if the reforms aren’t implemented, France will be running a 50 billion Euro annual deficit by 2020. Have the reforms been proposed by a democratically-elected government? Indeed. Are they supported by the public at large? Yes. Pretty much everyone, save the demonstrators themselves, acknowledges that pension reform is necessary.

What’s interesting, sociologically, is that the account given by the demonstrators of their behavior simply doesn’t correspond to reality: There is no objective grievance commensurate with the scale of the violence. An especially interesting fact is that the violence has been whistled up and spearheaded by the transport workers, who are for the most part unreconstructed communists, and who would not be affected by the proposed reforms. Given that the ideology championed by the leaders of these protests has been, over and over again, completely discredited, how should we account for their influence? The only conclusion I can draw from this is that a segment of French society can be easily inspired to smash things for the fun of it. I wonder why.

France, even more than the rest of Europe, is suffering from a serious political illness. These are the symptoms. Meanwhile you can show your appreciation for this firsthand reporting by ordering Claire’s book, Loose Lips, which is doing pretty darned well on Amazon considering it won’t actually come out until next week.

UPDATE: Claire fact-checks her own ass:

I just re-read my own words, and realized one line is slightly misleading. The SNCF has lost $140 million in six days, but these have not been consecutive days. Rather, the loss has occurred in six separate days of striking since March 18. This is a small point, but but with all you bloggers fact-checking our hapless journalistic asses, one can’t be too careful. God, I long for the good old days when I could just commit any old shit to print.

Not as much as some other people do, I’ll bet.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Sylvain Galineau adds this point:

At this opportune point, I have to ask my American friends who were shocked by France’s behavior and foreign policy regarding Iraq : what in the name of all that’s Holy were you expecting ? They can’t even deal with trade union blackmail and political street terrorism, and you want them to fight al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein ? Hello !?!McFly ? Anybody home?

There’s more on trade unions and violence. He adds:

But when the French wake up -and they sometimes do, as odd as it might sound these days – Bastilles are stormed in a hurry and long-established vested interests are soon parted from their pretty powdered heads.

I am not holding my breath. But nobody will see it coming.

It’s always been a mystery to me why the French put up with that sort of thing. But then, it’s obvious that we see the world differently on many levels.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Read this, too.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Den Beste has more news from France. And here’s a roundup of press coverage, such as it is. Den Beste wonders if this hasn’t been downplayed because of Poland’s vote on joining the EU this weekend.

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