French strikes and demonstrations are petering out in the face of government intransigence. Sarkozy has won the short-term political battle over the pensions reform, which he managed to push through Parliament in spite of determined and widespread opposition, but he has lost the battle of ideas. Public opinion is still convinced of the deep unfairness of a reform, which penalises the lowest-paid workers, who started work earlier than most and women, whose career suffered more interruptions than those of male workers. He could pay the price in 2012 if the socialist candidate is able to capitalise on the new political awareness, which underpinned the movement, and propose a radical but credible alternative to what Sarkozy and other European leaders stand for: the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the last two or three decades.
If French unions managed to overcome their traditional rivalries and stay united for so long, it was not only because they were fighting to protect the ‘selfish’ right to retire at 60. If people of all ages and conditions demonstrated all over France, in up to 260 towns big and small, on 17th October, it was not only because they were fed up with Sarkozy’s autocratic and increasingly far-right and anti-Republican style of governance. If the protests enjoyed the support of over two-thirds of the population, in spite of the discomfort and disruptions it sometimes caused them, it was not only because the French are social conservatives who ignore the realities of the global economy. Their fight was not a selfish corporatist struggle to keep being mollycoddled at the expense of their European neighbours. The placards, the slogans and the many debates made it clear that they were also revolting against the logic of the current economic governance, which all European governments adhere to.
The rampant French insurrection against government policy is not just a protest against an unfair and unwanted reform, it is a cry for a new political economy. The European governments’ calls for necessary reforms of our welfare system aimed at preserving the competitiveness of the economy and our jobs are beginning to fall on deaf ears, in France as well as in the rest of Europe. For nigh on thirty years, they have been told that the profits of today are the investment of tomorrow and the jobs of the day after tomorrow, but they no longer believe it. They see that the profits of today are the dividends and bonuses of tonight and the job losses of tomorrow.
They now realise that what is meant to be good for business is not necessarily good for them. They are not fools, they can see that globalisation has not benefited those at the bottom of the pile and that many in the middle are beginning to face the same fate: more social and job insecurity, stagnating wages, reduced social benefits and social mobility, long-term unemployment, longer working lives, lower pensions etc.
They are no longer ready to swallow the line from technocrats and self-appointed economic ‘experts’ representing the interests of the dominant classes, who have long mastered the art of presenting their own interests as the common interest. That particular point was indeed hammered home by the Woerth-Bettencourt affair, which crudely highlighted the incestuous links between political and business elites.
The French workforce, now more educated than ever, decided to stop listening to the elites and lend an ear to trade unions, whose pedagogy helped the movement to spread, when many thought that this ‘common sense reform’ would be rubberstamped by the population. They realised that this reform was highly symbolic, for two other reasons beyond its unfairness:
- It had been decided as a sop to markets which, after bringing themselves and us to edge of the abyss, as Osborne put it, are now forcing the hands of the governments and taxpayers which rescued them. I think that, in doing so, they are speaking for many millions of Europeans.
- The Great Recession is now being used as an excuse for a Great Social Regression, an excuse to dent further the hard-fought social rights gained in the last century. The French feared that the pensions reform was the thin end of the wedge, that if they let such an unfair reform pass without resistance, they could end up as unprotected as the Brits are soon going to be.
They know that what is at stake now is not just the age of retirement, but the survival of the post-war European social model, which they see as the last rampart against the global market. They knew they would lose, but thought it was necessary to make a stand against the relentless dismantling the welfare state in the name of global competitiveness, an argument which they no longer buy. Our social model is not perfect, but it is not a hindrance, it is an asset. If Europe wants to prosper in a globalised world, it must preserve its socio-economic model, it must stop wanting to copy the US and China.
The real problem of Europe is that of jobs and sustainable and evenly shared growth. It certainly requires a reform of our welfare systems to make them fairer and more effective, but they must not be dismantled, as is happening in Britain. But, first and foremost, it requires a reform of our economic model, to be approached with a new ideological mindset. That is the message from French protestors, who, I believe, are speaking for millions of Europeans. Social democrats should therefore listen carefully to what the French demonstrators have to say and take note of the wide echo they found in the population.
The strong clamour for fairness, more equality and more protection against the downside of globalisation could herald an ideological shift, which should benefit the Left, if they stop kowtowing to the markets and start listening to their voters. Social democrats, still too often tempted by a managerial approach to economic governance, will ignore that mood at their peril.