Slap Them, They're French

A tip of my cap to fellow FIWKer Royce for dropping this Economist article on the aftermath of the French pension reform protests into my lap today. I have been dying to discuss the situation in France - and especially since Black Tuesday - and why not let this be the forum?

Wondering about the title up there? It could not make for a more obscure reference - I defy you to admit that you have heard of the straight-to-video classic, Slap Her, She's French. While it has been consigned to the dustbin of movie history, its legacy is one of the greatest taglines in movie history: Bonjour, Y'all. But, I, France. Where to begin? (Warning: leaving Hyperlink Zone)

It is frustrating that international coverage of this event did not really perk up until things started catching on fire here in La Belle France. Because while cars lit on fire and shaggy-haired students clashing with riot police might make for good television, they do a disservice to the larger issues at work here. First of all, and this cannot be said enough, the French as a people are not ones for radical change. I know, I know, isn't this the same country that gave us the French Revolution? Yes, of course, but you have to recall that the Revolution happened, and it was fun and all for a while, but all the radical dudes who started the thing ended up losing their heads just like the King & Queen. No bloodless Revolution, that, and an historical example of the almost absurd lengths this country will go to A) oppose radical change, and/or B) radically re-correct any change that manages to slip through the cracks. So, how does that fit in with what's happened over pension reform (known as retirement benefits reform in the US, I imagine, as "pension" sounds vaguely British)?

You almost feel sorry for what has happened to French President Nicolas Sarkozy over the last two years. Swept into power as a generationally transformational figure (the first French President born after World War II and the first not to have served in any capacity under Charles de Gaulle) in 2007, he now stands as the least popular President in the history of the French Republic. People HATE him; they mock his height, they mock his wife, they derisively refer to him as "Sarko" - as if making the effort to say his last name in its entirety was too much for them to stomach. And why do they hate him? Because, dear readers, they blame him for destroying the very fabric of French society.

And that brings us to the second issue at play: the French love and admiration for their singular model of social welfare. While "socialism" and "welfare state" get tossed around in the US to describe everything from President Obama's health care bill to his adopting of Bo the Dog, nothing approaching socialism or the welfare state - at least the way the French do them - exists in the United States. In France, the state is referred to as l'État providence, which roughly translates to "welfare state" but encapsulates so much more - Providence, an almost religious appreciation for the benefits provided by the state. Any French citizen is brought into the world knowing that, no matter what may happen to him or France itself, he will be entitled to certain benefits: a 35-hour work week, 5 weeks of paid vacation, free and compulsory preschool for his children, universal health care coverage, and a set of robust retirement benefits, among others. French politicians attack these benefits at their peril - but, Lord, they sure do love to try anyway. Google "Alain Juppé 1995 strikes" or "Charles de Gaulle May 1968" for proof. No matter the pragmatism that may motivate the desire for reform - in this particular case, a US-Social-Security-style fear that the system as it is currently composed is unsustainable for future generations living in a country with an increasingly aging workforce - the attempts at reform itself are met with a powerful combination of revulsion and revolution.

Which brings me to my third (and, likely, final) point: this isn't as big a deal as everyone is making it to be. It's not the end of the French social model, as claim the unions and left-wing parties. Nor are the strikes and protests heralding the destruction of the very fabric of French society, as claim many on the French Right. Rather, as the Economist article so aptly states, it is less a new Mai '68 than a normal - if dramatic - rite of passage for this latest generation of French activists and citizens. Much as every generation of Frenchmen know they will benefit from certain social benefits throughout their respective lifetimes, they also know that a certain portion of their respective lifetimes will be spent in violent opposition to the government, authority, or both. Danton and Robespierre were the original grévistes back in the 18th Century, and their descendants took to the streets in 1830, 1848, 1936, 1968, 1995, 2005, and now 2010 because that is just what you do as an active participant in French society and politics. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this raising of the retirement age might very well be necessary (France has an increasingly shrinking workforce and an increasingly growing population of retirees), the best way to look at this is to view it as French political business as usual. In the end, despite the gasoline shortages and barricaded high schools, the law has passed and the union members have returned to work. There is fuel in French gas pumps again, and the Metro is running smoothly throughout the city. And, most importantly for President Sarko, his next election is still two long years away.


  1. 1) I did not know there was a history behind "the dustbin of history."

    2) How would this system apply to someone who is not a French citizen but lives and works there most of their adult life?

    3) Do the gaps between 1848-1936 (88 years), '36-68 (32 years) and '68-'95 (27 years) seem unusually large? Or are the three events in the last fifteen years too close together?

    4) What was the popular opinion of Sarkozy immediately before being elected?

    5) I like that the Economist article quotes a philosopher, Bernard-Henri Lévy, "They have a feeling they are following in the footsteps of their glorious elders, But it’s a pale copy of 1968. It’s like comparing opera to buffoonery.”
    5a) Seriously, a philosopher? Imagine if the New York Times ran an article on Obama's health care plan and included a quote from Aaron Agte, a really smart thinker.
    5b) The philosopher lived up to his end of the bargain though with the great analogy of comparing opera to buffoonery. That's the way you debate!

  2. Thanks for this MP - it really does put it all into perspective! Who's approval rating is higher: Obama or Sarkozy? Which has a better chance at re-election in 2 years (taking into account potential competition and any/everything that can happen b/n now and then)?

    I just had a thought: some level of rebellion success/failure has to be attributed to those in power, correct? You can't truly say the '10-activists paled in comparison to their '68-counterparts without making reference to the fact that those who are activists now are going against those who did so in '68. Doesn't this automatically make it harder to win concessions when those who you're fighting against have been there, done that?

  3. Aaron, to provide what I hope are moderately-accurate answers to your questions:
    2) I think as long as residency is established, you can benefit from a good portion of the social welfare structure. As long as you are paying into it - even if you aren't a citizen - you can benefit from it.
    3) I think the narrowing of the gap between "revolutions" is almost 100% attributable to how fast information spreads now compared to the 19th or 18th Century. You saw in 2005 already the ability of the forces of disorder to organize themselves must faster and more efficiently than their 1968 counterparts. You also have to take into account the time of the movement itself: the French Revolution (1789) really played itself out over a series of years; the May 1968 riots lasted for several months; the brunt of this year's demonstrations took place over a 3-week period. The respective lengths of the movements are shrinking over the years because people are spreading information faster, the movement gains momentum faster and may burn brighter, but it ultimately does not last as long as its predecessor.
    4) Again, I have to highlight the dramatic plummeting of Sarkozy's standing in the eyes of the French public. He won election in 2007 with around 54 percent of the vote. Today, his approval rating hovers around 20 percent. Even President Obama, for all his obstacles and opposition, still breaks about even in the approve/disapprove question, and has been steadily above the mid-40s on the approval side. So, to actually answer your question, Sarkozy was relatively popular immediately before he was elected - and then, like all French Presidents in the modern era, he felt the backlash of a nation-wide case of buyer's remorse.
    5, 5a, 5b) Don't underestimate the sway of philosophers in French life, especially French political life. The fact that BHL (our cute nickname for him) can even get by, thousands of years post-Socrates, with calling himself a philosopher is incredible in and of itself. "What do you do? (I'm a plumber.) Oh, that's cool - I'm a philosopher."

    Response to Scotty in a separate post.

  4. Scotty, Sarkozy would trade his approval rating for Obama's every day of the week and twice on Sunday's. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sarkozy's current approval rating is 26%. When I last checked, Obama's was in the mid-to-high 40s.

    I do, however, think that they stand an equal chance of being re-elected in 2 years, due mainly to the inability of their respective oppositions to coalesce sufficiently to defeat them. Since 1999, the French Left has failed to successfully manage a national election, and was shut out of the 2nd round of the presidential vote in 2002 (when fascist right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen advanced to face incumbent Jacques Chirac). If memory serves, no fewer than 6 left-of-center candidates ran for President in 2007, including the Socialist Party's Ségolène Royal. Unless all of the left-of-center parties agree to unite behind the most-left candidate in the 2nd round of voting (I'll let you know when it happens), they don't have enough electoral oomph to overtake whichever right-of-center candidate is running. In both the US and France, holding party ranks and ideological unity are very much the game of the Right and are occasionally tragically absent on the Left.

    And as for Obama's chances in 2012? might be easier than we think.

    Your "been there, done that" point would be a good one, Scotty, except no one in this current government can claim with any accuracy to have been a part of the Mai 68 movement. Sarkozy, for example, was only 13 years old at the time the movement began. And while one might be tempted to take into account the current political tendencies of the current government and say they were on this or that side of the 68 movement, where they are ideologically now may have little to no resemblance to where they were then.

    There is a remarkable and unique fluidity to French politics sometimes. Francois Mitterand was elected as a Socialist in 1981 - and was the last President to successfully unite the Socialists and the Communists - and his legacy is many of the social reforms mentioned above that most current Frenchmen take for granted. What would you say, though, if I told you that his political career was marked by time spent working for the Vichy government and time spent as a government minister for President Charles de Gaulle?

  5. The Internet ate my very large, very meticulously-created 2nd post.

    I'm too angry to re-write and re-post right now. More to come later.

  6. Man, eff the Internet. It's always doing that.

    This is an awesome write up and series of responses, MP. I daresay it is one of the few (non-sports) FIWK articles that is actually good. Have you considered changing your title to philosopher?

    I have questions but I have to get to them later.

  7. Turns out I was wrong. I tried to post the Scotty response thing and got an error. One click of the "Back" button and it was all gone.

    Or so I thought...glad to see it survived Internet purgatory and made it out to see the light of day.

    Being a poli sci major, I was thinking of adopting the title of "Philosopher-King", à la Plato's Republic.

  8. I'd definitely use the Philosopher title...but I'd be careful of using the King title. It's liable to get you beheaded. (I wanted a cute funny image link about the French Revolution...but whatever you do, DO NOT Google Image search 'beheaded'!!)

  9. Sorry to come late to the convo- stealing my neighbor's internet is getting dicier.

    I seriously doubt that Sarkozy will be re-elected, but props to him for sticking to his guns on pension reform.

    It was completely necessary. There is no way that the "welfare state" could support the amount of the population set to retire. EU countries are facing a lot of pressure to reform their social service sectors in light of the economic slowdown because their economies are so intimately tied together. If Sarkozy wants to keep an ally in Merkel, he better keep French finances ship-shape because Germany is very serious about maintaining their economic edge and they will not stand for any EU lapses.

    Oh, and I just learned today in stats that the average age of Sarkozy's economic advisers is 32. Significant?