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France Says No


France hasn’t seen demonstrations like this for 40 years. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s character, his arrogance and determination to crush the “enemy” have aroused wide opposition. But one man’s whims do not account for all the sound and fury. This is a response to a fundamental and unjust change of social direction chosen by European governments with allegiances ranging from confident right to compliant left, on the pretext of dealing with the financial crisis. Berlusconi has done no more good or harm in Italy than the socialists under Papandreou in Greece and Zapatero in Spain. They all threaten the viability of public services and social security. To please the bean-counters on the stock exchange, they all propose to make ordinary people pay for the havoc wrought by the banks, who carry on just as before, free from any obligation to show “courage” (like the workers) or solidarity with future generations.

 

This is not the rabble having a fit, but the French people returning to the fray. The government has no legitimate defence against their claims. The National Assembly was elected immediately after a presidential campaign in which Sarkozy said nothing about his plan to reform pensions, later presented as the “highlight” of his five-year term. Four months before he was elected, he had declared that the “right to retire at 60 must be preserved”. A year later, referring to the possibility that this right might be deferred, the new president insisted: “I will not do it, I have not promised the French people that I would do it, I have no mandate to do it, and that counts for me, you know.” The French, already subject to a European constitutional treaty overwhelmingly rejected by referendum but subsequently passed in parliament by rightwing MPs (with a bit of help from the socialists), are also demonstrating against the authoritarian contempt shown by their government.

 

The young know what to expect. As crisis follows crisis, the capitalist line hardens. If capitalism is to survive, society will have to pay the price: endless evaluations, more competition between workers, exhaustion and bitterness. The latest version of the Attali report now recommends freezing public sector pay until 2013, making patients bear part of the cost of treating long-term illnesses (cancer, diabetes) and increasing VAT, but leaving the “tax shield” in place (naturally). As Mitterrand’s former adviser kindly informs us, “we face 10 years of austerity” (though he will doubtless be spared).

 

As a young demonstrator said in early October: “First we have education: that’s school. Then we work: that’s the hardest bit. And after that, we retire: that’s the reward. If they take away the reward, what are we left with?” Neo-liberals make fun of these young people worrying about retirement. They do not seem to realise that their anxiety is an indictment of the policies they have pursued for the past 30 years, which have produced this result: a future without hope. Demonstrations, marches and strikes are the best way to reverse the process and avert such a prospect.

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