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March 13, 2005 - Street Democracy

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Our man in Paris, Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis explains it all. What is it? France today is more like America today than one would have guessed.

PARIS - Saturday, 12 March - Most democracies have elections and the party with a majority gets to run the show. This is the principle in France too, but when the ruling party has an absolute majority and is right-wing, and since the majority of voters favor left-wing policies, the only effective opposition may be in the streets.


In the '60s this was called the extra-parliamentary opposition and some of its leaders are now running governments, but not in France.  Here the Socialists bungled the last presidential election and had to support Jacques Chirac to bar any chance of Jean-Marie Le Pen becoming president.


Chirac trashed Le Pen with Socialist votes and his party - the RPR renamed UMP for the occasion - rode in on his coat tails with a more than comfortable majority. Forgetting that without the aid of Socialists voting against Le Pen the race might have been a tight standoff, the UMP has used its upper hand attempting to 'reform' all sorts of social legislation.


This isn't what the 'stop Le Pen' voters wanted exactly and many in France have watched with dismay the unfolding of right-wing plans to 'reform' 100 years of social progress back to the stone age. The Socialists vote against the 'reforms' in the assembly national, and they are outvoted every time. The only recourse they can hope for is when the Constitutional Council looks at the right's shoddy handiwork, it will send it back to the assembly for revision.


The right have pushed through 'reforms' concerning retirement, and the state health plan, but it is unclear whether these are being translated from legislation into practice. And the right has stumbled with school 'reform,' because a bunch of school kids have taken to the streets to protest against it. The minister concerned had to withdraw one of its essential elements - changes to the process of the BAC.  School 'reform' has been stalled for years - even Socialist 'reforms.'


The right has bulldozed through 'reforms' to the famous '35-hour' workweek. Oh, the 35-hour work week is still on the books, but now the legally-permitted overtime has been lifted from about 180 hours to 220 hours a year. The legally-permitted overtime rate was fixed at 10 percent over regular-time, and government mouthpieces said, 'everybody who wants to work more will be paid more.'

In practice employers will be leery of workers who do not 'volunteer' to work five extra hours per week all year, for an lousy overtime differential of ten percent. And with this guaranteed overtime in hand - by law - they won't have to hire more workers.


Then, beyond the government's control, nearly all of the biggest French companies recently announced record profits for last year.  Many of these companies closed down units, or sent work abroad, and some used the threat to squeeze salary concessions from their employees in France - such as working 39 hours for 35-hours' pay, or else go to Poland and work there.


Shortly after these glad tidings appeared on the financial pages, another government unit announced that unemployment surged above 10 percent again. This can hardly be blamed on the 35-hour workweek because the system swallowed it years ago, so it must mean that companies with record profits are holding off hiring in hopes that the 35-hour workweek will be scuttled soon or they will open a plant in China next week.


All of the unions from soup to nuts are also pointing out that most jobs created in recent years only pay the minimum wage - or below it due to job hires of less than the 35 hours per week. There are a lot of workers on part-time and some have been on it for years.  Purchasing power has stagnated.


Given the right's control of the presidency and the government's majority in the legislature, what can be done? Neither the opposition nor the unions have parliamentary votes enough to change anything - not until the next elections, years from now.


The president, his party, and a majority of the opposition, including unions, want the French to approve the new European Constitution in a referendum that will be held at the end of May. Gradually, general indifference to this is being whittled away by those opposed, so those who are promoting it are going to need all the votes they can get.


For the record unions are saying that their street demonstrations - three national mobilizations so far this year - are about wages and jobs, and are unconnected to the Euro vote. But there's a steel fist implied in this glove.


Bernard Thibault, the Beatle-haired boss of the left-wing CGT, has even given the government a clue. Speaking on France-2's Q&A after the evening TV-news following Thursday's national demo with 600,000 to one million marchers, he suggested that the government make a 'small gesture' - or expect to see a replay in April - all the closer to the referendum date.


For example, a one-percent salary hike would lift 30,000 civil servants off the minimum wage.


Message received, if slowly - on Friday the prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called the leader of Force Ouvrière to announce that the government will reopen salary negotiations for civil servants. The FO's Jean-Claude Mailly expects the government to offer a one-percent hike in two stages for 2005, but unions will certainly want to discuss the 5 percent of purchasing power lost by nearly everybody since 2000.

It may seem strange outside of France and it may not be tidy, this extra-parliamentary opposition, but it works. It is so common that it is nearly possible to correctly guess the outcome.


But nobody ever blames a government for causing the street demonstrations, or for transport strikes, or for schools closed by striking teachers or students, or both. It's always the fault of the French - not their government, not even if many of its members are graduates of the administrative schools.


Let's face it, the French like giving authorities the finger. If they didn't have this, they might turn to revolution.



Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis 

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Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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