[Marxism] WSJ looks at the French situation, and tries to give advice

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Nov 23 07:22:06 MST 2007

The French government knows already that it has lost this round.

Despite the WSJ's headline, even a blind person who has the story
and editorial READ to them would recognize immediately that this
healine about the strike "softening" is WSJ spin on the struggle
in France today. My crystal ball doesn't permit me to predict the
future with absolute clarity, but so far, nothing Thatcher-like
has happened in France, perhaps beyond the wishful thinking of
Mrs. Thatcher herself, and maybe in Sarkosy's imagination.

Even HE has a full plate right now after the punch he received 
from Alvaro Uribe yesterday. Fortunately for Europe and for the
world, class understanding and class consciousness is still high
in France. One could only wish that there was something similar 
in the United States of America. Unfortunately, that is not now
the case. There's a terrific tradition of French workers and the
support they receive from students and others in society who are
aware that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that an injury to
one is an injury to all. That is why public support and sympathy
for the strikers, this time as in the past, has been enthusiastic.

Let's hope that while negotiations are proceeding in France, that
the unions and their supporters are doing everything they can to
educate the public about the stake which everyone has in the way
this struggle ends. As one can see from the editorial below in
today's Wall Street Journal, the ruling class is clear on what
the stakes are in this fight. They will be trying to find some
formula or way to divide the working class against itself as 
has been done so effectively in the Unite States where a range
of two-tiered systems have weakened the working class movement.

It's pointedly spelled out in the WSJ editorial which proposes
a strategy for their French confreres: an attempt to buy off a 
section of today's workers in exchange for raising the retire-
ment age of all workers in the sector.

Walter Lippmann
Havana, Cuba

French Travel Strike Softens
Union, Government
Set Month of Talks
On Pension Changes
November 23, 2007; Page A6

PARIS -- A transport strike that has slowed France for nine days is
petering out as labor unions agreed to enter a month of talks with
the government over a planned pension overhaul.

But it is too early to talk of a victory for French President Nicolas
Sarkozy because railway workers warn they will resume their walkout
if negotiations fall through.

Employees of French rail, bus and metro companies are protesting a
government plan to curtail special pension benefits enjoyed by about
500,000 French employees who work mainly for transport and energy
companies. These employees can retire at 55 years of age, compared
with age 60 for the rest of France's active population.

Yesterday, the unions seemed to soften their tone. Service began
returning to normal on long-distance and regional lines, as well as
on the Paris underground.

The standoff has become a battle over longer-term economic overhaul.

Mr. Sarkozy, who won the presidential election in May on the promise
that he would revive France's economy, wants to show he is determined
to extract concessions from some categories of workers.

To plug chronic deficits in France's state-run pension system, the
government has said it wants to raise the general population's
retirement age to 61 or 62 by 2009 or 2010. Before tackling this,
however, it wants to align pension plans so that everyone retires at
age 60.

For unions, the show of force is a test of their resolve over the
next few months and years, when the government is likely to push
through other economic changes in areas such as France's rigid labor

"If he doesn't force us to back down, his hands will be tied, and he
won't be able to do anything for the rest of his mandate," Fabien
Monteil, a delegate with the Sud Rail union, said in an interview.

Mr. Sarkozy has given unions and government representatives one month
to reach a compromise over how -- and over what period of time -- the
500,000 workers who currently retire at 55 can shift to the age-60
retirement plan.

Some hard-liners, including Mr. Monteil, are gearing up to strike
again. "You must be on strike to negotiate; otherwise, you get
nothing," he said.

French Street Fight
November 23, 2007; Page A12

Congested streets and idle trains are a familiar sight in France. But
the huge transport strike, which paralyzed the country for over a
week, could be one of the last. It all depends on whether France's
new leader is more Ronald Reagan or Jacques Chirac.

President Nicolas Sarkozy picked this fight -- presumably to win it.
His planned overhaul of the "special pensions regime" for select
government workers isn't controversial outside the public-sector
unions that called their members out. Nor is it all that crucial to
France's economic future. But Mr. Sarkozy must neutralize the unions
before he can fulfill his promise to make France globally competitive
again. The reforms that matter most are next.

The unions realize the stakes. Should the new President prevail on
pensions, the way clears for him to push liberalized labor codes, a
higher retirement age across the board, a smaller civil service,
autonomy for universities and a revamped welfare state. If Mr.
Sarkozy loses this fight, then the chances of serious change are
close to nil.

The cost of failure for the new man at the Élysée Palace can hardly
be exaggerated. In 1995, then-President Chirac tried something
similar, only to cave after three weeks of strikes. Mr. Sarkozy has
tended to define himself against his hapless predecessor and one-time
rival. That serves him well. Earlier this week, in un-Chirac tones,
he declared: "These reforms have been too long coming. We will not
give way. We will not retreat."

The strong rhetoric is a good sign. Mr. Sarkozy might take
inspiration from the fortitude that led Reagan to fire the air
traffic controllers. As in that 1981 strike, government employees in
critical transport jobs are, in Mr. Sarkozy's word, taking the
economy and public "hostage."

The majority, judging by the results of this year's elections that
swept a Sarkozy-led center-right into power, stand against the
unions, which represent a fraction of the work force. Last weekend,
during a rainstorm, thousands of enraged Parisians turned out to
march against the strikers who have made their lives so difficult. If
even the French are getting fed up with the political extortion
practiced by their unions, then there's hope for Europe yet.

This reform affects only about half a million railway, Metro and some
select public employees -- such as parliamentarians and (no misprint
here) ballet dancers. They can retire up to 20 years earlier than
anyone else, including most civil servants, on full state pension.
That privilege, dating back to 1698 in the case of the ballerinas,
costs French taxpayers about $8.9 billion a year. No one's livelihood
is in jeopardy; civil servants enjoy almost complete job security in
a country with the euro-zone's highest unemployment rate. This reform
merely levels the playing field and puts a small dent in the chronic
deficit of the state-run pensions system.

Negotiations began Wednesday among employers, state and the unions,
and yesterday most rail workers voted to "suspend" the strike while
talks continue. The unions are on the defensive. Early Wednesday,
four high-speed rail lines out of Paris were closed when militant
strikers damaged signaling connections. Some union bosses may figure
such tactics, and the threat of prolonged labor action, can force
French politicians to bend to their will. They've done it before.

One possible government concession may be to compensate current
workers for the rise in the number of years needed to qualify for
pension -- a one-off cost. But a clear red line is the permanent
shift to a higher retirement age.

Mr. Sarkozy's election in May brought a gust of fresh hyper-energy to
French life. A recent economic downturn, global credit jitters, the
President's own marital woes and now the strikes put an autumnal
damper on things. But expectations remain high that Mr. Sarkozy can
revitalize a country mired in three decades of economic gloom.

More information about the Marxism mailing list