Make no mistake about it: despite the incredulity at the public reaction in France expressed by the international media, there must be something terribly wrong with president Sarkozy's retirement bill which is due to become law sometime in November.
With the support of only 29% of the population according to the latest opinion polls and six weeks of strikes and public demonstrations mobilising millions of people throughout France, hostility to the reform clearly qualifies as the greatest French revolt since the student riots of May 1968.
Revolutionary France has once more taken to the streets in the defence of its traditional tripartite banner of "liberté, égalité, fraternité". The French have never lost their combative fibre since they stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789 which, at the time, was occupied by only six or seven prisoners: four counterfeiters, two dangerous maniacs (who had been imprisoned at the request of their families), and a sexual delinquent by the name of the Marquis de Sade who had the misfortune of having been transferred to another prison prior to the assault on the Bastille.
Of course the French revolution was not just about freeing those half dozen pitiful souls. If the facts had been reported by the media as simply as that, in the same manner as they are today in relation to the current revolt, then everyone at the time would have thought the French had gone mad.
Closer analysis reveals that the first French revolution had deep-rooted causes of famine and poverty which had been attributed by the peasants and urban populations alike to the social injustice and economic mismanagement of the monarchy. The Bastille was simply a symbol of what was perceived as injustice, incompetence and arbitrary rule.
Symbols are important in France. The French are neither more nor less intelligent than anybody else but they may well have a more highly developed sense of political awareness than most and perhaps also a greater aptitude for critical thinking.They are a mature and cultivated people who entertain a visceral attachment to their quality life-style despite the fact that they do not enjoy the same egalitarian culture as we do in Australia.
France is a country of sixty five million people. More than seventy percent reject President Sarkozy's reform bill and it is not simply because the retirement age is to be increased from 60 to 62 years as has been widely reported in the media. There is much more to it than that.
Unlike its principal trading partner, Germany, and most of its other trading partners, France does not enjoy a culture of social negotiation. The French employers' federation, the "patronat", as it is called, along with the trade unions and the government, has been meeting for months on end discussing the proposed retirement reform with absolutely no result. President Sarkozy finally blew the whistle early September and presented his version of the reform (which had the tacit agreement of the patronat) to parliament where he disposes of a comfortable majority in both houses.
Apart from a few notable exceptions, chiefly during the socialist presidencies of Leon Blum and François Mitterrand, social progress in France has been more the result of hard fought battles in the workplaces and on the streets than the result of negotiation.
Social progress in France has been largely forged through confrontation, confrontation of two radically different perspectives of political right and left, of the "patronat" on one hand and the unions on the other, a vision which is shared by just about every man and woman in the country.
There is ample evidence of this identification of political right and left in almost every aspect of daily life in France. A striking example is the seat of political, financial, judicial and coercive power which is located on the right bank of the river Seine in Paris, as are the head offices of all the major banks, insurance companies, industrial and commercial groups and international corporations. The liberals and conservatives are all generally to be found on the right bank.
Conversely, organisations and institutions which purport to be progressive or avant-garde are more often located on the left bank. Opposition political parties, artists, designers, creators, writers, editors and whoever or whatever aspires to originality are generally located on the left bank in and around the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne University.
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