STRIKES FOR CHRISTMAS
|Unions against Pension Reform|
And then as now, a majority of the French people supported the strikers against their potential loss of certain droits acquis. Among those acquired rights are the privileges and early retirement of train drivers, introduced in the post-World War II years when trains were powered by coal, and considered by railroad workers as inviolable and acquired for life.
During his presidential campaign in 2017 Emmanuel Macron promised to overhaul the complicated French national pension system with its 42 different retirement plans, ranging from full retirement at age 50 or 52 for train drivers to age 62 for others, and replace it with a point-based unified plan for all, where one euro buys one point with the same rights for everyone regardless of job or background. The current system is untenable, running at a deficit of €2.5 billion per year and growing. To finance this shortfall the new system proposes two more years of contributions (retiring at 64 instead of 62). Throughout Europe, people are already working longer because we live longer, but France deems age 62 as a reasonable time to stop working and enjoy our remaining years while still in good health. Anything beyond age 62 would be an infringement on these final years of rest.
In a typical French paradox, a majority of French citizens agrees with the need for a new pension system, yet supports those who strike against it. The most likely outcome of the current standoff will be a watered-down version of the Macron plan after a very expensive general strike at a great cost to the national treasury and to businesses of all kinds. The strikes’ side effects of school closures, reduced public transportation, hospital care, and all manner of public service may soon be forgotten, but not by those shopkeepers who are still hurting from the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations this past year, and are again taking a hit during this all-important Christmas season. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe continues to negotiate with unions, promising to be flexible on certain points of contention but determined to maintain the new retirement age of 64. Several unions have already announced a new deadline of January 9th, allowing for a short strike-free Christmas break when French hearts and minds turn to food above all else and to their elaborate Christmas dinner, the culinary high point of the year and the one thing all the French can agree on.
It is too early to predict the outcome of this conflict, with both sides vowing to hold out and further mass demonstrations already planned for January, but it is safe to say that in the end nobody will be happy and that this will simply be another phase in the long history of social upheaval in France. Plus ça change…
WHERE IS MACRON?
Once he had outlined his proposed Pension Reform in July, President Macron stepped back from the subject and it became the prime minister’s business to explain and defend the new plan in detail. This was done through meetings and consultations with the majority of public and private unions in September and October who all, except for one temporary holdout, rejected the new conditions and declared an open-ended, massive strike on December 5th.
During that time, Macron was busy on the international scene, from hosting the G7 summit in Biarritz in August, to attending the tense NATO summit in London in early December, with a whirlwind of diplomatic visits to Tunisia, Armenia, the UN National Assembly, Africa, and numerous EU countries in between. He also hosted Russo-Ukrainian peace talks at the Elysée Palace between presidents Putin and Zelensky, with Angela Merkel by his side.
With a lame duck chancellor Merkel in Germany and a Brexit-focused prime minister Johnson in the UK, Macron is indeed the de facto foreign policy leader in Europe today. Good news to some, less so to others who view him with suspicion, pointing to the fact that he is young, ambitious and impatient, “going it alone” when diplomatic cooperation with other EU leaders slows him down.
Nevertheless, Macron sees a greater role for France in a global context and is well on his way to making a name for himself on the world stage - if he doesn’t get tripped up by his own recalcitrant countrymen. It happened to Charles de Gaulle; it could happen again.
Like the preceding survey of 2015, it shows that Asian countries continue to lead the way, with China and Singapore scoring highest in all categories, and Northern European countries consistently outperforming the Southern European ones. France lingers in the middle range, ranking 25th in mathematics, but scores worst of all countries surveyed for social-economic inequality. The good results obtained in richer areas are pulled down by the markedly poorer performance in low-income areas with high unemployment and a majority population of immigrants. This population has never been integrated into the French mainstream and survives on low-paying jobs and petty crime (see blog 2/22/2017). It would take a change in government policy to provide a level playing field for French students and improve their PISA ranking in the process.
NOTRE DAME SILENT THIS CHRISTMAS
For the first time in more than 200 years there was no Christmas midnight mass this year at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The building, which was nearly destroyed by fire last April, remains fragile and is still in danger of collapse. A giant 75-meter-high purpose-built crane has just arrived on site for the most delicate operation in the process of consolidating the structure before renovation: the disassembling of the twisted metal scaffolding that currently envelops the edifice. Many of its 10,000 metal tubes were soldered together by the fire. They need to be cut up and brought down in pieces without endangering the equilibrium of the fragilized structure.
Once the huge crane has been assembled and solidly anchored into the ground, the actual work will begin in February under the watchful eyes of construction engineers and other experts. Knuckle-biting time.
Meanwhile, the traditional Notre Dame midnight mass was moved to the church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois near the Louvre, and the famed Notre Dame Choir to the church of St. Sulpice. Fortunately, the city of Paris does not lack for churches while the cathedral of Notre Dame undergoes an estimated five-year rescue and renovation period to re-emerge, hopefully in all her splendor, in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
A LOOK BACK
Perhaps the brightest spot in this bleak picture was the tiny figure of Greta Thunberg, marching steadfast and undeterred on her earth-saving mission all the way onto the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year.
Here's to you, Greta. You did us proud. May your example finally spur our politicians and decision makers into action. You have shamed them and inspired us. Thank you.
And here's to HAPPY NEW AIR for all of us in 2020.