The beginning of September marks an old French tradition, much like hay fever in May, the street come alive with the sounds of…
No, not music, nor cars or school kids returning to school; think instead union slogans, badly tuned loudspeakers with increased reverb and atrocious feedback – yep, you got it, it’s Manif Season (read demonstration fever), back on the street for another attack on the system, or something.
It’s an odd thing, politics “à la française”, whereas most countries are quite happy to delegate over to politicians the core task of regulations and debate (albeit with the occasional hoop-la of election times thrown in), France prefers a much more lively and somewhat interactive method of politics. In effect, political majorities and democracy be gone, at least during the months of September/October, because now it’s time for the ‘word-on-the-street’, for the guy with the banner, for the biggest flag, to have his say, to have his way.
Oh, so I see the immediate impulse is to think that France is a heavily union dominated country beset with party politics and ongoing political intensity. Well, not exactly. As a matter of fact, France’s union membership is down to roughly 7.7% of the labour force and is a declining metric. The reality is that most French people are quite liberal with over 10 years now of almost uninterrupted liberal/conservative stewardship that is set to run for at least another 2 years. They instead prefer talking about much more prosaic lifestyle issues than just politics and government. However, in France, equality though often touted as a core civic principle, seems to be flipped over once it comes to the months of September and October when a minor subset of the population becomes determinedly more equal than the rest of the ‘equals’.
It’s not a question of how-many really go on strike but more a question of ‘who’ gets to strike and demonstrate. Despite only 7.7% of the labour force ascribing their support over to union policies, the unions still manage to hold enough sway as to shut down the nation’s capital (much to the despair of businesses, commuters, families, oh and the government too). Think about the effect of an entrenched union group in the railways, entrenched union lobbies in the public service, one or two disaffected union-sympathetic in the trucking industry and you start to get an idea. To make it more explicit, imagine the following: all subways and buses down to roughly 10% of traffic for a urban center largely reliant on public transport; imagine post men, teachers, firemen, all deciding to stop their mail runs, teaching your kids, or answering the phone for lost kittens in trees (there is still a minimum service for emergencies); and then throw in a couple of truck drivers stopping their long-haul trucks on key access points (cue video: flaming tires and angry big truckers in singlets). So, you say, nightmare? Breakdown of law and order? Anarchy? No, not quite, just Paris in September/October.
By now going through this is such an annual and almost unavoidable tradition the French are pretty much immune to its effects – kindly shrugging their shoulders as they try to squeeze in to the 1 in 10 metros or as they walk home, in the rain and cold, after a day’s work. It’s become another one of the Parisian idiosyncrasies, their life goes on, after all “c’est la vie”.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the French are demonstrating/waving banner/going on strike over the governments pension reforms. It turns out that the current French model, involving current employees to pay past employee’s pensions, or in other words an uncapitalised pay-as-you-go pension model, is structurally deficient. It never really was on a sound footing when it started, remember that the first generation to opt in started paying for a generation that had never paid any dues, but that doesn’t seem to be the prime concern here. Nor is the fact that for every 12 months of pension dues paid out, the über-pension-leviathan of the French Government only collects 11 months of revenue. Oh, but what is to worry – pension is a “civic right”, right? After all, that’s only 8.3% that’s borrowed out it each year… So you know, nothing big, no need to compound that every year, lord knows where that would leave us (8.3% compound, five years=49%)…
The French government is proposing longer years, later pensions, in an attempt to plug the gap – but essentially the French model is still aimed at being a fairly large pyramid scheme over less-than-pyramidal demographic base. Eerily enough, coming from an anglo-saxon base with a privatised pension-system, nobody in France seems to be promoting the idea of capitalising the system somewhat, not even partially…. Ah, well, I suppose this would reduce the incentives to have the September walk-offs, and we wouldn’t want that, after all, given the tiring and exerting long-August break, one does need a gradual take-off to the business year. We can’t just go wasting those hard-earned tans just right off the beach now can we?