PARIS – The expression “the French exception” applies not only to culinary matters, but to social and economic issues as well. A majority of today’s French recognize that raising the retirement age is necessary to ensure the survival of the pension system. Yet, according to all public-opinion polls, close to 70% of the French support the demonstrators who are taking to the streets to block the very modest reforms introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government.
“The French exception” is the product of an encounter between a peculiar political and intellectual history and the rejection of the elites currently in power. To the dismay of their European neighbors, and in front of a bemused global public, the French are once again demonstrating their bizarre tradition of using revolutionary means to express extreme conservative leanings.
Unlike their predecessors in May 1968, today’s demonstrators are not in the streets to defend a different and better future. They are out there in significant numbers to protect the status quo, and to express their nostalgia for the past and their fear of the future.
And yet the reactionary/revolutionary movement of the type that we are witnessing – a backlash against the inevitable consequences of globalization – remains unmistakably French. It is driven by the extreme Cartesian rationality, verging on the absurd, of a country whose citizens continue to view their state in the same way that adolescents view their parents.
Indeed, to see high school students expressing their hostility to Sarkozy’s planned slight increase in the retirement age is particularly revealing. They seem to confirm the “wisdom” of a Chinese student who recently described her life plan to an American magazine: “I will start with a good American university to beef up my education, then I will work in China and become rich, and then I will retire in Europe and enjoy life.” If she retires in France, she can live in an ideal place to enjoy the present, not to build a future.
The protesters know that what they are demanding in the streets today – the maintenance of what they have – is totally unrealistic. Yet they find it perfectly legitimate to carry on. And what if France really is showing the world what a “good life” is all about; that life is not about being part of a “Great Nation” with a nuclear bomb and a seat on the United Nations Security Council, but about being a “Happy Nation,” whose citizens understand how to live well and want to enjoy a long “second life” after retirement?
France, in this light, becomes, once again, the spearhead of a new European Revolution – a revolution based not on the principles of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” but on the pleasure principle. Such Frenchmen want to lead Europeans in their attempt to become a museum of the good life and concentrate on tourism. France must be the model of an alternative!
But this ironic vision of today’s France is much too simplistic or romantic, and does not comprehend the combination of fear and social discontent that are now visible in the current French maelstrom. In their desperate pursuit of contentment, the French express a profound existential malaise. They seem to be asking, “If we can no longer be great, because we have been overtaken by others, can we simply be happy?”
But their opposition to change reflects not only a certain denial of reality. It also corresponds to a rebuttal of the man who incarnates in their eyes everything they reject. Indeed, Sarkozy’s personal unpopularity plays a significant role in the continuing strength of the anti-reform opposition. How can a man who represents “big business,” or who simply seems fascinated by money, dare ask them to sacrifice for France? The French passion for equality nowadays far outweighs the French passion for liberty, and thus threatens French prosperity.
The fate of those who began working at a very early age, or of women who interrupted work to raise their children, is used as an argument against reform. But that is merely an alibi that allows the French to claim that they have nothing against reform in principle, but that the reforms being proposed are riddled with injustice.
The outcome is difficult to predict. The battle of wills between Sarkozy and the street is still very much open. If I had to bet, I would wager that the government will end up winning this battle. But Sarkozy is unlikely to derive long-term political benefit from his modest success, and he will face an uphill battle to be re-elected.
The French have not yet chosen between defending the old world and facing up to the challenges of a globalized world. Their very hesitation is a source of bewilderment for most and a source of admiration for a few. In all fairness, it seems easier to explain than to understand their behavior.