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.