Thursday, March 19, 2009

Civilization and Its Discontents

It's often hard, when lolling underneath a lime tree in Provence in the afternoon shade, to conjure up the "contentious French" who fill the history books. Strike days like today make that task easier, however. Seventy-eight percent of the French are said to support "the social movement," which is a rather complimentary phrase, suggesting quite a bit more organization than actually exists, to describe the ras-le-bol that seems to be mounting.

Laurence Parisot, the MEDEF's pixieish leader, has been accused of pouring oil on the fire by suggesting that these one-day strikes exact a heavy toll in "demagogy and illusions created." Is she perhaps in cahoots with Olivier Besancenot, eager to fan the revolutionary flames? asks an editorialist for Sud-Ouest.

It's hard to imagine what motive she might have for doing that. A more parsimonious explanation would be simply that, like rational economic calculators everywhere, she sees absolutely no point to burning a day's gross domestic product simply to generate more steam to blow off.

But rational economic calculators are constantly being disappointed by the unruliness of human emotion, and the crisis is generating plenty of that. Alain Juppé, who knows a thing or two about how even the best-laid calculations can be bollixed up by people letting off steam, rebuked Parisot for her "arrogance." First he attacks the Pope, now MEDEF: Juppé seems to be bidding to put a new face on conservatism, and why not--the old new face, Sarkozy's, now seems only to anger roughly the same percentage of the people that approved of his program immediately after the election.

Democracy is fickle that way, and often a disappointment to the rational calculators. Sarko was never one of those, but he has experienced the fickleness and no doubt figures this latest episode will also pass. Nevertheless, his nervousness has been apparent in his recent public statements: sniping at the weak-kneed members of his own party, imprudently insulting teachers and professors, and still insisting that he was elected not to raise taxes but to "reconcile" France with "enterprise," as if either of the two parties to that divorce were in the same condition they were in 2007. France is morose, and enterprise is prostrate. If the president hopes to be their marriage counselor, he needs to acknowledge the sad state in which they find themselves.