Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thibault ...

... or not Thibault, that is the question. Bernard Thibault sounded a little desperate in an on-the-street interview that aired on tonight's JT. Without outright repudiating the AGs that keep renewing the strike, he reminded strikers that negotiations begin tomorrow, that they would likely "be long," and that it would be necessary to maintain the rapport des forces if necessary to win concessions. In other words, get back to work now, or we'll run out of steam; this is going to be a long slog.

Essentially, Thibault is caught between the more intransigent members of his and other unions' rank-and-file and the need to work out a compromise before the public loses patience. The point has been made, he's telling his men; let's not overplay our hand. He sounded like a nervous man, however.

C'est clair!

Ségolène Royal, speaking with all the clarity that characterized her campaign for the presidency, simultaneously endorsed the university reforms and backed the protest against the reforms. The reform is a good one, she said, but then she called on the government not to "spoil a good reform" by failing to provide the funds necessary to see it through. But the protesters are of course claiming that autonomy is merely a cover for eventual withdrawal of government funding, so SR would appear to be wanting to have it both ways. To be sure, her position is as sensible as John Kerry's famous for-as-well-as-against-the-war votes in the Senate, and it will do her as little good as Kerry's effort to split the difference and preserve his candidacy. One longs for a Mendès France among the Socialists, who would have the courage to say, as Royal does, the reform is a good one, but who would then go on to say, "So put an end to this unproductive and costly protest and we will fight like hell to ensure both an increase in funding and a reasonable allocation of the money available."

Suggestion: Autogestion

Jim Livesey comments:

On this point... might this not be a good moment to consider dusting off all the material on autogestion to interrogate if those ideas offer some route past the impediments to movement? As you rightly point out the current situation has now ceased to be about the reform of the special pension provision and turned into a more general crisis of legitimacy. Or alternatively the efforts at reform have uncovered a latent legitimation crisis..

Thanks for the suggestion, Jim. I would take it up more readily if I thought that there might be a happy end to the autogestionnaire impulse. But I was living in France through much of l'Affaire Lipp and came to feel that too many cooks spoil the soup. And autogestion in a firm with a relatively circumscribed market is child's play compared with autogestion of an economy or even a social security system. It is, moreover, late in the day, as it was also in the case of Lipp, to propose an alternative management plan. Self-management is at bottom an expression of deep suspicion of management's motives. If one doesn't believe that the diagnosis of the problem on offer by those in charge is an honest one, it is easy to assume that a better alternative is feasible. But the workers at Lipp faced a shift in the structure of the market for their wares, and it was never in the cards that worker-managers could reverse that stark fact, any more than the management they displaced. And they were of course far more unified and organized, and had a more clearly defined common interest, than the various categories of workers, students, and functionaries whose distrust of Sarkozy is creating the crisis of legitimacy you detect.

Pierre Rosanvallon, whose intellectual odyssey began with a book on autogestion, has more recently written another called La Contre-Démocratie: La politique à l'âge de défiance. I've just translated it, and CUP will bring it out next year. Rosanvallon emphasizes the utility of distrust as a means of democratic control, but he is also at pains to stress that distrust can be carried too far, to the point of paralysis.

La défiance, distrust, seems to be the theme of the season in France. As I reported a while back, there was recently a colloquium on the subject, organized around the paper of Yann Algan and Pierre Cahuc (Rosanvallon was in evidence there as well). Today, in La Vie des idées (the Web publication of Rosanvallon's think tank, La République des idées), there's an excellent critique of Robert Putnam's use of the idea of distrust by Éloi Laurent. The strikes have laid bare the distrust that social scientists have for some time seen as gnawing away at the social bond in France. Under such conditions, I don't see how a grass-roots movement, and by all signs a minority movement, can hope at this stage to impose an alternative that it has done so little to prepare despite abundant warning that in the absence of such an alternative it would face precisely what it now faces.

Chérèque Driven Off

In a comment yesterday, Ron Tiersky mentioned François Chérèque's lucid assessment of the situation as it stood last night. I was tempted to reply at the time that of course Chérèque was merely repeating what had been his and the CFDT's position for some years now, namely, that the move to 40 years of cotisations for all is inevitable and should become the framework for all further negotiation of retirement system reform. The problem is that, clear-eyed as this judgment may be, not everyone accepts it. This was made crystal-clear today, as Chérèque was driven from the streets by the jeers and threats of striking civil servants, whom he attempted to join. He had to be escorted from the scene by union marshals. This is not a good sign for anyone who hopes to see an early end to the strikes. The intransigents are certainly in the minority even among union members, but they are vociferous, and the increasing chaos, mounting economic losses, and frayed nerves have not persuaded them that they cannot get the government to reverse course. For inexplicable reasons, negotiations with the railway workers will not begin until tomorrow. In the meantime, the situation is growing more explosive by the minute. Thus far there has been no real violence. That could change at any moment.

Strike and Vélib'

Francisco asked yesterday how the Vélib' system was faring in the strike. Here's the answer. Usage has doubled. Tires are wearing out. But of course the traffic is so bad that some refuse to ride the bikes for fear of an accident.

Some months ago, I predicted that the strikes would end quickly and said that if they didn't, I would stake Éloi Laurent to one Vélib' ride. I was wrong, and I owe Éloi a ride, but he tells me that he won't ride in the streets as they are today, so I've agreed to buy him a coffee instead. Of course this will cost me more than a euro, and the euro has risen so much against the dollar since I made the bet that I'm afraid I may have to apply for a subsidy from the Ministry of Culture, which can of course be financed out of the additional income to be realized from all the reforms, reductions in size of the civil service, etc.

Bordélique. The adjective seems appropriate, though I suspect it's quite unfair to bordellos.


As civil servants and teachers join railway workers and students, several opinion pieces in Le Monde suggest that, more than the content of the reforms themselves, the implicit redistribution of power must be acknowledged in order to understand why heels are being dug in so deeply.

In the universities the questions are these. What new powers are being awarded to university presidents? Who will control hiring of new researchers?

Civil servants want to know how freely they can be transferred from department to department, and who wields the power to transfer them?

Rank-and-file union members want more power at the base in exchange for any concessions on retirement. A settlement that suits the national leadership may not suit the locals.

And so on, and on, and on. There is of course nothing new about an explosion of particular resentments and revendications when the central power attempts a systemic reform in the name of the general interest. This is French history in a nutshell. And the next few days will no doubt remind us that French history has generally been a messy affair.