Friday, May 28, 2010

A Deliberate Provocation?

Thierry Desjardins believes that the president of the Republic wanted a "test of strength" and got it by provoking the Left with a gratuitous attack on Mitterrand ("if he hadn't reduced the legal age of retirement to 60, we wouldn't be having all these problems today"--an attack that conveniently forgets Sarko's own statement in 1993 that "the UMP has always supported 60 as the legal age of retirement"). It's a plausible enough thesis: the president has lost control of the public discourse, and putting the unions on his back gives him an opportunity to adopt the posture of fighting cock that he used to favor.

But I think it hardly matters. In the matter of retirement reform, successive French governments have proceeded in the same clumsy way decade after decade. Feigning consultation, they come to the table with a sound plan firmly fixed in their minds. They are well prepared to fend off all anticipated objections. But in the end they prefer to avoid direct confrontation, and there is always enough flexibility in the plan to throw a bone to each potential opponent.

Since the opponents do not agree among themselves, such a second- or third-best solution is the best they can hope for, and they take what is offered after putting up token resistance. So we will see many compromises around the question of pénibilité, a word that evokes images of bagnards breaking stones, but which in fact authorizes myriad inequalities in the name of compassion: Is the caissière on her feet eight hours a day and exposed to repetitive stress injury worthy of a shorter period of cotisation than a construction worker who spends his eight hours seated in the cab of a bulldozer?

If agreements are by sector or branch, how does one distinguish between the heavy equipment operator and the ditchdigger? Between compassionate abstraction and contractual nitty-gritty, the gap is huge, but public debate skips lightly over the real issues. My prediction: this n-ième retirement reform will no more be the la der des ders than its predecessors but a motley backroom compromise designed mainly to improve the short-term budget picture.


brent said...

Of course you're right that any 'reform' that seeks to rationalize the whole retirement system according to some principle of 'fairness' will uncover a million anomalies, each of which threatens to become an inequality. In the face of the American inclination to let the public option wither while the market distinguishes 'winners' from 'losers' (and consigns the latter to pass their 70s and 80s working at low-wage jobs), I guess I salute the French for trying to frame a viable public alternative. But while the debate may descend into messy details of who contributes what for how long, the higher-level policy discussion concerns which class will bear the cost, and there is room for a principled debate on that question (if the conventional left is willing to engage in it). In the USA such talk is still considered 'class warfare' and banished as such from the public sphere.

Anonymous said...

I get the feeling that, for Desjardins, Sarkozy is all about electoral tactics to get re-elected. Retirement reform being just a pretext to further his own stay in power.
Desjardins himself talks of "cette réforme des retraites qui s’impose", which I gather to mean that he, too, partakes of the consensus opinion for whom reform of the retirement scheme is a necessity.
Sarkozy is going against popular opinion, which favors the 60 year-old retirement age, by pushing through a reform whose basic premise is accepted by the governing class.
I'd say give credit where credit is due. Is not this one instance of according due credit?

Chris P.