Tuesday, October 19, 2010


The Revolution begat Napoleon, 1848 begat Napoleon le Petit. First time tragedy, second time farce, said Karl Marx. Then May '68--a psychodrama rather than a revolution, according to Raymond Aron--drove de Gaulle to a refuge in Germany for a brief moment before restoring him to power and even glory when sobriety set in. And now we have the great bras de fer of 2010, pitting Napoleon le Minuscule against le Peuple.

The film seems to have been sped up a bit, even compared with the mini-événements of 1995 (which dragged on for about 3 weeks) and 2005 (which lasted a little over 2). The bonhomie of the initial moments begins to give way to exasperation as trains don't run and gas runs short. The adrenaline rush of mixing it up with the cops brings some youths into the street but causes (some of) their elders to stay home and fret about where all this is leading. Some who enjoyed thumbing their nose at the arrogance of power for the first few days begin to ask whether this is any way to run a country. Small groups of workers (how many people do the oil refineries employ?) are electrified by their discovery of their power to bring the system to a halt and begin to wonder if their union leaders haven't been too timid all these years. Opposition politicians ask whether this is a wave they can ride or one that will eventually crush them or sweep them away.

Even normally sober commentators allow the excess of the moment to creep into their language: this is a reform that nobody wants, say some, while others begin to see parallels with the tragedies and farces of bygone times. The tendency, bred in the bone of all children of the Revolution, to confuse la rue with le Peuple waxes briefly. Perhaps the Senate vote tomorrow will be salt in this newly opened wound in the body politic, or perhaps it will be a signal that the current sequence has reached its climax. I expect the latter but would not be utterly surprised by the former. In any case, in the aftermath we can expect two narratives to emerge: one in which Sarkozy tries to rebuild his image by portraying himself as the first leader of the Right in recent memory to stand up to la foule and press ahead with needed reform, and another in which the opposition paints the president as an autocrat who stops his ears against the cries of an oppressed People. Ainsi va la France. Tragedy, farce, psychodrama, reality TV. It's depressing, really.


Kirk said...

Alas, one sees the usual actors in this drama.

The politicians who, regardless of what they think about the issue, use it as a wedge.

The emasculated unions who try to prove their power, in spite of very low numbers of members.

Small groups of workers who like to show off like thugs and prove that they can annoy the most people, and even prevent them from working, shopping and doing what they want.

The students - both lycéens and university students - who seem like they're demonstrating just because.

And the journalists who use this to feed the news cycles.

What strikes me most is the amount of time that people have spent on this issue - which, it seems, both political sides agree needs to be changed - where they could make big changes in French society if they focused this much energy on things that do need to be changed. For example, those who talk about wanting to retire early because their jobs are "pénible" would do better to fight for better working conditions and salary.

I think the government is at fault for not giving real numbers: what percentage of people actually retire before age 62; how much would payroll taxes have to be raised to pay for retirement at age 60; what the real life expectency issues are, and how they've changed since the age-60 retirement right was granted.

It's sad, and it's probably the worst thing about France: nothing can happen without serious conflict, and no one has any interest in it changing.

I will say that I hope the government doesn't back down; it would be the first time in my 25 years in France that a government didn't bend over because of demonstrations, and it might help people learn that there should be other ways of dealing with such issues.

Anonymous said...

Psychodrama? Seriously? You're showing your neo-conservative colors.

Anonymous said...

Neo-conservative? Mr. Goldhammer can certainly fend for himself, but I'd have to say that he is far from being a neocon... And if you don't think this whole mess is a never-ending psychodrama, then you've been drinking some kind of kool-aid.

Unknown said...

I've been called worse things than "neo-conservative," usually by critics to my right, but I remain what I have always been: a social democrat rather skeptical of the notions that deep political conflict can be settled in the street, that demonstrating is the same as participating, and that crowd counts are as valid as elections when it comes to determining the legitimacy of a government. That is not to say that I don't, as a sometime Jeffersonian democrat, recognize the virtue of the "people out of doors" as a means of disciplining those in power. But some peoples are too fond of the out of doors and unduly averse to indoor bargaining and compromise. Temper demonstration with deliberation. On that point I do have something in common with neoconservatism.

Louis said...

Clap clap clap.

Well said, Mr. Goldhammer. I wouldn't change one bit.

James Conran said...

Hmmm. Temper demonstration with deliberation? That implies that both sides of the coin are necessary, no? Chris Bertram opened a thread on the British cuts at Crooked Timber and interestingly one of the first remarks was that if the British workers/unions weren't crazy they would do as the French do.

To be sure, one can argue that caving to demonstrations has had some bad consequences - but perhaps also some good ones, unless one subscribes, as some no doubt do, to the view that what France has needed these past 20 years is a good bout of Thatcherism.

And are "deep political conflicts" any more likely to be settled in parliament than the street?

Unknown said...

But James, the comparison with Cameron is quite apt. Cameron's cuts are truly radical, and one would expect them to elicit a massive protest, whereas Sarkozy's retirement reform is really quite modest. Why the clamor in France and the silence in the UK? To be sure, England has just had its election, so the legitimacy of the ballot box is fresher. And one could argue that the UK crisis is deeper. But the difference in responses is nevertheless striking.

James Conran said...

Absolutely, and the explanation of the contrasting reactions obviously lies in some mix of political culture and political economy. But what about that very contrast between Cameron's radicalism and Sarkozy's timidity? Isn't this explained precisely by the fact that French political culture produces reactions such as we are witnessing now, even when the proposed reforms are relatively modest?

In that sense such reactions, for all their self-indulgent or demagogic aspect, also play some role in protecting the fabric of society from the kinds of neo-liberal reforms implemented elsewhere.

Unknown said...

Yes, there's truth in that, albeit a rather depressing truth.