Daily Archives: November 21, 2007

Mark Steel: A French lesson about the poverty of rich countries

One impact of these strikes in France is that it’s confused some of the people who write about such events. Which is why you get articles that seem to go “In a modern globalised economy, old-fashioned militancy simply has no power. That’s what these train drivers must realise as they bring the entire country to a stand-still, their powerless union wrecking the economy, not just of France but of Europe and most of outer space. And now loads of other workforces are coming out on strike as well! Haven’t they read my book explaining how this can’t happen any more? So now, because of them, to get to my lecture entitled, ‘The utter futile pointlessness of ever imagining a strike these days could have the tiddliest impact’ I’ve got to bloody well walk!”

Also, being French, the strikes have been carried off with a certain panache. For example, opera singers joined in the dispute, which must have made for the most imaginative picket lines, the soprano and alto alternating lines of “You are a scaaaaab” – “I’m going to work” – “You are a scaaaaaaab” – “I’m going to work” – “Then I must cast this rubble at your face, sir.”

And now, in protest at the proposed closure of 200 courts, the legal profession and even judges have voted to strike. Perhaps the judges will have a demonstration, where they shout “What do we want?” – “In answering that chant I want you to consider carefully the evidence provided.”

The case against the strikes is the genuinely old-fashioned one, that the workforces involved are defending privileges, such as pensions after 30 years of work, which can no longer be afforded. So an economics lecture supporting the French government would say, “It was one thing having these pensions back in the 1960s when we were much poorer, but now society is much richer they’ll have to be scrapped. Because as everyone knows, the richer you get, the less you can afford things.”

This is why lottery winners, as soon as they collect their cheque, sell all their records and turn the heating off, aware they’ll no longer be able to wallow in their old privileges. And it’s well known that when the plough was invented, all the peasants were gathered together and told, “This little beauty will do the work in half the time. And that’s marvellous because it means now we’ve all got to work five hours extra every day”.

The argument to scrap these “privileges” goes on to explain that they cripple the economy, making everyone worse off. So presumably the French should be more like the British, because we’ve been far-sighted enough to have much worse pension schemes, and our working week is on average 2.63 hours longer than the French one. So obviously that makes us better off. But even we’re lagging behind truly modern economies, like Burma, where there are no pensions and people are forced to work all day and night or be whacked with a stick. They’re rolling in it, the jammy bastards.

Seeing as the new government in France is determined to smash the culture of unearned privilege, Nicolas Sarkozy must be familiar with the characters at the top of the French rich-list. The No.1 spot in this list is a surprise, as you would imagine it must be occupied by a train driver from Lille with lots of stubble, but it turns out that it’s Bernard Arnault, chairman of Christian d’Or, who’s worth $21bn. He must be in a really outdated union.

It can appear to be a miracle that anyone in France could get that rich, because the place is often presented as a basket-case in which businessmen can’t set up the slightest project without provoking a demonstration involving 10,000 burning pigs being dumped in their garden. But the French economy has grown at a similar rate to the rest of the Western world over the last 10 years, with one main difference, that the richest one per cent haven’t become three times richer in real terms over the last 10 years, as they have in America and Britain.

This boom for the super-wealthy might be connected to the attitude of Labour’s John McFall, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, who was asked this week whether Northern Rock should be nationalised. And he replied: “I’ve spoken to no one in the City who feels that’s the way to go.” So that’s how economic decisions are taken. The Government rings up the City and says, “Who do you think should pay for this latest crisis? Should it be you, who caused it, or everyone else, who didn’t cause it? I see – everyone else it is then. Thanks for your expert analysis.”

Sarkozy represents the frustrated wing of French business that wants their country to be handed to the same City types, their one per cent. Whereas some of the strikers appear to have grasped that when a government proposes cutting pensions, closing 200 courts, cutting 11,000 primary school teachers and privatising parts of the university system, these aren’t random flights of madness but part of a pattern. And surely any policy that says, “The way we run our railways is outdated – let’s run them more like the system they have in Britain”, can’t be allowed to succeed.

* The Independent
* http://comment.independent.co.uk/commentators/mark_steel/article3179607.ece

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