Thursday, October 28, 2010

Freedom of the press and the people

A colleague of mine has passed on the following message he got from a French colleague of his concerning the strikes in France.  I use it as today’s blog post because I think it is interesting and it follows my earlier post, but also because it shows the degree to which we are not getting  the full story from our press.  And this will bring me eventually to another blog post:  the health of the commons requires a truly free, diverse and not corporate owned press for the people to hear anything like the truth.  

The author of this 'personal note' is Jean-marie Fardeau, whose day job is with Human Rights Watch. 

Dear friends and colleagues,

This is a personal message in order to share with you some information and personal thoughts about the current social situation in France. It seems that international media are looking at us again! (after the riots in Paris poor suburbs in 2005, Sarkozy's wedding with Carla in 2008 and immigration policy targeting Roma people in 2010 - among other issues!)

As you know, the social tension raised at the occasion of a pension system reform.

Everyone in France, including those striking and demonstrating, knows that we need a reform of our highly financially unbalanced pension system.

Therefore people are not protesting against A reform but against THIS reform which appears to be unfair for the most vulnerable (poor workers, women with hectic careers, workers who have physically demanding  jobs, etc.). The problem of THIS reform is the following: it does not seem to take into consideration those who are living in the low and middle-low "ranges" of the society (to avoid the word "class/classes"). For instance, the government should have included in this reform that people who started working at 18 or 19 years old (majority of the workers / nurses..) - and in particular for those having physically demanding jobs - will continue to have the right to leave at 60 .. (After 41 or 42 years of work...).

Some so-called "realistic" people say that French people should take into consideration that the life expectancy increasing, people should work longer... and therefore the symbolic "right to retire when you complete 60 years" became unbearable... But actually, the previous reform (voted in 2003 with the support of the most reformist trade union, CFDT - negotiation led on the side of the government by Mr. Fillon) established that you are entitled to your full pension only if you work 41.5 years.. Which means that, if you start working at 23 years old.. You ALREADY have to work until 64.5 to get a full pension. You are currently allowed to leave when you are 60 but with a lower pension.

The reform (and the change from 60 to 62 and 65 to 67) might have been more acceptable if the government would have taken at the same time measures going in the direction of social justice and of reducing inequalities in France. Sarkozy (he is the only one making decisions) should have abolished his less popular and most unacceptable decision taken in 2007: to limit the income tax for the richest people (ceiling at 50% of their income).

The content of the reform could be (and should be) different. But also the method used by the government has been really insulting for the trade unions. As usual, the government prepared the reform on its own, and consulted the trade unions very late in the process without any willingness to negotiate with them on the content of the draft bill. Over last spring, the trade unions (CGT and CFDT leading the trade union coalition - both being pragmatic and not leftists) tried to persuade the government that a negotiation should take place before the discussion before the Parliament. No discussion took place and the government tried to speed the discussion at the Parliament and hoped that the concessions it was prepared to do (on women's pension, for dangerous professions) will be enough to stop the protest.  But the concessions were not sufficient to persuade citizens that this reform was the only one possible (several recent polls show that 70% of the people are against this reform and supporting the strikes - see below).

And, in a typical French style (since the different governments do not know how to negotiate before a important bill is passed), the confrontation was unavoidable and the trade unions know exactly the weak points of a country like France: oil, transportation, and the greatest fear for a French government: the youth in the streets.

Many other proposals to reform the pension system have been put on the table by the opposition parties, economists, trade unions but, once again, no serious discussion was possible with the government on alternative projects.

Last not least point: the current social tension is also the result of three years of Sarkozy's regime during which we felt the tension growing growing (because of cuts in education and health systems, migration policy, increasing of security measure leading almost 1 million persons a year to police custody for minor infractions..)... and this unjust reform of the pension system became THE opportunity to oppose Sarkozy's policy.

What will happen in the next days? Nobody knows.

The goal of my message was to give you some contextual information around this important social movement. It may seem a bit "outdated" way of making reforms in an country like our but this is also the result of three years of attempts by President Sarkozy and his team to reform France in a top-down way without listening to the people and their representatives. In July 2008, our president said in one of his famous speech: "Quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit." ("when there is a strike in France, nobody notices it") in an attempt to delegitimize the trade unions (Thatcher's nostalgia remains high among French right-wing leaders who never succeeded to destroy the trade unions) The current movement shows that French rebel spirit remains strong.

To conclude, I would like to answer to those saying that a majority of demonstrators do not not why they are demonstrating and do not understand the complexity of the pension system...

 I personally doubt that the 3 million people demonstrating 6 times in France over the last 45 days (i.e. that means one person over twenty in the whole French population in the streets once a week !!) are ignorant and not able to understand why they are demonstrating...

And the latest polls published on Oct 21st:
  • 59% are in favour of "the continuation of the movement" (until the opening of new negotiation and the suspension of the law)
  • 71% are supportive of the demonstrations and of the strikes (against 56% early September and 64% early October)
  • 71% of the French people unable to understand why they support this social movement they consider legitimate and necessary?
Any comments welcome

All the best

Jmf

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