Why are the French rebelling?

Stephen Beard Oct 18, 2010

Why are the French rebelling?

Stephen Beard Oct 18, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: In France today, railway workers, truck drivers, high-school students — you name it — everybody’s protesting.

Hundreds of gas stations have run dry because tanker drivers and oil refinery workers have walked off the job. They’re all upset over the government’s plan to cut the budget deficit by raising the retirement age.

France being France, the strikes were entirely expected. But similar changes have been accepted without too much protest in other European countries and in the United States. So other than the fact that that’s what they do, why are the French rebelling so much this time?

From the European Desk in London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: During one of today’s protest rallies, cars were overturned and set on fire. To the outside observer, the fury seems mystifying. The French reform — raising the minimum age of retirement from 60 to 62 — seems relatively mild.

But Philippe Aghion, professor of economics at Harvard University, says you must bear in mind: many workers were already in militant mood. There’s not much egalite in the workplace.

Philippe Aghion: People are not well treated by their bosses. There is a bad culture between employer and employee. The employee has distrust for the employer. The employer tends to look down on the employee. Do you see what I mean?

He says that manual workers in France resent the pension reform. They may have started work at the age of 16, but they too will have to carry on to the age of 62 before they can retire.

Jacques Myard is a lawmaker and close ally of President Sarkozy. He puts the protests down to what he calls “French revolutionary fervor.”

Jacques Myard: We are rebel nation, there is no doubt. Because people are always against the government whatever it is and they take this opportunity to demonstrate.

But he believes that in spite of tomorrow’s planned national strike, the French Senate will pass the pension reform bill into law as scheduled on Wednesday.

Myard: This reform is inevitable and it will be done.

Sixty years ago, France had five workers for every pensioner. Today that number has dwindled to only two. And people are living longer.

The French will have to work longer as well, says Myard. They’ll just have to accept it.

At the European Desk in London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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