The Power of Figures and Ideas

As the divorce between Sarkozy and the majority of the French people is turning into a war, it is now clear that decisive progress has been made since the day when the government first made public the details of its plan for pensions reform and the raising of the retiring age from 60 to 62. Within a few months the aggressive governmental propaganda that presented this as the inevitable consequence of the increase in life expectancy has eventually proved vain against public opinion’s lucidity.

From the very beginning of their publicity campaign, the UMP spokespersons’ manipulative speeches have tried de-politicizing the ambition of this regressive counter-reform, saying even that all they wanted was to preserve the present system! [1] The idea was to pass off at all costs their unprecedented attack against a hallmark of our civilization as a mere pragmatic adjustment. Our pensions system, based as it is on the principle of inter-generational solidarity vindicates an ideal of solidarity that is the very opposite of the rule of selfish individualism whereby the rich can benefit from protective fiscal laws [2], while the hosts of salaried workers must work longer, and barely survive on even lower incomes, in order to receive the same amounts in their old age.

Their plans had been aimed at suppressing all real debate: discussion in parliament was decreed a case of emergency and started in the very middle of summer, while the attention of the public was outrageously diverted against the few thousand Romany that live in France. To no avail: the right has lost the public debate on pensions. A majority of French people think the government’s plan is unfair and inefficient. Popular support of and participation in the strikes and demonstrations that have been succeeding one another since early September is becoming more massive: evidence for this is to be found in the two polls commissioned by l’Humanité, the first (by CSA on October 10) shows that more than 70% of all French people support the protest movement in favour of retirement at sixty without “early retirement” penalty (in the form of reduced rates), and the second (by IFOP, on October 16) showing that 56% want the French President to start real discussions with trade-unions.

The slogan to be heard louder and louder on the marches: “Sarko, you’re out, young people’ve come out” – excessive as it may be, as all slogans are – calls back unpleasant memories among the right’s ruling circles. Inter-generational solidarity is on the march, as was the case four years ago during the victorious struggle against the CPE [3], the lower-pay contract that would have made life even more precarious for young job-seekers. The young people now marching by their parents’ side have been insulted by the head of state’s ministers and councillors and exposed to the risk of violent clashes by provocative policemen brought in outside several schools. That is certainly no way to prevent unwanted disorder! How far will provocation go? It would be most dangerous indeed should this government place its hopes in this kind of provocative strategy as a way to force through its flagship counter-reform. That would mean they had lost sight of the State’s mission. In this respect, their bringing in the police against teen-agers and oil-refinery workers is a bad omen. In a deep and decisive conflict of this kind, which brings to light the regressive and anti-humanist character of capitalism and free-market policies, a government that serves the interests of top business circles (as the minister for Labour Éric Woerth himself serves the interest of l’Oréal’s chief owner Liliane Bettencourt) can be defeated in its assault on pensions only by the sheer force of number and the contestants’ arguments. Clearly now, the force of number and ideas alike is on the side of workers and young people.

[1] The present system is funded by fixed contributions (proportional to wages, paid by salaried workers and their employers, their respective rates being set by law) and fixed benefits (proportional to the length of employment, according to rates also set by law).

[2] the so-called “fiscal shield” makes sure rich persons cannot pay more than 50% of their income in taxes

[3] Though the CPE or first-employment contract had already been voted in Parliament it was ultimately repealed after massive demonstrations by French young people

Original French Article:

La force du nombre et des idées, by Jean-Paul Piérot.

Translated By: Isabelle Metral and reviewed by Henry Crapo.