August 13, 2003

August 13, 2003 | Commentary on Europe

Between Chirac and a Hard Place

It's not often that you find yourself going to the opera under riot police protection, but anything can happen when you provoke the wrath of French theater workers. Having been denied their demands for full benefits for part time work, theater and stage workers have paralyzed many of France's festivals this summer and wreaked havoc on the already depressed tourism season. In some places, though, the show has been able to go on under extraordinary conditions.

At the Roman theater in Orange, La Traviata was performed in its all its tragic, weepy splendor, and Violetta was able to expire uninterrupted by hecklers and strikers in true operatic fashion, i.e. in the arms of her lover while singing at the top of her lungs. But outside on surrounding hills, police in riot gear stood at the ready, and plainclothes policemen were packed into the audience to jump on any threatening provocateur.

Having spent the winter and spring looking for ways to oppose -- or at least annoy -- the Americans over Iraq, the neo-Gaullist government of France has now been forced to face some of its burning domestic issues. Its approval ratings are down to 42 percent; it has been a hot summer here in more ways than one.

Social reforms are essential to lift the overburdened French economy, which has registered very little growth for the past several years, and certainly not enough to absorb the disaffected unemployed, a common European malaise. Meanwhile, the government is defying budgetary constraints decreed by the European Stability Pact, which is supposed to enforce strict limits on discretionary spending and budget deficits. The governor of the Bank of France Jean-Claude Trichet, soon to be President of the European Central Bank, is calling on the French government to take advantage of tentative signs of an economic upswing to pursue much needed reforms.

There is not much sympathy to be had, though, from French public sector workers, who are among the most pampered in Europe, with their 35-hour work weeks, extensive job protections, and state retirement pensions that can start as early as 55 years of age. They launched a wave of strikes this spring to protest unpopular government proposals to reform pensions, social security, labor market regulations and education.  Before the summer break, for instance, some teachers developed the interesting habit of going on strike Mondays and Fridays and hoping to be paid for Saturday and Sunday.

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin have complained about the "wounds" the strikes have inflicted on French society, and are generally terrified of the French "street" -- and the popular support behind it. They have yet to find the courage to treat these "wounds" with the surgical skills necessary to improve the overall health of the French economy.

A recent sign of cold feet is the proposed 2.8 billion Euro (some $3 billion) government bailout of ailing national champion Alstom, maker of nuclear power stations and the super fast TGV trains, which was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. The government has also backed off on education reform, cut back plans to trim the public sector workforce, and is now calling for a lengthy "debate" on social security in order to achieve an "apaisement" of the strikers' passions, which means just about what it sounds like in English.  Prime Minister Raffarin claims that the public will accept reforms if the "process" is right, which seems rather like the triumph of hope over experience, to borrow Samuel Johnson's phrase.

Nor is the fall likely to be any more peaceful here. As the September meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico, draws closer, the anti-globalization forces are getting themselves ready. Last weekend, on the southern plateau of Larzac, the self-appointed leader of the French farmers, Jose Bove, held a three-day rally attended by up to 200,000 people protesting assorted causes ranging from international trade to Ariel Sharon's unjust treatment of the Palestinians and Mr. Raffarin's unjust treatment of the theater workers. Bove tried to link the anti-globalization movement to domestic French discontent.

The gathering, according to a French government spokesman, marked "the return of an organized extreme left," which was seeking to weave together the anxieties of certain professional groups in France and the apprehensions engendered by globalization. The fundamental goal was "to prevent any reform and to paralyze French society."

Even though the ink is barely dry on Bove's parole papers from his last stint in prison, he has promised a month of September "not hot, but burning." Everyone will be in the streets, protesting, if he has his way.

All of which may not exactly bode well for the cause of free trade in Cancun, about which France has never been highly enthusiastic, especially on the farm front. But it could make President Chirac so preoccupied with his troubles at home that foreign policy takes a back seat for a change. From an American point of view, that could certainly be a silver lining.

 

Helle Daleis deputy director of the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

Appeared in The Washington Times