Sunday, February 01, 2009

Why the French Strike!

In France, the big news this week was the general strike and the large demonstrations – definitely over 1 million protesters and possibly 2 – depending on whom you ask. Of course, a French strike is hardly “news” to the rest of the world, even though this one was bigger than average.

It is basically the French way to express discontent. The problem of a major strike is that the demands are many and easily dismissed as a mere bad-tempered gesture.

Even though I may not agree with him entirely, Arthur Goldhammer has a point here on his blog :
The general strike has become one more spectacle in a society of spectacles, another lieu de mémoire for the political theme park, filled with monuments attesting to a certain nostalgic fondness for the grand gestures of the past, which may have failed in their own time but then at least carried the conviction of as yet untested possibility.

That may be why about 69 percent of the French people supported the strike, a poll by CSA-Opinion for newspaper Le Parisien showed on Jan. 25.

While some people may go on strike to be a part of the “grand spectacle”, but I think there is a bit more to it. I also think people get it wrong when they either focus on the (numerous and sometimes unrealistic) demands or on the “mere show”. I believe that strikes and demonstrations are part of the balance of power in France because the country lacks efficient institutionalized forces of opposition. It is a show; it is a show of force. It is a way for the country to remind their rulers that they are other forces to be taken into account. It works too – Sarkozy only backs down when he sees signs of radicalization (especially with the youth).

It seems to me the strike and demonstration this week were particularly relevant since Sarkozy has proved many times to have a strong taste for bullying and forcing his policies. His method is often to announce reforms (as in the case of the public television reform) without prior consultation or warning of any kind.

Reforms are good but they should be thought through and be the result of built-up consensus. Consensus…. Not a word the French really understand… and certainly not a word conservatives seem to hold dear. Yes, Sarkozy and G. W Bush have a lot in common.

Sarkozy loves power struggles so it seems only fair he should get one.


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