A visit to France is a short, sharp and salutary lesson in
comparative political culture. Arriving there last weekend my trip
fell between one public sector strike affecting almost all in-bound
travel and another paralysing the universities.
It all seems so odd from a British perspective. We all know what
you do with public sector strikes – you break them. And that is a
bipartisan approach now: New Labour has been as harsh with the
firefighters as Margaret Thatcher was with the ambulance drivers.
You feel yourself thinking, automatically and resentfully, what is
the problem with the French?Don’t they get it, strikes are so 20th
But, in reality, the strike, the rally, the violent protest are all
part of the bargain that the population have made with the French
state. On the one hand the electorate are happy that a tiny
meritocratic elite – the products of the Ecole Nationale
d’Administration and the Polytechnique – run the country,
irrespective of party affiliation. On the other, the people reserve
the right to throw up the barricades whenever they feel that a
profound principle is under threat.
The most recent disputes in France mainly centre on pension reform
– another area of huge Anglo-French difference. For a decade it has
been a given in the UK pensions world that the French were heading
for an enormous crisis. Generous final salary pension promises
underwritten by the state were going to prove unfundable because of
a shrinking workforce. What France needed was a shift to the UK
model with occupational and personal pensions provided by stock
market investments. Post-Enron it is less clear that the
Anglo-American model is more sensible or secure. And even if shares
were still exuberantly buoyant, it is not clear that French public
opinion would be swayed. This is a reflection of a deep-seated
commitment to what the French call “social solidarity”.
I can still remember the disbelief of a French academic at a
pensions seminar. She could not understand why British politicians
and academics – from the left to the right – thought France had a
problem. “It’s simple,” she said, “when you work you earn a salary
and pay for others’ pensions. When you retire you still need money
to live on – so you get a pension paid for by workers.”
It is these values, which have their roots in the revolutionary
aspiration for fraternite, which are felt to be under
assault by public sector workers. And all the evidence is that
while – over time – our beliefs can be changed, our values are far
harder to alter. Given that the French government is campaigning
against 200 years of culture it is not at all clear that they
either can, or should, win.
John McTernan is a political analyst.