What's the matter with France? A small tweak to the retirement age has sent them crazy...

Burning car in StrasbourgCar burning in France notfrancois via Flickr
President Sarkozy tried to add just two years to the retirement age limit - raising it from 60 to 62 - and the French have gone beserk!

Compared to the rest of the world, the limit in France is already quite low: in  most countries (Italy excepted, of course - but Italy in many respects is just like France, its latin sister), people work until they are 65, and in many places, for example the UK, people are happy working well into their seventies.  Retirement age varies from country to country, but the basic idea is to retire people if (a) their work is too dangerous (for example, the military),  (b) it requires unimpaired physical capicities (airline pilots), or (c) it is physically too demanding (miners).

All of this implies that work conditions and a person's health and capacity for it should be reviewed before deciding on retirement. That would be the only fair and logical approach. Instead of establishing measures to allow for an ad hoc retirement age, Governments tend to pass blanket legislations calling for an equal retirement age for everybody in every kind of work. Ridiculous!

Yet, that's not what people object to. No, they focus on the age limit and nothing else. And, generally speaking, they don't want any reform. Naturally, this is true of public opinion anywhere in the world: it is always very, very conservative: no changes! DO NOT TOUCH! That's the rallying slogan.

In the case of France, this attitude has been carried to an extreme. It's hard to believe that the country which has invented Cartesianism and rationalism can suddenly throw all reason to the wind. They look quite simply absurd. They've closed down a dozen refineries and threaten a massive stop to transportation, with no planes landing or leaving France, no trains, and French truckers blocking the highways. Lycée kids, some 500,000 of them, have been running in the streets and burning cars, all in the name of defending a retirement age that should be of no concern to them. Worse, if they stopped to think about it (but they don't), keeping the status quo would mean only one thing: by the time they retire forty years from now, the State coffers will be empty and no one will get a pension at age 60, 62 or perhaps even any age at all. I watched an interview on French television of one of those kids - a pretty 15 year-old - who declared in anxious tones that if the retirement limit was raised, there would be no job openings for them by the time they'd be looking to work. That kind of reasoning is appalling! As if the job market was a pie of a set, immovable size and you had to wait for people to retire in order to move in...

It is very clear that to save pension funds from financial collapse, some serious reforms will have to be carried out, including raising the age limit. Sarkozy's proposal of raising it by 2 years was just a first, small and necessary step in the right direction. Many more steps are sure to come, particularly as the general population is aging, and there will be fewer working people with respect to the numbers that have retired. After all, life expectancy has been rising, we all live longer on average and working two more years shouldn't be so hard.

Some people have argued that this issue has simply been latched on by the Left as a way to regain power. It is true that the Left in France has very few ideas and even fewer politicians worth their salt. The two leading women (Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal) are at odds with each other, not to mention the fact that they have no ideological platform of any kind. Perhaps the only French politician of any stature on the left is Dominique Strauss Kahn, but he is busy at the helm of the IMF. However, to pick the retirement age as a banner issue takes the cake!  It proves that the Left has lost its rudder and has literally no new ideas to offer.
But is it a smart move? It probably is. Playing on the lower instincts of the population - the fact that it is uninformed, scared and deeply suspicious of change and novelty - will pay dividends and that's what the French Left (and the trade unions) are doing. The Senate vote this week (or next) - following on the lower chamber approval - will be the last step in approving the change. In all likelihood, since Sarkozy has a majority there, they will support the proposal.

Is that going to be a defeat for the Left? Probably not. Le Parisien has made a survey that is much talked about in France and has been reported by Alan Cowell in the New York Times. It would seem that strikers are gaining ground, and their position was approved by 71 percent of those interviewed. It was a small sample survey (some 2000 people interviewed) but everyone latched on to the magic numbers: "seven Frenchman out of 10 support us!", claimed Martine Aubry with undisguised glee on television. Indeed. But it's a fact that all political commentators expect Sarkozy to further lose popularity.

Maybe he will. Maybe not. But what worries me is what is left unsaid in this situation: how can public opinion - obviously manipulated by some ambitious politicians and die-hard trade unionists - pretend to determine the outcome of what is only the normal working of democracy. A duly elected parliament discusses the retirement issue and then it proceeds to vote on it. That's it. That's how democracy should work, and all the screaming and burning in the streets should have nothing to do with it.

What we are looking at in France is not a democracy at work, but a...MOB-CRACY, if I may be permitted the term.Or perhaps mobocracy? It sounds better. In a mobocracy, people who dissent don't wait for the next elections to roll around. They march in the street and blow up the place.

How would you like to live in a mobocracy? 

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