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Are the French different?

Gavin Hewitt | 12:35 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

PARIS All over Europe the age of retirement is creeping up. Largely it is accepted as an inevitable change. People are living longer and societies cannot afford their current pension plans. So everyone will have to work longer.

In most countries the argument is accepted. Not so in France. Time and again I have met people genuinely affronted at the prospect of having to work until they are 62.

The polls suggest that a majority of the French people support the strikers in their campaign to defeat pension reform. In their view it is a fight not just about a piece of legislation, but about the French way of life.

School students on march in Lille, 21 Oct 10

Other countries have a less clear impression of what their "way of life" is. The French see retiring at 60 as a key strand in a social contract that has been hard-earned down the years.

So on countless demonstrations I have encountered the fear that pension reform is just a start and that beyond it lies the great unravelling of a much-cherished welfare system.

On one march a theatre company carried a giant puppet representing Marianne, one of the most prominent symbols of the French Republic. Her face was splattered with blood and vultures were picking away at her. The message was not lost on the crowds who lined the streets and applauded; France and most importantly its values were under attack.

The fact is that the social system works well for the middle classes. On the whole they don't want it tampered with.

Now the irony is that President Sarkozy came to power as the candidate for change. He was the action man, the moderniser who would drag France into the 21st Century. However, the details of the new France he envisaged were often difficult to decipher. In power there has not been a simple narrative. At one moment he can be backing reform; in another he can be lambasting the evils of capitalism.

That being said, there was a sense, as with Mrs Thatcher in Britain, that he wanted to clip the power of the unions. Some say that the lasting legacy of Mrs Thatcher was to change Britain's thinking about business and wealth. President Sarkozy, too, thought he could change French thinking. He hasn't.

Now the French unions understand that this battle is partly about their power and influence and the French way of having an argument. They repeatedly claim there has been no real negotiation over pension reform. They say it is being imposed, albeit via a law passed by parliament. They want what they call "social dialogue".

What really incenses them is what they perceive as President Sarkozy's indifference to the French street. That is another French tradition that stretches back to the Revolution: that the French voice is heard on the streets and that leaders listen and sometimes retreat, according to the mood.

In 2006 a bill was passed in the face of determined opposition to make it easier to hire and fire. President Chirac never signed it. It was a victory for popular protest.

The unions and the left insist that the street is not to be ignored. President Sarkozy says France cannot afford the current pension system and that change must come.

The revolutionary tradition still pervades public life. People say that when you start working for a company the management is regarded as the enemy. Any change can be seen as an attack on working conditions and rights.

So many of the students who have tumbled out of the lycees and universities see the demonstration as a right of passage, of joining a long line of direct action that takes in the student rebellion of 1968, all the way back back to 1789.

Some students see pension reform as threatening their interests. If older people work longer then there will be fewer jobs for the young. They are already struggling with high unemployment. So manning the barricades is the way they express their frustration.

So despite its revolutionary past France can appear deeply conservative, and attached to its way of life.

Recently, while in Washington, I sat in on a conversation about why Barack Obama had lost his popularity. During his campaign he used his life story to say he had lived the American Dream. He embodied it. In office he has struggled to have that fireside conversation with the American people that came so easily to FDR, Reagan and Clinton. Obama has sometimes come across as aloof, distant and cerebral. It has enabled his enemies to paint him as somehow out of touch with mainstream America.

President Sarkozy too is discovering the risks of being seen to undermine the sense people have of themselves, their country and their way of life.


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