by Eric Margolis
by Eric Margolis
France's favorite pastimes are eating well, amorous adventures, and street demonstrations. Street theater has become a unique French art form.
American college students go to Florida to drink and party. By contrast, French students celebrate the rites of spring by mass political protests.
But this year is different. France has been rocked for two months by huge protests against a minor labor reform law turned "cause célèbre." This week, 1—3 million people protested across France, seriously disrupting commerce, trains, airports, subways and traffic.
The law, known as CPE, proposed by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, was designed to allow French employers flexibility to hire youth under 27 for up to two years without contracts, and fire them without giving a reason. This sensible, if brusque, "easy-hire, easy-fire" act was aimed at reducing France's chronic 8—10% employment, which rises to 30% among youth.
CPE, like last year's disastrous referendum on the European Constitution, quickly became a lightening rod for all sorts of festering popular fears and discontent. Over 60% of French oppose the modest reform. It has become a rallying point for the Left, which desperately needed a new weapon against the Center-Right government of President Jacques Chirac and his patrician prime minister, de Villepin.
At the heart of this issue is France's very future. French enjoy the world's finest lifestyle in a rich, magnificent, well-maintained nation with an enviable educational system that produces well-informed, highly literate graduates.
Past socialist governments have given them a 35-hour work week, generous pensions beginning at 58 or 60, no-cost medical care from France's excellent, efficient health system, and five weeks annual vacation. Firing workers in France is almost impossible. Welfare payments are ample. Yet by some miracle, French labor productivity is actually higher than in the work-till-you-drop USA.
But France's dolce vita cannot continue in the globalized economy. Rich as France is, she can not much longer sustain high unemployment and the underclass of disenfranchised immigrant youth who rioted last year. Government spending consumes 55% of the over-taxed, over-regulated economy.
In many ways, France shares the same problem now faced by General Motors. During years of plenty, unions extracted high wages and rich benefits from GM. Foreign competition took away a large slice of GM's business, and all the gravy, leaving it with unsustainable overhead for non-productive spending on pensions and health. France faces growing competition from Asia and Eastern Europe.
GM, and the French government, have to find some way to cut overhead and slash benefits. But who can blame the French for resisting dismantling of their welfare state? It's like asking a Frenchman at his glorious lunch to leave the table and go do sit-ups. Or GM workers for resisting steep cuts in pay, pensions, and health benefits after decades of loyal service?
All those French students who have wasted years studying leftist claptrap like sociology and cultural anthropology now face the threat there may not be enough do-nothing government jobs for them when they graduate.
They are not mounting a revolution, but a reactionary counter-revolution aimed at protecting their lavish benefits and lifestyle by claiming CPE will "Americanize" France and subject it to brutal, Darwinian "Precarité." Join the real world, you coddled little French crullers.
While the Left rants and raves, the Chirac government is in comical disarray and almost totally discredited. After de Villepin sternly refused any compromise over CPE, Chirac humiliated his prime minister by offering on TV to water it down.
Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, who reeks of raw ambition, was furiously stabbing de Villepin in the back, calling CPE dead and offering "dialogue" with protestors. Both are bitter rivals to succeed Chirac, whom Le Monde rightly observed, "faces a calamitous fin de regime."
Squabbling, ineffectual politicians, an economy under siege, a treasured lifestyle under mortal threat, a violent underclass alienated from France's prosperity, and outside rivals reveling in France's malaise.
It's enough to ruin one's four-course lunch.
- A number of reliable sources claimed this week that the Bush Administration is preparing to attack Iran. The highly respected investigative journalist Seymour Hersh even claims in a New Yorker article that the White House is considering using tactical nuclear weapons against deep underground Iranian nuclear and command sites.
This column broke the same news late last year, including information that US, British and possibly Israeli special forces were operating inside Iran designating targets and stirring unrest.
The White House denies plans to use nukes, but has just repeated threats to go to war against Iran, which it cites as a "danger to the world." We all know that the only danger Iran might one day pose is to Israel. And that's what the born-again Bush Administration has in mind.
The neocons who brought us the Iraq war are just crazy enough to actually consider using nuclear weapons against Iran which even US experts say is a decade away from producing nuclear weapons. There seems to be a bigger national security threat to the US in Washington than in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The US, EU and Canada have cut off all funds to the new, democratically elected government of Palestine. Amazingly, and tellingly, not a single Arab state has had the gumption to try to replace some of the funds, so scared are they of Big Brother in Washington. This pathetic display is yet another example of just how weak the Arab states are. Money alone does not buy power.
We watch US Senator John McCain on the first stages of his upcoming presidential campaign. He is a genuine war hero, unlike the present, self-proclaimed "war president," but he is also a highly erratic politician who often seems even to the right of George Bush. Last week he formed an alliance with the loopy religious right. He actually favors sending more troops to Iraq.
The truth about the Bush Administration's astounding deception over the Iraq war keeps oozing out like some toxic pus. The latest: that Bush, that scourge of leakers, authorized a leak of a secret document aimed at attacking critics who claimed Iraq had not purchased uranium ore from Niger. The most amazing thing about this circus is that crude uranium ore, or yellowcake, requires a massive enrichment infrastructure to be processed into weapons grade material which is far too big to be hidden. Washington knew Iraq had no such capability but clung to the canard that the ore (which it never bought) was destined for nuclear weapons. The officials who made these claims were either arrant liars or idiots — or both.
Gen. Musharraf's little war against his own people is advancing smartly, to the delight of Washington. Tribesmen in formerly autonomous areas are being bombed and rocketed for not bowing to the diktat of Islamabad. To please Washington, they are all described as "Taliban and al-Qaida." Gen. Musharraf apparently feels it's easier to win military victories against his own citizens than against the Indian armed forces — and it keeps all those Yankee dollars coming.
April 18, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Eric Margolis