By Henry McRandall
It has been 221 years since the French Revolution began and 211 years since it supposedly ended, but the events of recent days and weeks would suggest that the French have not lost their revolutionary spirit.
The current kerfuffle in France is over President Nicolas Sarkozy’s bid to raise the country’s retirement age from 60 to 62 and the popular perception that this may be just the first blow in an all-out Sarkozy attack on social programs and their beneficiaries – the masses.
The modern French welfare state is the product of two centuries of largely union-led popular struggle and is generations ahead of that of either Canada or, especially, the United States.
French workers not only retire at the age of 60; they also enjoy a 35-hour full-time work week and six weeks paid vacation each year. Public pensions are relatively generous, as are the funding of the public health, education and welfare systems.
As a consequence, the gap between rich and poor is not as severe in France as in some other “advanced” countries, and there is a much greater degree of social solidarity and cohesion.
And the French masses – the poor, the working class and the middle class – are proud of what they have achieved. But just as the license plates suggest the Quebecois “souviennent,” the common people of France have remained conscious of the struggle necessary to bring about the welfare state of which they are so proud and conscious of the need to maintain that spirit of struggle.
And it’s a good thing, because much hinges on the outcome between the French masses and the French power elite, and not just for the French.
While the French masses have been battling the Sarkozy government for months, United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was able yesterday to announce his country would raise its retirement age from 65 to 66. And there was little public outcry.
Up until yesterday, the U.K. was tied with Canada and the U.S. in having the highest retirement in the industrialized world – 65.
And while the French are not alone in Europe in having to fight back against the depredations of NeoConservative and NeoLiberal governments, the masses in far too many countries seem content to sit on the sidelines – either too scared, too ignorant, too apathetic or just too damn lazy to join the battle that must be joined.
The masses in Canada and the U.S. are deluding themselves if they think what is happening all over Europe could never happen here. It is about to start happening on this side of the Atlantic also as heads of government – like our lout Stephen Harper – clamour for public austerity.
They didn’t care about austerity a couple of years ago when the banks and the corporations – and the billionaires and mega-millionaires who control the banks and corporations – came a-beggin’. There was plenty in the governments’ cupboard then, apparently.
After all, among them, a slew of North American and European governments found a global total of over $50 TRILLION to bail out the elite corporate capitalist cabal.
It was the greatest swindle in the 500-year history of capitalism, and also the most horrific redistribution of wealth from the masses to the elite.
But it ain’t over yet.
That money didn’t just fall from the trees like the autumn leaves. It was borrowed from those countries’ – including Canada’s – central banks and now it has to be paid back.
Across the western world, the poor, the working class and the middle class will be suffering for decades the hangover from the superelite’s unfettered binge.
Unless, perhaps, they do like the French and rise up in courageous and determined protest.
Long live the French Revolution(aries)
By Henry McRandall