Monday, 25 October 2010

France wouldn't be France without protests!

The revolt is still underway here. There is no fuel being refined in the whole of France and a third of petrol stations have run dry but the government has ordered the opening of reserve depots and says that things will slowly improve. Perhaps! Perhaps not! I have to say that the supermarkets in this area of the Lot have not so far run out of fuel and there hasn’t really been any panic buying. The school holidays have now started so there is less traffic and less opportunity for demonstrations.  So far there has been no support from the electricity workers and only half hearted support from the transport workers. In the latest opinion polls 56% of the people approve of the protests, which is down from 69% last week but it isn’t over yet.

I think it will eventually all calm down, but it has become more than a protest over pension reform and is now generally an anti- Sarkozy movement. The way that things have happened here in the past is for the Prime Minister (who is appointed by the President) to resign. That, and withdrawing the proposed legislation, usually satisfies the militants. This time, however, Sarkozy has been fully engaged in all aspects of his policies and their execution from the start and he has not stood back like previous Presidents have done. So if he sacks Francois Fillon, the still popular Prime Minister, there would be no perceived change apart from releasing the latter to stand against Sarkozy as the next presidential candidate! As far as I can understand the French constitution there is no mechanism for dislodging a President so, since Sarkozy is a street fighter and will never resign, we can expect a running battle between now and the elections in 2012.

I have been struck by two things during this episode. Firstly there has been a lack of media management and an absence of government ministers putting their views forward, but then we aren’t hearing much from the Socialists either. Perhaps they are fully aware that they face the same problems if they form the next government and they are keeping their options open!

Secondly there is now a refusal by the protesters to accept that reform is necessary. At the beginning there was a real debate about the fairness of the proposals but now that the movement has gained momentum it has become a demand to withdraw the legislation and nothing less will do. The protesters behave as if the government has a bottomless pit of money, is not subject to international competition or the constraints of credit ratings and can always bail out the country financially. This is in spite of the fact that we regularly hear that there are big holes in the social security budget. I can only assume that they don’t believe what they are told.

Certainly France wouldn’t be France without protests but it is more serious than such an easy way of dismissing these events implies. Personally I think that France is effectively ungovernable because it consistently, stubbornly, forcefully and often successfully resists reform. The result is that it cannot adapt to changing circumstances.

Apart from talking vaguely about investing more in research, neither the Left nor the Right have any answer to the rising economic power of China, India, Brazil and the Far East. In Europe only Germany has good growth prospects because the world is prepared to pay a premium for the best quality goods. This week I bought a new specialized Dell monitor and it was made in China. Since most high tech goods are now  made in China, Germany’s favoured situation may not last for long. When I was in the UK a couple of weeks ago I felt that the enormous cut backs in government spending, whilst necessary, would not help to re-launch the UK economy and I was glad that I was not a young person trying to build a future for myself. Meanwhile France has not even begun to face these issues and is still fighting the battles of the last century.

The best socialist candidate for the 2012 elections is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Although he is a socialist, since September 2007 he has been the head of the International Monetary Fund. If he stands, and if he is accepted by the party, he will almost certainly win the Presidential election. So far he has neither said that he will stand, nor that he won’t. If I was him I would have to ask myself whether I would want the job of trying to drag a reluctant country kicking and screaming into the harsh realities of the 21st century.


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