Exceptionally Unexceptional: French Strikes Extending the Holidays

As Mike Boyer recently noted in a rebuttal of Fred Kaplan’s “To Know Us Is To Love Us,” And there's the real problem with the suggestion, "to know us is to love us." It ignores reality. One Dutch student wrote to Kaplan: "America must (re-)consider … Read More

By / November 21, 2007

As Mike Boyer recently noted in a rebuttal of Fred Kaplan’s “To Know Us Is To Love Us,”

And there's the real problem with the suggestion, "to know us is to love us." It ignores reality. One Dutch student wrote to Kaplan: "America must (re-)consider itself an ordinary country—special and of great importance, but not playing in a league of its own." Sorry, but America, by virtue of the power of its economy, military, and culture, does play in a league of its own. Being huge inspires hatred; just ask the Yankees, Wal-Mart, or Microsoft. Pretending that isn't so will hardly fix anything.

The French, of course, have an argument of their own: the U.S. must stop thinking it’s exceptional, because, well, there’s only one truly exceptional place on Earth: France, naturally. Neither is the idea as recent as its Gaullist formulation -one could see it anywhere from its claim of being the “eldest daughter of the Church” to its “universal” declaration of man’s rights, France has never been one to see itself as anything less than truly exceptional:

On this “universal” influence [of the 1789 Revolution], the French historiographical tradition is far too effusive, to the point where it overvalues it to the detriment of specifically foreign realisations. (…) French history is neither “the most beautiful” nor “the greatest, the most humane in the world,” as historian Edouard Driault, following the example of the immortal Lavisse, affirmed (…) [Annie Jourdan, La Révolution, une exception française ?, 2004]

In other words, for example those of François Mitterrand, the problem with the U.S. thinking it’s so great is that it impinges on France’s own claim to a universal monopoly on greatness:

France does not know it, but we are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, a vital war, an economic war, a war without death. Yes, they are very hard the Americans, they are voracious, they want undivided power over the world.

Being exceptional against the rest of the world entails keeping alive a system, which, if it is claimed that he was inherited from the social progress of 1789, turns out to be much more conservative of the Ancien Régime than most French would like to think. Mediaeval privileges remaining in France include notaries and other trades which require one to inherit or buy a charge to be able to pursue a career, corporations for certain professions such as physicians (supposedly abolished by the Revolution, but since then reinstated by Vichy), and a score of other oddities (no surprise here, there are building codes dating back from WWII still existing thatprohibit Jews from living in those buildings).

Other privileges are more recent, remnants of social wars past. They include the agreeable ‘special pension schemes’ which allow certain categories of worker to retire earlier than the ‘normal’ age of 60. Historically tied to physically challenging jobs, those privileges are now seen as an abnormality by the majority of the French, who generally oppose the latest round of union strikes aimed at defending the ‘special schemes’. It’s worth it to note that some of the ‘specials’ are notaffected by the proposed reform -such as that of the members of parliament themselves, who can still enjoy full pension rights at the ripe old age of 55.

Is there anything new in the current governement/unions conflict? I’ll argue, yet again, that there isn’t. Sarkozy is no more a heroic Thatcherite than the French ‘street’ is a governing power. The cycle of strikes and negotiations is just what it seems to be every year around the same period: some say that the French have to strike in the fall, since during the summer they’re on holiday. You just know that nothing is changing so long as the minority of the striking workers is able to threaten, beat up, kidnap those who continue on working without fear of the law. And when the government that did break a strike was a Socialist one, and that he used the army and tanks to do so (in the ’90’s).

There has never been, and there likely will not be for a long time, a true debate in France regarding what they would call a choix de société -the choice of goals for the country. It seems to be assumed as an ideal that people should work less and less while getting each time more benefits. Is the ultimate goal then a work-less society in which every citizen’s health and happiness would nevertheless be ensured by some miraculous means? Is this, more importantly, a consequence of the secularisation of society (looking at the Brits, it wouldn’t seem so)?

One question remains: if the French ever were to reach their goal of absolute slackness, wouldn’t they presumably spend most of their time travelling around -and if so, how long could the world bear it for?

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