Left at the Crossroads: Pension reform – what the French really want

Massive strikes, millions of protesters in the streets, a whole country on hold… What do those spoiled French really want? Why do they cling to the bloated benefits of their cash-strapped welfare system?

Massive strikes, millions of protesters in the streets, a whole country on hold… What do those spoiled French really want? Why do they cling to the bloated benefits of their cash-strapped welfare system? Don’t they understand elementary demographics? The international punditocracy had a field day – especially in the English-speaking world. “Come on, France, get real!” wrote Roger Cohen in the New York Times. His fellow columnist Thomas Friedman insisted: “France already discovered that a 35-hour work week was impossible in a world where Indian engineers were trying to work a 35-hour day - and so, too, are pension levels not sustained by a vibrant private sector.”

Cohen very professionally relied on a single source, France’s finance minister. Thomas Friedman was recently described by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra as a “ventriloquist for the wealthy and the powerful.” He usually gets his economic views from cocktail parties with billionaires and hi-tech gurus in Shanghai, Bengaluru and Silicon Valley. If Cohen, Friedman and their French-bashing clones had done some journalist work instead of spouting ill-informed platitudes, they would have found that there’s more to the French protests than crypto-Marxist slackers addicted to the nanny-state and pointlessly resisting against biology and rationality.

Take renowned economist Thomas Piketty, from the Paris School of Economics. Frequent visitor to the MIT and Harvard, he’s such an authority on income distribution and fiscal policy that even the Wall Street Journal reluctantly tagged him a “rock star.” For Piketty, Sarkozy’s reform is “a mediocre patch-up job that doesn’t solve anything in the long term.” It is also “cynical and unfair.”

Cynical because the government deliberately misrepresented the relation between the budget deficit, the growth and productivity expectations and the estimated demographic evolution. Exploiting the opacity of the numerous public pension regimes, it precluded the discussion of better funding options and a transparent restructuring of the system. Unfair because it harms the most vulnerable categories: women, the unemployed, part-time employees, people who started work at an early age, most blue-collar workers. Those weakest members of the labor force also happen to be the ones with the lower life expectancy in good health, which further impairs their capacity to reap the meager benefits of their downsized retirement.

Some also suspect a willingness to undermine the quality and the reliability of the public pay-as-you-go system and pave the way for British or U.S.-style private pension funds –already introduced under the guise of “supplemental pension plans.” But the financial crisis has deepened the French public’s hostility to casino-style pension regimes and their ominous dependence on the volatility of speculative markets.

Contrary to current stereotypes, French workers remain among the most productive in the world, ahead or at par with Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan. They just don’t see many enticements in a regulation-free system that also gave us what Harvard economist Lawrence Katz calls the “plutocratic boom” of the 2000s, Bush’s trillion dollar tax cuts and mammoth banks begging for bailouts.

The French are not against any reform. Various experts, the Socialist Party, the trade unions and other organizations have already put forward concrete proposals that aim to conciliate financial soundness, demographic sustainability and a sense of justice. What the French don’t want is a pension swindle forced upon them without any negotiation by what appears to be the most despicable government since the Vichy regime.

Wallowing in autistic arrogance, nouveau riche swagger and xenophobic rhetoric, “Sarko” has antagonized the left, the moderate center and part of its own conservative base. His government’s legitimacy is tainted by various conflicts of interest and a toxic atmosphere of crony capitalism. About two-thirds of the public supported the protest; less than one-third supports the president. The current struggle of the French is not about overgenerous benefits, it’s about fairness and common decency.

The relation between an aging population, productivity and social justice will be one of the main challenges of the next decades. No one should frame the pension debate within the parameters of failed orthodoxies. Leaving it all to the predatory inefficiency of the financial markets is not a solution. Neither is asking more sacrifices from the weak while giving handouts to the strong and the super rich.

Raymond Aron once rejoiced at the idea that his fellow citizens were no longer prone to the radical social turbulences of the past. But this eminent French conservative thinker concluded on a note of doubt: “This people, apparently peaceful, is still dangerous.” Maybe the world could benefit from the periodic turmoils of such an unruly nation. They might help us to ask some uneasy questions about the relations between fairness and efficiency, instead of parroting the ersatz wisdom of the winner-take-all society. Pampered pundits of the world, get real!

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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