French Protests: An Idealistic Fantasy or More?
As a French national currently visiting the United States, I am amazed at the lack of American media's understanding of the protests going in France right now over the new labor law. The new law which turns younger French workers into Kleenex workers, easily disposable at the whim of the employer, has resulted in massive protests.
Reading the mainstream media outlets, one would believe that apart from burning cars and rioting, the French are very boring, and merely interested in the guarantee of a lifetime employment. They are not modern and forward looking as they strive to maintain an archaic and economically unsustainable social model in today's world. It is beyond their comprehension that the removal of workers rights is the solution for reducing unemployment in the country.
In an editorial, "France's Misguided Protesters," dated March 27, 2006, the New York Times hails the new law as a partial answer to "sons of North African immigrants," greatly affected by unemployment, who rioted in the suburbs last November. The editorial would have the readers believe that the current movement is a selfish move by privileged university students who are blind to the necessity of reforming labor laws and are solely driven by the "knee jerk defense of the job security" that the French hold sacred.
The New York Times editorial is an example of American media's misleading coverage of the issue and demonstrates its poor understanding of the movement. First of all, a quick look at TV screens demonstrates how ethnically diverse the crowds are. The massive numbers of protesters, estimated to be around 3 million, who took to the streets of France on Tuesday, March 28, 2006, highlight the broad base of the movement which includes large numbers from the low-income population living in the suburbs of the French cities. The protesters are not only university students, but also high school students, whether they are located in the rural areas of France or suburbs of Paris. As a matter of fact, the privileged white and upper class students constitute the very marginal student support for the new labor law. Last week, a few hundred students from some Parisian business schools rallied against the protests in Paris.
I bet that many Americans are shocked by the current events in France, including students on strike and street riots. As a French national, I am shocked daily by what I witness in the United States: men above 70 unloading pallets in supermarkets, minors under 14 working in Walmart's plants - no, Third World countries do not have a monopoly on child labor. I am shocked to see the number of homeless families in California, a State, which was formerly the Golden State of the American Dream in my French mind. I am shocked by the permanent insecurity of a population living without job security, health insurance, pensions, and other basic human rights.
Yet, docilely tolerating these conditions has not put American workers in a better position. It did not prevent General Motors from laying off hundreds of white-collar workers this week, as it starts its restructuring plan that would reduce the number of salaried and contract workers in the U.S. by 7 percent this year, an acceleration from the usual 5.5 percent reduction over the last 10 years. Nor does it enable the US textile industry to compete with China. And neither has this averted the US national debt which exceeds $8 trillion or address the country's trade deficit of an all-time record level of $900 billion. Those, like Mr Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, who uphold the US model, overlook the fact that despite the extreme precariousness of the working force in the US, the country is loosing the race to the bottom . Yes, America can boast of 8.9 million households who have a net worth of $1 million or more, but more than 36 million Americans are living in poverty and 45 million have no medical insurance.
Workers in the streets of France are not dreaming of becoming millionaires or of lifetime jobs. Current struggle in France is not some idealistic fantasy. It is grounded in international treaties and agreements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its accompanying covenants. The demonstrators in France are refusing to be a disposable work force, subject to the fluctuations of stock markets. This movement is not about the protection of any other privilege than those provided TO ALL by the French social model, which has been designed through decades of social struggle in order to provide workers with job security, decent work conditions, health insurance, pensions and care for the old people. This model is based on equity and solidarity. And lastly, this model is efficient. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported in September 2005 that France boasts the highest worker productivity per hour among the G7 countries.