Why does the French dog bark whilst the Irish cat sleeps?

The French government are attempting to introduce legislation that will increase the age upon which French citizens can retire and claim the state pension from 60 to 62. The policy proposal is based on the financial projections of the Pensions Advisory Council. This is a public body with representatives from the state, trade unions, employers and independent policy analysts and reports into the Prime Ministers office. Last April it produced a series of forecasts on the cost of paying for the French public pension system. It estimated that the number of pensioners in France would increase from 15 million in 2008 to 22 million in 2050. Given the increase in unemployment and slower than expected growth they estimated that the pension system would be in deficit of approx 1.7 percent of GDP (€32bn in its most optimistic forecast) in 2010. The entire cost of paying for the pension system is approx 3.5 percent of GDP (around €70bn).

Despite being part of a consultative process, four out of the five trade union confederations are completely opposed to the pension reform. The reform  is not necessarily aimed at generating ‘austerity’ and ‘savings’ in the French public finances. The current crisis is being used as a window of opportunity to  reform a social protection scheme that has been considered too generous by successive centre right governments, not least the current conservative UMP President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Many trade unions support reform of the public pension system, recognising the changing demographics of the French population, but not in its current formation. They argue that there has been no real negotiation around the policy, it places too heavy a burden  upon the worker (85 percent of contribution) and fails to distinguish between life expectancy across occupations (a lawyer may be prepared to work and contribute more but not necessarily someone who has worked as a factory operative all their life).

The General Confederation of Labour– Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO) called for the withdrawal of the bill while the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) demanded it be rewritten. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) demanded that there should be a true negotiation. The French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC) deplored the fact that capital income will contribute only 10% of the financing. CFE-CGC (General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff) which chairs the national pension assurance fund supports the proposal because it covers the contribution costs for women on maternity leave. The proposal, however, is likely to pass. Sarkozy got elected on the basis of his capacity to implement reform and if he backed down his government would fall.

But, what is the politics of all this and what explains the massive level of political opposition across the French economy? Are trade unionists, workers and students engaged in mass political action (which includes the direct blockade of its oil refineries) because of a singular attempt to increase the age of retirement from 60 to 62? No, not at all. The opposition forms part of a wider resistance to gradual attempts to reform the French ‘state managed capitalism’ and historically evolved welfare state. The French economy has approx 2.5 million companies and its traditional form of socio-economic governance has been under attack for many years (due to the increased pressures associated with Europeanisation, currency convergence, financial integration and economic globalisation). The French government has privatised many large companies over the past few years but not to the same extent as most other European economies. It has not adopted a liberal market model of economic integration (akin to the US or UK) and it is highly unlikely to do so given its historically evolved and institutionally embedded ‘variety of capitalism’. French citizens have a real interest in defending their welfare state because so many of them benefit from it. It is a political opposition to libéralisme and a defence of state dirigisme.

However, it is not the stickiness of institutions of state capitalism per se that explains why real people are willing to engage in mass political opposition.  This can only be explained by  examining the capacity of its trade union and student movement to mobilise for collective action. Trade unionists have traditionally opted for a social movement rather than a social partnership approach to organisation. Why? Because, unlike Ireland, the French trade union movement has always been influenced by the presence of revolutionary socialists. This works for them and against them. It gives them limited influence upon policy but capacity to mobilise their power resources. French society in both its electoral formation (via its party system) and the organisation of industrial relations system has always given public expression to the conflict of class interest (this, it must be recognised, often takes the nastier form of far right politics). Trade unions, and most social movements have mobilised around this difference in class.  In Ireland political opposition exists but takes a very different political expression, usually through a whole variety of civil society organisations without industrial muscle. Ireland has a pluralistic interest group system whereby civil society organisations are mobilised around campaign specific issues not collective economic issues. This is central to explaining why the French dog barks in response to austerity whilst the Irish cat sleeps. Irish politics is not and has never been organised around distributional politics. The class cleavage exists but it rarely takes a collective political expression. Why?

It might come as a surprise to many that trade union density (the percentage of workers in the economy who are members of a trade union) is less than 8 percent in France. But, collective bargaining coverage is over 90 percent (workers covered by collective pay agreement). Most employers are also members of some form of collective or sectoral association (75 percent). The employment relationship is heavily mediated by labour law. Thus, it is quite difficult for employers to make workers redundant. Many, even those on the left, have criticised the heavily regulated labour market in France for giving preferential treatment to white, middle class citizens who have secure employment at the expense of those who do not fit this ‘insider profile’. In response to the current crisis, partial unemployment schemes were introduced to minimise the effect of unemployment. Whilst this was effective in reducing redundancies, unemployment has still increased since 2008.

The use of industrial action has been a central strategy of French trade unions. Mass street protests are usually organised followed by a one or two-day general strike. 80 percent of all strike action in 2006 was initiated by trade unions, with 20 percent unofficial. The French union movement has a capacity to mobilise because there is significant political support for the broad thrust of its public policies. The tradition of using the public sphere as a forum for political dissent as opposed consensus facilitates the open contestation of ideas. In Ireland, liberálisme is the political economic norm. There is practically no collective mobilisation around a social alternative (let alone anything beyond this) to the current crisis. Thus, the Irish cat sleeps because no mass political organisation has attempted to wake it up. It sleeps because the public sphere is dormant.

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