France On Strike – OpEd
The roots of the injustice that brought over a million to the streets
It is the core of a long running joke that the French love to strike more than they like to work – and for good reason. Demonstrations, strikes and even riots, have been a common occurrence for decades. However, this latest round seems to be interestingly persistent, despite the fact that it’s receiving increasingly sparse media coverage.
The last time that the French took to the streets and stayed there, and the mainstream press paid attention, was the Yellow Vest movement back in 2018. Back then, the original trigger was an unpopular new fuel tax, but the list of grievances and demands grew quickly to encompass all kinds of policy areas. Before long, the movement was essentially a vehicle to express general public anger and discontent, and a growing sense of disillusionment with the political establishment. This time is no different, really.
It all kicked off back in January with President Macron’s pension reform. It was also deeply and widely unpopular and for good reason. When you’re willy nilly taking a considerable chunk out of someone’s paycheck each month, with the understanding that you’ll give (at some of) it back in a certain number of years and then you unilaterally decide to postpone that repayment by a couple of extra years, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers. If, a mere mortal citizen, tried to pull the same thing off with a bank loan, there’ be swift and severe consequences. But for some reason, President Macron, like most politicians, believes that the State is above the law and that it can rewrite the terms of a contract as and when it sees fit. And so, much like the fuel tax before it, the pension reform caused widespread and justifiable anger, but it quickly spread to other areas too and the demonstrators started demanding changes on a much larger scale.
That is arguably to a large extent due to the fact that the French President decided to circumvent the democratic process altogether and pushed the legislation though essentially by edict, at a time when 73% of French citizens clearly disagreed with the reform, according to a HuffPost poll. This autocratic muscle flexing was seen as adding insult to injury and infuriated the protestors even further. It also caused the demands of the strikers to become much more targeted towards institutional reforms, as it made it clear to most people that it’s not this specific law that is the real problem, but the system that allows it to go through even when the democratic majority rejects it. What exactly is democracy good for, after all, when the will of the people is reduced to an irrelevant nuisance to those who rule them?
While this instinct to look at the bigger picture is certainly commendable and clearly a step in the right direction, I feel that there is an even bigger picture that is being ignored in this entire debate. If you really want to understand how something like this was ever allowed to happen, or was ever even possible, you have to look beyond the nuances of the constitution, or the various loopholes and procedures that a government can take advantage of and weaponize in its efforts to expand its reach over the governed. You have to look at money itself.
For me, this is merely yet another manifestation of the fiat money problem. If France was limited in its ability to create money of thin air, in this case via the ECB but it applies to any money-printing nation too, we’d never find ourselves in the present mess to begin with. Politicians wouldn’t have the ability to make ridiculous campaign promises and then fund them with freshly printed cash, and so they wouldn’t end up creating an inflationary spiral and debt obligations they can’t possibly honor. They therefore wouldn’t find themselves in the position of having to announce to the public that they can’t pay their pensions on time cause they spent the money already and they’re going to need a little more time to get the cash together.
What is truly striking about the current state of affairs is how detached both the governments and the public have become from reality and from the core concept of justice. Macron took absolutely no responsibility for the ravaged coffers, for the missing cash and for the overall breakdown of his welfare state, but instead took it for granted that the people should shoulder the burden of the State’s mistakes and pay up. He even tried to paint the demonstrators as dangerous fanatics, he compared them to the Jan 6 crowds that stormed the U.S. Capitol and he unleashed the full, brutal force of the riot police on them.
While it would appear that common sense and common decency have long become extinct in our Western societies and especially within the ranks of those who rule us, there are still good reasons to hope this might change. The persistent and courageous demonstrations in France highlight one these reasons. At some point people simply have enough, and it really matters not what exactly was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
As long as that trigger causes the public to stop and reevaluate what they thought they knew, as long as it causes them to stop being content with “their lot” and it forces them to realize that their government’s overreach has become an existential threat to them and their children, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.