French protest on political problems

French protest on political problems

27 Oct 2010

Aurelien-Mondonthb Aurelien Mondon
Email: a.mondon@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Australian on 25 October, 2010.

The massive strikes in France mark the failure of the Sarkozy government. Weeks of unrest, culminating in mass opposition to the raising of the pension age, show a public deeply unhappy with their government and the direction it has taken the country.

Three years ago, a few days before the presidential elections that catapulted Nicolas Sarkozy into the presidency, the hyperactive candidate promised the French he would break away from the legacy of the student uprising of May 1968.

He promised that France would again stand tall, that he would put the French back into jobs and revive the morals and values whose lack had caused a deep ''identity crisis''.

With an unabashed populist rhetoric, neo-liberal Sarkozy even promised to put an end to savage capitalism, the appearance of which he blamed on the students' and workers' revolt.

While most of those who demonstrated in 1968 had done so for a fairer, more socialistic world, Sarkozy convinced the very people who had taken part in the events that it was their behaviour that had led to the excesses of capitalism; that the massive golden parachutes bosses received, despite poor performances, were the result of the emancipatory struggle that was May '68.

To emphasise his rupture with the old order, Sarkozy promised that if he were elected he would retire for a few weeks to a monastery to take a deeper sense of his function, before devoting himself to the task ahead. Sarkozy declared that he was now a friend of the people, not the rich, and that he understood their insecurities and fears for the future.

For Sarkozy's supporters, the wake-up call came soon after the second round of the elections. Early the next morning, the French learnt that their President had spent the night celebrating with his celebrity friends in one of the most exclusive nightclubs on the Champs-Elysees.

Sarkozy then retired briefly before taking office, but not to a monastery. Instead, he spent time on the yacht of French billionaire businessman and media magnate Vincent Bollore.

Sarkozy's most prominent economic reforms helped the wealthy, who received important tax deductions. The lower classes were offered an increasingly repressive society and an ever-increasing number of scapegoats to blame for their feeling of social insecurity.

While, in Sarkozy's rhetoric, May '68 was the overarching reason for France's demise, many groups could, and indeed would, be blamed to divert the attention of the French.

Invoking populist right-wing rhetoric, he attacked suburban youth as ''scum''. Under a veil of pseudo-feminism, he attacked Muslims for being sexist and forcing their wives and sisters to wear the hijab (thus relegating the widespread issue of violence against women to the suburbs).

And most recently, as his popularity slumped, Sarkozy expelled Roma people from France.

Yet, this time, it seems Sarkozy's attacks on minorities were not enough to divert his people's attention from pension reforms. Discontent has been extreme in the past few weeks, and it was reported that up to 3.5 million people took to the streets on the sixth day of national demonstrations, leading some left-wing politicians to predict a ''new May '68''. While it is most unlikely France will again experience that intense social upheaval, a time when up to two-thirds of its population were on strike, the French are clearly discontented with their government and the politics it has played since its election. More than just a fight against tough pension reforms, French people of all ages and all classes seem to be expressing a desire for a different kind of politics, that of hope as opposed to the politics of fear and favouritism, which have climaxed since Sarkozy's election.

What the next step will be is uncertain. May '68 lost the population's support when demonstrators turned, or were turned, into rioters. It is clear that the government has learnt from such events. In 2005, when the French suburbs were set ablaze by excluded youth craving recognition and equal rights, the events were portrayed as little more than the senseless actions of gangs of rioters. Similarly, in 2010, the deeply troubling revolt of secondary school students has been portrayed in the French news as ''guerilla warfare''.

Images are swiftly employed and interpreted in such a way that will certainly appeal to the more authoritarian part of the French population, and to its desire for repression.

Without a doubt, more than the thirst for liberty and equality, it is the concept of fraternity between the many facets of the French population (age, religion and ethnic background) that will decide what comes next.

Now that the Senate has voted the pension reforms into law, only the unity of the French people could lead to their withdrawal and, possibly to French politics taking a turn for the better.

Aurelien Mondon has recently submitted a PhD in political science at La Trobe University. His research focuses on populism, racism, nationalism and equality. He is also co-founder of the Melbourne Free University project.

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