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Aux Barricades, Fonctionnaires!

When more than two million people mount street protests against their government in a foreign country on any given day, the constraints of the journalist’s profession can make some ugly demands.

During the mass strikes in France last November and December, most American journalists failed to ask why public-sector workers were so angry about the new government’s fiddling with their pensions and health insurance, and opted instead for the familiar American formula: whenever trade unionists voice a grievance, ascribe it to their recalcitrant inability to accept “the future.” The fact that the unions in question were French made the task all the easier. Stuck between the fiscal realities of European monetary unification and their archaic revolutionary heritage, “the French” could be depicted as problematic adolescents badly needing to grow up—a people unlike us more mature Americans, who fully understand the need to balance a budget, who have wisely deprived most government employees of the right to strike, and who have given state sanction to striker replacement in the private sector.

Having fitted the story into the stereotype images and vacuous generalizations their readers have come to expect, the journalists felt free to dispense with the facts. On December 4th, in the midst of the largest strike wave France has witnessed since May and June of 1968, Time magazine published a special dossier on the nation’s contemporary tribulations. Readers could learn about France’s “fading glory,” its “Cyrano syndrome,” its “national identity crisis,” and the way its “powerful vested interests” (i.e., unions) were attempting to block “reform” (i.e., deregulation). The text made frequent references to those aspects of Gallic culture said to be under siege: wine bottles and corks, grapes, baguettes, perfume, cheese, and other luxury items Americans fantasize about when they imagine Frenchifying lifestyle. Charming, but no match for the forward march of globalized American culture. A photo spread of Parisians eating fries and drinking cokes in a brightly lit American-style diner and of French teenagers playing video games at the local arcade proved the article’s point.

Newsweek soon followed with its own analysis of “The End of the Good Life,” another plaintive and nostalgic tale of the demise of de Gaulle-style statesmanship, Sartre-style philosophy, and the boulangerie; of how there is too much red tape and not enough venture capital. Readers unhappily discovered that “lovers still rest in the corners of the poorly heated cafes on the Boulevard St. Germain, but fewer and fewer have the time or the money to linger lovingly over their wine.” More to the point, the magazine offered plenty of titillating human interest-style anecdotes to confirm la décadence, like the interview with a distraught managing director of a Parisian advertising agency who whined about how she is “terribly, terribly lonely” but that she would rather “be alone alone than alone with somebody.” Or even better, a successful Parisian banker and graduate of the elite school of public administration—in short, the French everyman—who somberly concludes that “there is less joie de vivre. You see it in how people work, dress, eat. You have to adapt or be pushed aside.” France, it seems, begins and ends in Paris in the company of morose yuppies. But none of this alters Newsweek’s prescription for the country’s ills—the same medicine Time, the IMF, and the World Bank recommend: austerity. France is “living beyond its means” and “financial markets demand it.” Like other European countries with misguided welfare states, France will suffer Mexican-style capital flight if it doesn’t comply.

Only the more honest financial press refused to confound culture with cash. The titles of Europe stories that appeared in the Wall Street Journal during the December strikes were truly refreshing in comparison to the newsweeklies: “Crippling Strikes test France’s commitment to Monopoly Reforms”; “As Juppé’s intransigence angers strikers, investors may see it benefit French stocks”; “French markets surge, Dollar Declines, US stocks climb.” Then there’s ubiquitous lines like “While the strikers bitterly complain that Prime Minister Juppé isn’t negotiating some key points, that may be good news for the Paris bourse.” What little analysis could be found was familiar, of course. France is plagued with “resistance to reform” and “runaway government spending.” The main obstacle to combatting unemployment is—surprise!—a minimum wage that is too high (the second highest in Europe after hash-addled Holland’s). But only when we get to the solutions offered by the financial press does the arrogant logic of capital become fully apparent. “France has to change,” The Economist announced on November 25th. “In a competitive world, it cannot continue to tax its citizens significantly more heavily than those of most other rich countries. Nor can it afford, even though it is rich, to spend so much on social welfare: either it must find jobs for the unemployed or it must be less generous to them.” Q.E.D. The only real question is what will happen to risk premiums or the yield spreads of French over German bonds. And for that, the “specialists”—currency traders and chief economists from Paine Webber or Salomon Brothers—are there to provide an answer.

The very nature of the class struggle had changed.

All this gorgeous logic was lost on the public, though, and the strikes continued to gain popularity. In the provinces, daily numbers of protesters outdid those of 1968. But journalists kept on talking about a “France held hostage.” On TV the search for a universal victim whose extreme desperation might command more instantaneous sentimental cachet than a militant proletariat abandoned by the “end of history” had no limits. News programs featured interviews with annoyed pedestrians tired of being without public transportation, angry small businessmen frightened by declining sales, tragically cancelled ski vacations, endless traffic jams, solidarity between desperate urban hitchikers and those generous citizens with cars, not enough people in the hair salons … all without the slightest attempt to gauge whether or not the strikers’ grievances were legitimate.

“Corporatisme” became the key word to hurl at the unions and the French public service was transformed by a paranoid media into a cruel and belligerent institutional apparatus stuck somewhere between the gulag and Auschwitz. Some pundits even went so far as to suggest that if the strikes continued to spread into the postal service, the selfish public-sector workers with all their juicy benefits would prevent the unemployed from getting their welfare checks. Even the homeless had a brief moment on camera, with their pastoral innocence contrasted polemically with the professional vanity of state employees. The very nature of the class struggle had changed, some revisionist journalists declared. It was now a contest between an authentic wretched of the earth composed of an impotent, nomadic lumpen and a scurrilous “post-industrial” working class. That white collar workers should remain comfortable always was taken for granted.

The desperate hunt for an even more victimized victim whose plight would allow the government to morally outflank the strikers took some pretty ridiculous turns. On December 4, the Wall Street Journal Europe’s editorial page included an essay entitled “Witness at an Antistrike ‘Manif’ in Paris.” The author, one Robert L. Pollock, a Brussels-based consultant, happened to be in Paris for the day long enough to catch by accident a protest rally against the public sector workers’ strike. Without bothering to exit his car, Pollock felt pretty definitive about things: “The working people of Paris had taken their day off to show just what they thought about the civil ‘servants’ interfering with their lives. It seemed a more honest and spontaneous expression of popular opinion than the staged media events (whose times and places were announced by the papers) that were the ‘official’ demonstrations. Maybe, I thought, the currency traders were excessively pessimistic about the French.” Never mind the fact that the “working people of Paris” were not “taking the day off” on a Sunday, or that Pollock was in no position to judge either the “honesty” or “spontaneity” of any social phenomenon from the seat of his car. Ignore the fact that there were only 1,500 “antistrikers” at this demonstration, while, that same day more than 30,000 angry civil “servants” filled the streets of Prime Minister Juppé’s hometown of Bordeaux. Above all, forget the author’s concern for the well-being of the speculators. Cruise back with Pollock to technocratic Brussels and you have grasped the extent to which the market-driven media was concerned with France. Pollock finishes this remarkably revealing piece in an appropriately flippant, media-saturated overclass tone. Catching a glimpse of a hitchiker out of the corner of his eye, he thinks twice about offering him a ride. “He looks OK, I thought,” Pollock concludes. “But I had seen one too many scary movies to offer a ride.”

What if they don’t give a shit about a single currency?

Despite the varieties of elite disapproval, throngs of people continued to congregate in the French streets to defend those few social benefits they had managed to keep after fourteen years of deregulation. And the opinion-poll popularity of the strikes made the ideological disparity between the press and the public seem almost eerie. You could go out onto streets of Paris every day and watch or march with the thousands of demonstrating workers and then return home to see an entirely different story on television. For the journalists, the strikes were all about the preservation of anachronistic and selfish interest groups. But during the marches, it was obvious to any observer that the strikes were about much more than some dilatory defense of a doomed class. Rather, it was a spontaneous outburst of disgust for all the destructive pro-market policies of the past decade. Finally, people were willing to acknowledge that the decrepit Socialist Mitterrand was more than just a bad dream better left forgotten after his indispensable funeral. As one railway worker put it in an interview that appeared in Le Monde:

We understand why the Socialist Party is sickly. The street is in the process of contesting all the institutional puppets. For ten years, the Socialists in power have made the industrial restructurings that the right had dreamed of doing but never dared to do. And now, the right has proposed to us those reforms which the left dreamed of doing if only it had had the time. We thought we were electing politicians; in the end, we got accountants…. In 1968, we were up against reactionaries; it was simple because we knew who we were. Today, we are up against people who say they are “open,” partisan to dialogue. If we say we don’t agree, they respond that “you haven’t understood,” as if there was no such thing as ideology, as if all problems were technical, and it was up to them to “explain.” The split would be between those who understand and those who don’t. In fact, there is only one ideology: theirs.

France’s public intellectuals were also shocked by this spontaneous revulsion. Although making a predictably big deal of the strikes’ carnivalesque aspect (as if the demonstrations only consisted of a bunch of rednecks chomping sandwiches and waving flares), they did not know what to say once it became apparent that their modish clichés about vibrant civil societies perpetually in conflict with tyrannical states no longer held true. What happens when the workers so long cherished by the Parisian intelligentsia no longer work in the paradigmatic factory? What if they work for the faceless state itself? If they openly reject the cosmopolitan Utopia of a United States of Europe? If they don’t give a shit about a single currency?

There is more than one way to look at contemporary France. But for the media and policy-makers there is only one standard of judgement: that of the omnipotent market. William Safire took the designated line when he reassured skeptical New York Times readers not to worry during the strikes. Things are actually pretty simple, he explained: “What should America learn from France’s budget anguish?… In the United States, investors know that the impending budget balance will lower interest rates, and confidence in that has boosted stocks and bonds.” Forget workers; forget the way people live: “Listen to what the markets say.”