I've been watching the ongoing protests in France with wonder and admiration and not a little envy. Imagine living in a society where people take to the streets in huge numbers, not just for one planned day, but repeatedly, and not just in major cities, but throughout the country, where unions go on sympathy strikes, where people wield their collective power to shut down roads and airports, to force the government and the world to take notice. What a beautiful thing.

I'm no economist, and I admit I'm not very interested in the capitalist economists' take on the sorry state of the French economy and the scourge of socialism. It's always easiest to balance your budget on the backs of workers. I have no doubt that if I were French, I wouldn't want to be the first Kleenex generation, either.

I was also hugely impressed with the demonstration in Los Angeles in support of immigrants, and against the punitive anti-immigration bill that just failed in Congress. Pictures like this made me so proud!

There are many things wrong with US immigration policy, but inhumane policies - like criminalizing giving medical treatment to an illegal immigrant - won't fix them.

One of my favourite writers, Barbara Ehrenreich, wrote a great piece on the anti-worker legislation in France. From her column in The Progressive:
Was it only three years ago that some of our puffed up patriots were denouncing the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," too fattened on Camembert to stub out their Gaulois and get down with the war on Iraq? Well, take another look at the folks who invented the word liberté. Throughout the month of March and beyond, they were demonstrating, rioting, and burning up cars to preserve a right Americans can only dream of: the right not to be fired at an employer's whim.

The French government's rationale for its new labor law was impeccable from an economist’s standpoint: Make it easier for employers to fire people and they will be more willing to hire people. So why was Paris burning?

What corporations call "flexibility" — the right to dispose of workers at will — is what workers experience as disposability, not to mention insecurity and poverty. The French students who were tossing Molotov cocktails didn't want to become what they call "a Kleenex generation" — used and tossed away when the employer decides he needs a fresh one.

You may recognize in the French government's reasoning the same arguments Americans hear whenever we raise a timid plea for a higher minimum wage or a halt to the steady erosion of pensions and health benefits: "What?" scream the economists who flack for the employing class. "If you do anything, anything at all, to offend or discomfit the employers, they will respond by churlishly failing to employ you! Unemployment will rise, and you — lacking, of course, the health care and other benefits provided by the French welfare state — will quickly spiral down into starvation."

French youth weren't buying this, probably because they know where the "Anglo-Saxon model," as they call it, leads. If you have to give up job security to get a job, what next? Will the pampered employers be inspired to demand a suspension of health and safety regulations? Will they start requiring their workers to polish their shoes while hand-feeding them hot-buttered croissants? Non to all that, the French kids said.

Of course, the French weren't entirely fair in calling their nemesis the "Anglo-Saxon model." It’s the specifically American model they have to fear. While France was in turmoil, I was in England, ancestral home of the Anglo-Saxon race, giving a talk when a fellow in the audience asked me how people could be fired without "due process." In the U.K., a person who feels she has been wrongfully dismissed can turn to an employment appeals tribunal and, beyond that, to the courts. I had to explain that in the United States, you can be fired for just about anything: having a "bad attitude," which can mean having a funny look on your face, or just turning out to be "not a good fit."

Years ago, there was a theory on the American left that someone — maybe it was me — termed Worsism: the worse things get, the more likely people will be to rise up and demand their rights. But in America, at least, the worse things get, the harder it becomes to even imagine any kind of resistance.
Read more here.


Scott M. said...

The most impressive rally I recall in Canadian history was that of the Unity Rally of 1995 ("My Canada Includes Quebec"), which preceded one of the scariest nights of my life watching a live event unfold. Until the very last minutes it looked like Quebec referendum would pass, resulting in Quebec separating from Canada. I was so forlorn (seriously!). As the final votes trickled in, the feeling was surreal. I was doubtful that the referendum had been quashed.

Only later, when I was watching Parizeau's "argent et ethnique" speech did I realize it was over.


laura k said...

Thanks for sharing that, Scott. I can totally understand feeling frightened and forlorn.

Several Canadians have shared their memories of that rally with me. I vaguely remember reading about it at the time.

M@ said...

French strike for higher productivity

From the sadly defunct Satirewire.

Not that I disagree with your sentiment, Laura, but if you can't laugh at the French, who can you laugh at?

laura k said...

Ha! Looks Onionesque. Too bad about its demise, the world always needs more clever satire.