23 Sep 2010

France takes to the streets to strike

As French workers protest at their government’s plans to raise the retirement age, International Editor Lindsey Hilsum meets Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to ask what austerity measures are around the corner.

Maybe I shouldn’t describe the place where I’m writing this blog or my editors will think I’ve joined the French strikers. It’s a classic Parisian brasserie, with red and white checked table cloths, and yes – since you ask – I am having a glass of wine.

We British, with our austere Presbyterian ways, envy the French because they’re so much better than us at enjoying life.

Take today’s strike and demonstrations. The police say nearly a million turned out, but there was no question of violence or anger. A French strike is a ritual event, and it’s fun.

They’ve found a new use for the vuvuzelas they failed to sell after the French team was ignominiously kicked out of the World Cup. I saw a woman with what I suspect was a Mojito cocktail in a plastic glass. Pourquoi pas? Life’s too short.

Except it isn’t, or at least, not as short as it used to be.

The French, like others is Europe, are living longer than before, and the result is a huge black hole in the pension pot. The government is raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 which brings them almost into line with most other European countries. Today trades unionists, socialists and the odd anarchist were out protesting.

Hence my question on the demo: “Why should the French retire earlier than other Europeans?”

Answers: “Because we’re French and we’re the best.”

And another: “Because we’re worth it,” – that answer, from a young woman who worked for Air France, was followed by gales of laughter from her and her friend.

“Les manifs” – demonstrations – have laid low many a French government, and even this one has made concessions on its pension reform plan.

President Sarkozy won’t back down on the central plan of retirement at 62, and full pension at 67, but he’s agreed what they call “adjustments at the margin” – for example, compensating who’ve paid fewer contributions because they took time off to have a family.

It’s very French. A ritual event which the government knows will happen, but believes it can manage. The Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, was supremely unbothered by the idea of a million people on the streets of Paris, protesting her government’s policies.

“We’re not losing our nerve,” she said, adding that they have no choice because of the demographics, and because France has failed to balance its budget for more than 30 years.

Next week she’ll introduce an austerity package which, she says, will cut the deficit from just under eight per cent to six per cent. That means cutting 40 billion euros worth of public spending.