“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “You’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Does Alice’s country still exist, anywhere? Or was Progress, the ambition of a society to, well, improve itself, only a brief historical phenomenon that has faded like the Cheshire Cat, leaving us only a jaundiced grin (or a yellow vest)?
Looking around at the willful destruction of the planet, and at how democracies are eating themselves from the inside out, one might think so. Red Queen, you must run faster!
Since Thursday, December 5th, France has been in the grip of what is, functionally speaking, a general strike. The metro’s nailed shut, planes grounded, the grand train stations are echoing ghost towns where Security guards serve stranded travelers free coffee. Schools are closed. Over the weekend Paris had the allure of a sleepy village. From Place de la Nation to la Bastille, from Place d’Italie to la Tour Montparnasse, we all walked or biked to the store, the restaurant, the movies, the rendez-vous. That said, retailers of all sorts, who need to make major sales right before Christmas to survive, are seeing a drop of up to 70%.
In other words, one has been here before; one knows how to make arrangements. Strikes, after all are more than just a national tradition. Talk to friends and there’s an aspect of Revolution-rooted pride. No matter what the issue at hand one identifies with those who ‘descend to the street’, they are the good guys, the front line defenders of commoners’ rights.
Alas, the weekend break is over. For the days or weeks to come apocalyptic traffic jams are assured, since tele-work can’t do all the heavy lifting and the unions have announced their intention to continue holding transportation hostage ‘until.’ Their evident goal is to break the Macron government’s back, or at least its ability to carry out the long-stymied pension reform that… his party, La Republique en Marche, was elected in 2017 to achieve. In part to make the system more fair (it’s totally deformed by ‘special treatments’, especially of RR workers), in part to make it finacially viable. Some estimates have the money running out as soon as 2030.
Generally, French logic sets a lofty standard, what with philosophers like Descartes and Pascal having moonlighted as mathematicians and vice versa. But this current situation seems to me full of logical wormholes. Add to the electoral paradox above these peculiarities:
- A crippling strike that’s launched before the details of the proposed reform have even been announced.
- A government that’s had over two years to build consensus and communicate its plan, yet is now internally contradicting itself and dancing backward – while pledging to hold the line. It can’t be heard over the cacophony anyway…
- A press that calls a street turn-out of 800,000, or one fiftieth of the adult population, an ‘overwhelming’ national declaration. When did a minority become the majority? By the way, on strike Thurday I had the impression that at least as many people in the street were curious observers – nothing much else to do with the Metro down! – padding along at some distance from the marchers.
- An aging population that seems to believe it can both eat and keep its cake, said cake being a vast complicated tangle of pension regimes legislated back when life-expectancy was much lower than today, that culminate in a real average retirement age of 60 (source: OECD.)
- Lip-service paid to solidarity and equality, while most everyone is simply out to defend his own perks, cost that what it may, collectively. From bus drivers to lawyers, everyone is afraid of losing an inch. Footnote: I’ve never seen demonstrators waving such feeble slogans. ‘Fais la rêve.’ ‘Have the dream.’ Too true.)
- A governing party that came from the left wing is now despised by the left, while the right threatens its tempted LREM sympathizers with excommunication.
- Economist Thomas Piketty, respected to the point of super-stardom, comes out in Le Monde with an alternative at least as wacky as the current system: base pensions on life expectancy per profession. (Professor: how many ‘professions’ on the head of a pin?) A pretty fast-moving, slippery target, given the acceleration of automation!
- And this in from the Dept. of Strange Bedfellows: Marine Le Pen’s party, the hard-right, cosmetically re-labeled RN, joining in the union-led demos, and publicly welcomed to the fold by hard-left leader J.-L. Melanchon. (Later he claimed no one had understood his fine sense of irony. We’ve heard that one before, eh Donald?)
Welcome to Looking-Glass Land.
Not to say that the strike, la greve, isn’t fueled partly by urgent economic grievances. French teachers, according to one OECD study, take home an average of 2520 euros per month. Granted, there’s a lot of variation, but a family easily pays that much in rent alone in Paris. Still, does the warning that people only go into teaching for the gold pot at the end really hold up? Do the twenty-year-olds you know operate on that kind of time horizon? Wouldn’t improving salaries and raising professional standards make more sense, especially since the quality of education (see the international Pisa rankings) has been sliding year by year? Run, Red Queen, run!
Turns out that among ecologists (and their acolytes, the business consultants) the Red Queen Effect is a serious Thing. A hypothesis which contends that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate in order to survive aganst the onslaught of ever-evolving opposing organisms. Valid or not, the theory maps rather neatly onto the present struggle over pension reform.
What about down the road? Beyond this bread-and-butter issue that two governments (Chirac and Juppe’s) broke their teeth on already, what is at stake? Nothing less than Macron’s ability to lead, to be credible, including in the international dimension, as measured by his reelection chances. The European Union, NATO, France’s engagement against ISIS et alia in Africa, Turkey, the refugee challenge, climate change – France has taken key positions in all these areas. If Macron should lose the next election, his successor (bettors favor the identity-politics driven RN) is likely to undo most of them faster than Trump can spell EPA backward.
Even the talking heads refuse to make predictions. Now and for an unknown time to come we Parisians are pretty much prisoners inside these ancient medieval walls still traceable by the names of their gates: Porte de Clichy, Porte de St. Ouen, Porte de Lilas… beautiful, redolent names enclosing a beautiful city that is small enough to be walked if need be from end to end. After the first risky days of the strike, the museums have re-opened with skeleton staff (a stunning Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit destroys all the old clichés) the theaters too (‘Adieu M. Haffmann’ marries marital hanky-panky with the terror of Nazi occupation: quite funny and moving, but would it translate to New York?)
Holiday concerts from break-dancing to Bach are also on as scheduled, despite the unscheduled schlepp for musicians, instruments and melomaniacs.
A prison where art exists, thrives, is essential? Well, you might call it paradise.