Who governs France? Not parliament, trampled on by the street and the presidentby Tim King / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
France is holding its breath, unsure whether it is on the brink of something calamitous, maybe even the death of the fifth republic, or merely another political spat. For the past 12 months there has been an atmosphere of fin de régime: Chirac’s defeat in the referendum, his lost prestige in Europe, his emergency operation and reportedly poor recovery, his inadequacy during the riots last November. But now, with the overwhelming rejection of a labour law already passed by parliament, people are wondering, half excitedly, half fearfully, how and where this crisis will end. Can a discredited, unpopular president limp on until the elections next year? Should his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, be sacrificed? Is there a crisis of the fifth republic with parliament increasingly squeezed between the president and the street?
The crisis, like others in recent years, has been brought on by popular resistance to market reforms. “Whereas the British perceive the market as an impartial arbiter, a place where commodities and labour find their natural level,” says Philippe d’Iribarne, specialist in comparative work cultures and a director of the National Council for Scientific Research, “the French see it as fundamentally unjust.” And whereas the British see work as giving dignity, in France it is closely associated with servitude. Because they see their role as menial, French employees compensate by cocooning themselves in protective privileges, the avantages acquis: a job for life, with five weeks’ holiday minimum, one Friday in two at home (35-hour week), “13th-month” bonus as standard, a high pension. When any of this is threatened, the French employee takes to the street. It was to abolish privilege that the French took to the streets in 1789, but the revolution only complicated the central paradox that continues to haunt France: “We still want the abolition of privilege,” says d’Iribarne, “but each of us nevertheless wants to be privileged.”
The revolution is taught in schools as France’s defining moment: violent revolt created something magnificent—the French republic. It is not surprising that adolescents in the ghettos, middle-class university students and their parents all see the street, not parliament, as the legitimate way of creating a better world.
But the problem for democracy is that street power squeezes out parliament. Is it right that an impressively large, but unrepresentative group should reverse a law passed by parliament? This is part of Charles De Gaulle’s legacy. De Gaulle…