“Strike closes Eiffel Tower; worker’s demands not known,” read the headline of a Canadian Press story this week. Apparently 500 people who work in the city’s largest tourist attraction all just walked off the job. No one even needs an excuse not to work in France anymore. Coming up with things like “demands” takes work and effort. And why bother going through the rigmarole of requesting time off, jockeying for prime vacation days with your colleagues, or even notifying your boss of your absence when they could have it so much worse and really should be so lucky that you just decided not to show up.
For those French bosses who audaciously impose things like “schedules” and “work days” on their underlings, the French will be willing to foist work upon themselves as prison guards, holding their boss hostage in the workplace. That’s what happened recently to the executives at France’s 3M, Caterpillar and Sony plants. With 45% of French approving of this tactic, according to a poll this week, things aren’t likely to be changing anytime soon.
Having spent some considerable time recently in Paris, France, I just happened to be there during one of the country’s national strikes. From where I was that day in the upper-scale 16th arrondissement, it wasn’t too noticeable. The subway operated normally, and students whose teachers were on strike appeared to have some studying to do. Mainly because they’re told that unless they qualify for certain universities and programs, they can pretty much kiss their entire lives goodbye. Attending the right schools in France determines whether you will, in the future, be locking up a superior in a private industry job…or, alternatively, being wrapped up in duct tape by an underling.
But just south of where I was, at the Place de la Nation, the police spent the national strike day fighting off rioters, who apparently had nothing better to do after a long day of being paid not to work.
Don’t get me wrong, there are people who work in France – aside from Nicolas Sarkozy and the people around him. There are the entrepreneurs who can’t, for example, just walk off the job at their handbag store in the Palais des Congres at 2pm. They’re just as frustrated and fed up as anyone in America would be with the same situation. But they are seriously outnumbered.
I sat down with some of the people in charge and asked them why the government just doesn’t take away strike pay, and therefore remove any incentive to stay off the job. I also wanted to know why there is any fear of unions in France when President Nicolas Sarkozy passed a law after the 2007 strikes mandating a minimum service level. “He has a parliamentary majority,” I said, “So he can do whatever he wants. Why doesn’t he?” Apparently the fear is that France is so heavily unionized that if they all wanted to walk out, there wouldn’t be enough police power to stop them nor enough jails to hold them. It’s not like Sarkozy could just fire everyone, like Reagan did with the air traffic controllers. Unless he wants the kind of paralysis that his predecessor Jacques Chirac saw in the mid-1990s.
Sarkozy was elected to reform France – which he is trying relentlessly to do -- but his message is getting lost in the viciously leftist French media. The guillotine has been replaced by French printing presses: “The Zombies Of The Republic”, screamed the front cover of Le Point, promoting a story portraying all of his ministers as either puppets or crybabies. “Divorce: Why The French Are Abandoning Him”, read the cover of Marianne magazine, before going on to call Sarkozy’s denial of economic stimulus funds for people already swimming in the public trough of French social services “the unpardonable mistake.” Every day, La Liberation newspaper attacks those “rich bosses” in its cover story, further fanning the flames of class envy, ignoring that Sarkozy himself, who didn’t go to any of the “right” schools, is hardly wealthy himself.
The best Sarkozy can ever hope for is a fair shake in Le Figaro, whose editorial slant is about the ideological equivalent of the New York Times.
And then there’s the treachery within his own party – the people who have one hand on his shoulder and the other on a sharp knife tucked behind their back. They see the media dogpile as an opportunity to possibly exploit for the sake of their own political career and future.
“Sarko The American” isn’t one to suffer fools gladly. He’s not the type to meet twenty times about an issue, after which everyone has forgotten why they were even meeting in the first place. No – Sarko is the closest thing the country has seen to a leader of action and impact since Generals De Gaulle and Napoleon. And that scares people who would rather sit around and talk about something ad infinitum and “think tank” it to death, for fear that any action might provoke a consequence.
Napoleon himself best sums up Sarkozy’s current battle: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
If only there were a mere four.