The Uniquely French Art Of Blocking Reform, Myth Or Reality?

France is virtually shut down now by national strikes over pension reform. But from Denmark to UK to Germany, social change and the popular movements resisting have their own histories.

Rail workers during a demonstration on Dec 10, 2019 in Paris
Rail workers during a demonstration on Dec 10, 2019 in Paris
Jean-Claude Barbier

PARIS — Like in previous social movements, a cliché haunts the current public debate over the strikes and pension system reform: the French are the only ones, at least in Europe, to resist the "necessary" social reforms, which the other "reasonable" nations would have accepted without protest.

Last year in Copenhagen, French President Emmanuel Macron chided France "Gaul" national character for being "resistant to change, comparing them with the "Lutheran" Danish. At the start of the "yellow vests' movement a few months later, he declared this during a speech in Germany: "Here, the rules create trust and participation; on the other side of the Rhine, they have often generated mistrust and all too often the art of circumvention."

President Macron may still think that the Hartz reform, during the term of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) in the early 2000s, established trust and prosperity across the Rhine? The sociologist Matthias Knuth of the University of Duisburg has unmasked this received wisdom, showing that long-term unemployment is still not under control in Germany and that positive employment dynamics only concern the short-term unemployed. Meanwhile, Schröder's successor, Angela Merkel, has managed to push through minimal reforms.

Yes, the cliché is flawed. It is necessary to make comparisons by recognizing that the political life of national populaces is very diverse, even if, in the European Union many values and practices are indeed shared. The way in which a citizenry refuses or accepts a given reform goes through unique processes, based on collective values ​​present in national communities and different economic contexts.

While INSEE, the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, has just noted that inequalities in the country have grown over the long term and have returned to their 1990 level, the effect of redistribution has remained strong. Without it, France would be among the most unequal countries in the EU. Redistribution is largely driven by social protection, which French voters are increasingly demanding. This is not a simple "safety net" but an expression of the principle of equality.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiling the details of pension reform on Dec 11 –– Photo: Blondet Eliot/Abaca via ZUMA Press

The situation indeed differs in most other EU countries, which can be broadly divided into three groups according to their Gini coefficient –– an indicator of the income gap between the lowest and highest incomes: the very unequal countries (Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Baltic countries, Bulgaria, with a Gini coefficient greater than 0.33); the moderately unequal countries (Germany, Portugal and Greece, between 0.31 and 0.33); the least unequal countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands and especially Scandinavian countries, below 0.28).

There is less political attention devoted to the issue of poverty in Germany than in France, even if amid general prosperity (the unemployment rate is very low for the moment), Germany lives with a higher poverty rate than France (18.4 v. 17.4 in 2018, harmonized European figures).

Danes are very combative in defending social protection.

Germans, especially the poorest, oldest and least qualified, largely rejected the Hartz reforms, especially Hartz IV, which destroyed the old unemployment assistance. The reform was the subject of weekly demonstrations each Monday –– the Montagsdemonstrationen –– from 2003 to 2005. Opponents then went to court and, after Schröder's departure, obtained several favorable decisions. In 2008, the duration of the Hartz distribution was extended for those over the age of 50 (up to 24 months to 58 years). More recently, in October, the Constitutional Court of Karlsruhe limited the amount of the distribution deduction in the event of failure to comply with the "obligations' of job-seekers, following the two German constitutional principles of "human dignity" (Menschenwürde) and of "minimum existence".

In the British case, tolerance for poverty is greater than in other major countries. Though fiercely attached to their health system (the National Health Service, NHS), Britons do not have a great deal of confidence in their social protection, organized around a minimal level of assistance. In the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher's government abolished State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme. The promises of poverty reduction under Tony Blair (1997-2007) have vanished. Lower economic classes have suffered from the full austerity policies of conservative governments before the country was largely sidetracked by the madness of Brexit in 2015.

Contrary to the cliché, the Danes, whose demand for equality is still stronger than in Sweden, are very combative in defending their social protection. Professor of social sciences Henning Jorgensen (Aalborg University) has titled one of his major works Denmark: Conflicting Consensus (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002, untranslated). According to union statistics, Denmark has more annual strike days than France. The Danes fight primarily, through their unions, in the context of professional negotiations. But for more than ten years, Danish society has gradually unified itself around a steadily increasing xenophobia, even touching the Social Democratic Party: demands for equality are the priority ... though among Danes only.

Major strikes, united and largely xenophobic fronts: yes, this is perhaps the form of anti-reform protest we can currently identify as à la française!

Jean-Claude Barbier is a sociologist at CNRS, University Paris-I-Panthéon-Sorbonne

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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