So Mr. Sarkozy plans a number of reforms in France. And his mandate is pretty impressive, 53-47. But nobody knows better than he that France is only by a tortuous use of language described as a working democracy. For decades the labor unions have exercised an effective veto over French policymaking.
In the history of industrial policy in America, we came face to face with the reality that sympathetic strikes and secondary boycotts could decisively affect tests of strength between contenders in economic disputes. The Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 to outlaw such practices. It was denounced by trade union leaders as a Slave Labor Act, a hyperbole that lost its way in the language of contention when, in 1950, the principal patron of the bill was triumphantly reelected to the Senate from Ohio, where the unions had concentrated their heaviest fire against “slave labor.”
The French have not yet acted to remedy their own reality, which is the general strike in which all the labor unions — most importantly those involved in transportation — participate with all their resources. If traffic simply ceases — trains to run, automobiles to find gas stations, airplanes to fly — civil life all but comes to a halt. It is Sarkozy’s intention to introduce legislation — his own Taft-Hartley Act — which would limit the powers of labor unions to intercede thus decisively to protest government action. Of course the difficulties in doing so speak for themselves — in what is known as the circular argument: The transportation unions can protest the prospective reforms by use of their ultimate weapon. What then ensues will measure the strength of French self-rule, which has several times in the postwar world been challenged, as when it was proposed that the European Union take steps in the Near East which would have advanced the tide against Saddam Hussein.
The French are a super-sensitive people, and they cannot bear for others to succeed where they failed. The annexation by France of Algeria happened in the middle of the 19th century, 1848. A hundred years later, the Algerians launched their crusade for independence. It appeared an utterly lost cause until the insurrection persevered beyond Charles de Gaulle’s fortitude in defending France’s colony. Exactly the same spirits were loosed in Indochina, where, finally, the French retreated, leaving the mess for the United States to mishandle. Lecturing at Columbia a couple of years ago, Sarkozy told the students, “In France, history is something that counts. Please don’t be angry with us because we remember what happened to us. Is there even a single country of the world, at any time of history, that was able to maintain itself in a sustained way in a country that was not its own, uniquely by the force of arms? Never, not a single one, even the Chinese.” The international confrontation over Iraq came in the United Nations, where France whittled away at pending resolutions, settling finally for Resolution 1441, which permitted noncompliance in the sought-after anti-Saddam alliance, resulting very quickly in France’s refusal to contribute to the war effort.
Sarkozy is an outspoken admirer of the United States, even of our poets and songwriters, and he has said that while he does not judge all U.S. policy to be just, neither will he judge it to be inherently evil, colonialist, and exploitative. On the matter of the Iraq war, he will maintain the neutrality of his predecessor, but he seems prepared to do so without the accompanying cant of the people determined to criticize American policy under any circumstance.
The domestic test for Sarkozy will come early, and it will be crucial. The French have been given, in recent decades, to explosive demonstrations. From Sunday night into early Monday morning, the mobs protesting Sarkozy’s election and his proposed reforms set fire to 730 automobiles and injured 78 policemen. A New York Times reporter described the scene: “At one point, the square [the Place de la Bastille] was thick with white tear gas, reflecting the orange glow of a car fire while silhouetted youths heaved paving stones at tight formations of armored riot police officers.” On the walls they scrawled their reaction to the election: “Sarkozy Fascist.” To understand that, you need to understand that those in favor of permitting the estoppal of all transportation in France understand themselves to be fighting fascism.
© Universal Press Syndicate