With 500,000 transport workers paralyzing French rail and Metro traffic, President Nicolas Sarkozy is in the toughest fight of his young administration. A package of reforms, aimed at cutting costs, would raise the retirement age (French train drivers can now retire at 50); as so often in the past, the railway unions are fighting it with mass strikes that disrupt daily life for millions.
At first glance, the strikers seem to hold most of the cards. In recent conflicts between reform-minded governments and labor unions, labor has usually won. A wave of strikes forced former president Jacques Chirac — once billed as a pro-American reformer — to back down from ambitious reforms introduced early in his first term. Chirac’s authority and élan never recovered from the strike; a snap parliamentary election, which he hoped would give him a mandate, turned into a disaster. The Socialists won a majority, and for the next five years Chirac was forced into an uneasy collaboration with his Socialist rivals.
For many years now protesters and strikers have held the upper hand in France. Last year, over a million people protested a law making it easier to hire and fire young employees; in 1997, truck drivers struck for, and won, the right to full retirement pensions at age 55. The 2005 riots in the mostly Arab and immigrant suburbs around major French cities were arguably part of this pattern: when French citizens don’t like government policy, they take to the streets and cause trouble until the government meets their demands.
If so, those riots weren’t necessarily a sign that the immigrants are rejecting French culture; they were a sign of assimilation. Like generations of economically and socially marginalized Frenchmen before them, the immigrants were using the power of the streets to win concessions from an uncaring state.
This is an old pattern in France, one that evokes memories going back to the French Revolution. Street mobs tore down the Bastille, marched out to Versailles to bring Louis XVI into Paris, and rose to defend radical revolutionary power against moderate enemies. In 1830, the Paris street drove the hated and ineffectual Charles X into exile; eighteen years later his successor King Louis-Philippe was driven from power by the street. In 1870 the rule of Louis-Philippe’s successor Napoleon III came to an end when the Paris mob overthrew the regime, following France’s humiliating defeats in the Franco-Prussian War. A year later the Paris Commune rose once again, plunging the capital into chaos and giving Karl Marx a brief thrill of hope that the great global proletarian revolution was on the march.
Looking at this history it is tempting to conclude that the street is the real ruler of France. But that is only part of the story. If one important lesson from French history is that the street is strong, another is that it can be beaten. Disgusted by the Reign of Terror, the French government beat back a rising, to protect Robespierre from execution. A few years later the young officer Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power after dispersing a mob with ‘a whiff of grapeshot.’ And the Paris Commune was ultimately defeated as more moderate republicans established what remains the longest lived, and most stable political system in modern French history, on its ruins.
In fact, since the fall of Louis XVI, France’s greatest achievements have come from governments that successfully overcame the resistance of the streets. Napoleon I was, whatever his faults, one of the great figures of European history, and the French state is still deeply marked by his legal and political innovations. It was only after suppressing radical street protests that Napoleon III, and then the Third Republic, were able to undertake important work modernizing the French economy. Charles de Gaulle faced down protestors before establishing France’s current constitution.
Sarkozy’s challenge today is a stark one. If he has gauged things right, the French have quietly made up their minds that the time for change has come. As Margaret Thatcher faced down the coal miners, and as Ronald Reagan faced down the air traffic controllers, a Sarkozy who overcomes the transport unions will take a decisive step toward the modernization of France, and join the pantheon of great French leaders who have helped the country remain a world leader through good times and bad. If he fails, he may not have to run to London (like so many failed French rulers of the past), but risks beginning to look like a lame duck just six months into his five year presidential term. That is an outcome that France, Europe, and the broader West cannot afford.
– Walter Mead is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.