You have surely noticed that the French are having a bit of a barney.
Without getting overly technical, Emanuel Macron, the President, really wants to move the retirement age from 62 to 64. Yes, you read that correctly. From 62 to 64. For a number of reasons, too detailed to be of interest, the change would actually, on its own, not make a blind bit of difference to the vast majority of French citizens, but in solidarity with the French themselves, I shall nimbly ignore such inconvenient facts.
Macron is in a period of “co-habitation”. He won the Presidential election, but lost the parliamentary one. Despairing of trying to cobble together a coalition, he rules through a minority government. On the specific issue of the retirement age, he tired again of attempting to build together a majority consensus, and introduced the measure by means of a sort of Presidential veto.
Then, all hell broke out. Pretty much everybody in France said “Non.”
Workers went on strike and took to the streets during the day, where things are pretty laid back and good humoured. As the sun sets, the students go out and things get rough, with violence and vandalism to the fore. The demos are not just in Paris. All the major cities, and some minor ones are in turmoil. At the Assemblé Nationale, the members sang a lusty Marseillaise, preventing the Prime minister from defending the policy.
So why is everyone getting so aerated?
It’s much simpler than many assume.
France has never bought into the Anglo-Saxon / Germanic model of capitalism. My career began with a British company in France. At one point, I was working in a bureau de change beneath the head office. Every day, just before 1pm, I watched as the French employees filed out. Lunch.
“Pierre! Why don’t you grab a sandwich at your desk like us foreigners?” I asked the accountant.
“Stuart. I like you. But at times you can be very…Anglo-saxon. Come.”
So began my education in the art de vivre.
The French regard work as a necessary evil to be tolerated and confined to specific hours of the day. While at the office, they’re more than happy to work hard, and while not they are determined to live well. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than lunch. Before any Brits object, yes, I know that there is a long tradition of the business lunch in the UK. However, it’s entirely different. We Brits go to lunch to impress, to flatter, to ease the wheels of commerce. Deals are done over brandies at the end of a meal. For the French, lunch is lunch. Not to be sullied with business.
The French reduce things to simple questions. Should we work longer before retiring? Non. There, nice and easy. (And utterly immovable.)
Should we allow the President to impose a law upon us that he cannot even get the parliament to agree on? Non.
How do we express ourselves? On the streets. Immediately. If not faster than that.
Here’s the thing. They’re absolutely right.
In health research, there’s a thing called the French Paradox. Broadly, the French stubbornly don’t fit in with the concept that fat is bad for you. They eat tonnes of the stuff, (Foie gras anyone?) and still live to a ripe old age. At a time where alcohol consumption is eyed warily, the French get stuck in at lunchtime. EVERY lunchtime. It seems that “art de vivre” is good for you. Less work, less stress and more joy make for longevity.
What possible reason can there be in 2023 to ask people to work longer? Technology is advancing rapidly, making many jobs obsolete. We’re told to celebrate the enhanced productivity this brings us all. Apparently, there is an inexhaustible supply of money which can simply invented to deal with any complications like Covid-19 that the world throws in our way. Why on earth can there be a need to work for longer? It’s nonsense.
If modernising France means working until you drop, not taking August off, of going to work on a Friday afternoon, then we’re not doing it right. That’s what the French are saying.
The society birthed by the Industrial Revolution is finished. That model doesn’t work anymore. The sooner everyone digests that and starts working on the future, the better things will go.
Must dash, it’s apéro-time*.
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*Apéro-time covers the hours between the end of work (let’s say 6pm) and dinner (let’s say 8pm, although in cities it may be later than that) where friends get together for an aperitif or two. If you hail from the South, this will probably be a Pastis, sharp aniseed rocket fuel served with water. Apéro-time is full of laughter and happiness and gets everyone setup for a dinner, unless of course it goes really well, in which case it can last until the early hours…