Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dad, can I borrow the picket sign?

Teenagers Gone Worldly
NPR’s Paris corespondent, Eleanor Beardsley, had a piece the other day about French high school kids joining the massive wave of protests against the government’s handling of the economic crisis. She reported that there are two national unions of high schoolers and that les √©tudiants were legendarily successful at shutting down their lycees and taking to the streets in enormous numbers when issues vexed them.
To explain this oddity to us apolitical Americans, she got the editor of a French student magazine to say that lots of kids went on strike simply to play hookey while others got into politics because French schools are all study (what a weird concept) so that students had no extracurricular sports and clubs to occupy their free time. That’s more or less like saying that I write a political blog because I don’t have a beer can collection to work on.
In fact, the French, unlike Americans, tend to be political. That means they’re open to taking public action on public problems, while we prefer private and profitable responses. As old Karl pointed out, classes in France, from poor to rich, tend to defend their own interests. The bottom is represented by the left, the top by the right, while the middle wavers between the two. Of course, it doesn’t always work out so neatly. But that framework remains useful for parsing the tidings from Gaul. It certainly helps to explain the tidal wave of protests now roiling the glorious landscape.
Because the French are political they are frequently on strike and because they often win strikes they enjoy a range of civic, social and workplace benefits unimaginable on this side of the Atlantic. This reinforces the notion that politics and strikes work. Such subversive ideas reside in the back of the head of even the most mindless French teenager who skips school more to draguer les filles than to protest the latest efforts by the Sarkozy regime to succor the rich and screw the poor.
In France, the rich and powerful have learned to respect the clout of workers and students. This has hardly harmed capitalism but has made their capitalists a tad less avaricious and arrogant than our plutocrats. You can see that in the current scandal over bonuses and stock options for corporate execs. Those in France, in the upper six and low seven figures, would be considered chump change here. Nevertheless, French masters of the universe have been tripping over each other to renounce and return them.
Even the New York Times is reluctantly admitting that its thick social safety net will mean far less recession hardship and hock in western Europe than it will here. In place and well-funded unemployment benefits are long-term and generous. No one has to worry that losing a job will lose them health care or free college for the kids. Debt levels are low because Europeans still prefer to pay for things with money they have. And if the bosses get too obstreperous, there’s always the option of effective mass protest, even by politically hip teeny boppers.