It was not May ’68 remix. But in the end, micro-Napoleonic former casual populist French President Nicolas Sarkozy got his May 68 – he of all people who always derided the “poisonous” heritage” of that time.
He may be destined for the dustbin of history as a one-term fiasco, now that he is the most unpopular (71% disapproval rate) French president since Charles de Gaulle in 1968. De Gaulle resigned in ’69. “Sarko” will get his pension reform finally approved this Wednesday. As for his master plan of betting on conflict and confrontation – against the working class, against young people – to scare the French right and the extreme right back to his fold, it will fail.
Where’s the late, great Herbert Marcuse when you need him?
Marcuse defined ’68 as a total protest against specific wrongs, and at the same time a protest against a complete system of values, a protest against the society of the one-dimensional man.
France has not lived through four revolutions in 100 years for nothing.
As Sarko configured himself as a neo-emperor of social regression, a president of the wealthy and the “social state” for the rich, inevitably millions of French men and women would have to vent their colere (anger) in the streets – complete with high-school students marching in defense of old people’s rights.
Marcuse would tell us today that – as much as May ’68 – the French October 2010, in its refusal of the misery, normality, violence and lack of democracy of turbo-charged capitalism, was a “diagnosis of the future”. As much as May ’68 was a – hopeful – critique of “solid” capitalism, October 2010 is a critique of the worst of Zygmunt Bauman-defined liquid modernity. No perspectives. No hope. Instead of “we want the world, and we want it now”, it’s “please, world, give us a break”.
Angry young men
Pension reform was just an excuse for the repressed anger to boil over. It would have been so easy to finance the future cost of pensions in France by taxing financial transactions. But not for mini-Bush Sarko – a certified member of a global neoliberal gang still merrily slashing-and-burning the benefits of the modern welfare state. Sarko’s “reform” – for all the rhetoric – in practice means slashing pensions, period.
French workers – whose productivity, by the way, is higher than that of their German counterparts – understood this right away. Same for those students marching in the streets; they know they will be like Sisyphus – trying to find and then keep a full-time salaried job for over 40 years. With outstanding luck, they will be able to retire only at 70 and beyond.
Turbo-charged financial capitalism’s modus operandi is the same in Europe and the United States. It seeks to impose “austerity” – as in the working class having to pay for all the ”excesses” of the power elites. And austerity is always sold as an imperative – never as a mere choice.
University of Missouri’s Michael Hudson couldn’t have put it better: “It is a purely vicious attempt to reverse Europe’s Progressive Era social democratic reforms achieved over the past century. Europe is to be turned into a banana republic by taxing labor – not finance, insurance, or real estate.” By the way, Sarko’s reform was essentially ordered by the European Union in a 2003 report stressing that people should work much longer to cut pension costs.
So this is the current, pitiful European reality show in a nutshell; anyone is allowed to become an Islamophobe, as long as they take many extra years to retire.
What would be a solution? Certainly a true democratic revolution turning financial capitalism’s economic policy upside down. It won’t happen. There are no leaders. The radical left is too sectarian. There is no consensus on a clear program ahead. And worst of all; this bureaucratic monster, the EU – configured as nothing but a multi-tentacle mechanism of economic and social repression on behalf of financial capital, on top of it linked to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military repression mechanism – will prevent it.
France would be ready to embrace reform – as long as it’s fair. But an arrogant Sarko marginalized any interlocutor; thus the whole issue was transferred to the street. And the street does not negotiate. La manif – the right to demonstrate – is a quintessentially French civilized way of enacting one’s citizenship, as much as eating a perfect croissant or drinking the perfect bottle of Chateau Margaux. Those demonstrations were above all about moral outrage – at having to go through a neoliberal medicine to cure a neoliberal-caused disease.
A possible way out for this French October 2010 is to persist as a kind of semi-permanent mobilization – in fact like the historic Italian May of the years 68-69, which went on for months. This implies a very good – and creative – coordination between unions and young people. It’s difficult but doable – and it would be a lighthouse to progressive movements everywhere.
From his heady dreams of glory as the French JFK, Sarko has now been reduced to some clone of Louis XVI on the way to the (political) guillotine. See you at the barricades, babe. There will be plenty more.