French workers, especially in the 20th century, have a history of pushing their governments in the right direction

Gerry ChidiacThere is surprisingly little coverage in the English-language media of the protests now taking place in France. When it is reported, we are told that the French do not want to see their retirement age increased from 62 to 64 years old. That is only part of the story. It is important to look deeper into this issue.

Retirement at age 62 is an option won by French workers decades ago, and French President Emmanuel Macron is going back on this promise because he does not want his wealthy patrons to pay higher taxes. French workers have improved productivity in recent decades, yet they are dealing with wages that are not keeping up with inflation, and their energy costs are going through the roof.

The French are intelligent people. They know their history and the sacrifices their ancestors made to allow for the quality of life they enjoy. Two-thirds of the French population support the protests, which have been going on for months and draw millions of people to the streets all over the country. The protests show no sign of subsiding.


Photo by Florian Olivo

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Similar protests are taking place all over Europe, and history has proven that it serves workers and members of the middle class well to emulate the French. In fact, many significant improvements to the quality of life we now enjoy were nurtured in France.

One idea that did not grow out of France was neoliberalism. It was pushed through by Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States and was then adopted by most political leaders, including Emmanuel Macron.

Neoliberalism has not served us well. We were told that if the private sector was given more freedom, it would regulate itself. Neoliberals remove the checks and balances designed to prevent business failures and protect ordinary citizens. Businesses and financial institutions then take unnecessary risks for the sake of short-term profits and then demand corporate welfare payments when their schemes fail. The truth is, ordinary workers can no longer afford to pay for these mistakes.

Another aspect of neoliberalism is a lower tax on industry and the wealthy. These taxes have dropped significantly all over the world since 1980. The extremely rich thus contribute a much smaller proportion of their real income toward needed government services, and the tax burden has increasingly fallen upon ordinary workers. If we are going to have solid infrastructure, good schools for our children, and effective medical care, our governments need the income the wealthy are withholding.

I often wonder what is being taught in the schools of the wealthy and powerful. It doesn’t take rocket science to see the positive and negative impact of different theories and practices of government as they move through history. The dictatorships of France in the 18th century and Russia in the 20th century completely ignored the needs of ordinary citizens. They proved incompetent in responding to the crises that ensued, leading to their demise. Fascism provided overly simplistic and dishonest explanations and solutions and also led to disaster.

In the United States, despite their privileged backgrounds, President Franklin Roosevelt, his spouse Eleanor Roosevelt, his Secretary of the Treasury Henry Mogenthau, Jr., and his Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace were mindful of the needs of ordinary people and creative enough to find effective solutions to their country’s problems. Had they not done so, the U.S. of the 1930s could have gone in the same direction as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. Instead, they laid the groundwork for the greatest era of prosperity their country had ever known.

French workers, especially in the 20th century, have a history of pushing their governments in the right direction. In the absence of government administrations as wise as that of Franklin Roosevelt, it would serve us well to pay careful attention.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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