That's what the current situation is called in France: a "social" conflict. It's a labor conflict in American terms. Strikes have lots of names in different countries. Industrial actions. Work stoppages. Grèves. Why is the conflict called "social" in French? Think "socialism" and struggles between the working classes and the upper classes of society. Labor and management, if you prefer.
Yesterday the French senate passed the retirement pension reform bill by a vote of 177 to 153. Now the bill will be promulgated, or signed into law, by next Wednesday, the day before the next planned "mobilization" — demonstrations and marches in the cities.
Yesterday I mentioned that the Sarkozy government had moved to "requisition" a big oil refinery in the Paris area, on the grounds that it produced 70% of the fuel supply up there. The requisition order required striking employees to return to their jobs or face legal action.
An administrative law judge suspended that order yesterday, or at least the part that required strikers to go back to work. The court said that the local police prefect's order was a "manifestly" an illegal infringement of workers' constitutional right to go out on strike. In France, a prefect is appointed by the national government to oversee a "department" — un département — which is an administrative division like a county. There are about 100 departments in France.
I'm finding this a very interesting lesson in how the French government works. I assume that attempting to requisition the refinery and its striking employees near Paris was a way for the executive branch to test the waters. Would the courts let the national government proceed that way?
On the news this morning, reports were that 11 of the 12 oil refineries in France are still shut down. The country is currently running, tant bien que mal (for better on worse), on petroleum reserves being drained out of storage depots. That can't last forever. Could the other refineries be requisitioned "in the national interest" as well?
They say that about 25% of the countries filling stations are still shut down, for lack of fuel to sell.
I read an article in Le Monde this morning — what we would call an op-ed piece — in which the author pointed out that the fair thing for the president to do at this juncture would be to dissolve the national assembly and force new parliamentary elections. The writer said that in 2007 Sarkozy and his party's candidates campaigned on a promise not to change the minimum retirement age. Now he wants to raise it from 60 to 62.
Sarkozy has majorities in the two legislative bodies to get the law passed, obviously. But does he and does parliament have a mandate from the French people to raise the retirement age? Personally, I don't know. I don't remember the details of Sarkozy's party's 2007 platform, and as a foreigner I can't vote here.
One view of the French governmental structure is that the President of the Republic, as head of state, should stand above the political fray and act as an arbiter in political, "social," and administrative conflicts. He or she should call new parliamentary elections when there are major conflicts such as the current on. When 70% of the people responding to pollsters say they thing the proposed pensions reforms need to be re-thought, it would only be fair to let them vote and see if a different parliamentary majority might be elected to govern the country.
In other words, parliamentary elections are not held every two years as they are in the U.S. They are held once every five years unless the President of the Republic decides to call them early.
President Sarkozy certainly hasn't remained above the fray since he was elected in 2007. In fact, many would say that he has usurped the prime minister's role as head of government and gotten involved in everything from trying to make the trains run on time and decide what programs should be shown on television. Anyway, why would a president dissolve the parliament and call for new elections if he thinks his party might lose their majority?
De Gaulle did something like that about 40 years ago. On a controversial question about decentralizing the government, taking some powers away from Paris and giving them to regional authorities, Le Général called a national referendum. He advocated the status quo, but he lost out. And he resigned as President of the Republic because a majority of the voters had rejected his proposal.
In the 1990s, President Jacques Chirac called for parliamentary elections just two years into his first term. He thought he could increase his party's majority in the national assembly. He lost, and then for five years he had to work with a Socialist Party majority and a Socialist prime minister in an arrangement they call « cohabitation » in France. The majority in the assembly chooses the prime minister.
It's all very different from the way the U.S. federal government works.