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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-02-2023 06:50

The French are at it again

The time when a reasonable degree of economic equality seemed to be within reach now belongs to the past.

Emmanuel Macron knew very well that his attempt to reform his country’s generous pension arrangements would provoke an uproar, but even so he must have been taken aback by the spectacle provided by hundreds of thousands of angry citizens who thronged the streets of Paris and other cities to protest against what, given the circumstances, are the fairly modest changes he is proposing. Of these, the most controversial has to do with the statutory retirement age. In much of Europe, it is 67 or 66, so one might think that raising it from 62 to 64 would strike most people in France as being reasonable enough, but it would seem that many who agree that something will have to be done – because unless it is the pension system will run out of money – object to what Macron is up to if they fear they will have to change their plans.

Among the demonstrators are students who, when interviewed, seem genuinely anguished by the thought that they will have to work until they are well over 60 until, at long last, they have no need to continue clocking in. Presumably most of them are there because in France joining protest marches and shouting political slogans is a traditional rite of passage, but they are right to feel nervous when they look ahead to what awaits them. By the time men and women now in their 20s reach 64, they will live in a society which will be as different from the one they grew up in as today’s is from those of the final decades of the 20th century, when for every retiree there were over two workers who contributed to the system. In France there are now less than 1.7 and their number is rapidly dwindling.

As the century approaches the half-way mark, there are bound to be far more old people living off benefits and, with birth rates plummeting, there will be far fewer younger ones supporting them. What will happen then? Perhaps Macron, who is 45 and could still be around, has an answer to that disturbing question, but to judge from what is happening in his country, most of his fellow countrymen, along with most other Europeans, would rather not be told what is almost certainly coming their way.

Those who keep a close eye on what is happening in France think that there is far more behind the massive protests than a reluctance to work a couple of years more before getting entitled to draw a generous pension. There, as elsewhere, large numbers of people are finding it increasingly hard to adapt to the changes which are rapidly transforming modern societies. While in Europe – but not, apparently, in the United States – the impoverishment of sectors that not that long ago could make ends meet and dream of a better future has been far slower and far less visible than here in Argentina, for those affected it is very painful. Unsurprisingly, many feel let down by their political leaders who – like their counterparts throughout the democratic world – pretend they have “solutions” to the problems which are besetting voters but rarely manage to make things better.

Macron’s critics say that because he is a “technocrat” and a credentialed member of the international elite, he does not really understand what is going on in the minds of humbler folk. They may be right, but that does not mean that a politician with the common touch would be able to make his country more egalitarian in an era in which powerful technological, economic and social forces are driving people apart.

Not only in France but in all other countries, whether developed or not, the gap between those who either have talents which are in demand or who for some reason already have plenty of money are doing very well, while men and women who lack such advantages are falling behind. For most members of the working class, in real terms incomes have remained much as they were half a century ago, while for CEOs, some professionals, sportsmen, entertainers and others who have become card-carrying members of a cosmopolitan elite, they have increased a hundredfold or more. 

As has invariably happened, those at or near the top of the pecking order find it easy to justify their good fortune. Once upon a time, they did so by alluding to their noble origins, but that went out of fashion a long time ago. Today, meritocratic explanations, buttressed by claims to ethical superiority, are considered more convincing. This no doubt is why tech billionaires and the like have taken to telling us they are as dedicated as any university professor to racial and sexual “diversity.” They evidently hope that their allegedly progressive views will shield them from the threat posed by a growing number of people, and therefore of politicians, who demand that the astonishing wealth they have accumulated be shared out among lesser beings. This could well happen in the not too distant future, what with the European Union slapping huge fines on corporations accused of behaving like the monopolies they effectively are, but it would not help much to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is widening not because a greedy minority is hogging too much of what is available but as a result of the increasing disparity between the economic value of brain-power on the one hand and brawn, or the willingness to perform what may be regarded as routine tasks, on the other.

By and large, this is what meritocracy is all about. While it is clearly better or, if you prefer, fairer than the alternatives, it does means that a smallish minority of individuals who have what it takes, plus those who are in a position to profit from their attainments, are prospering mightily, leaving the rest of humanity struggling in their wake, which makes for serious difficulties in democratic societies.

For a while, welfare programmes can help maintain the illusion that this is only a temporary mishap. The same can be said about the notion that allowing everyone to go to university and come out with an allegedly valuable diploma will even things up, but, as millions of young Europeans and North Americans have discovered, this has not guaranteed them the success they had been led to expect. Disquieting as the thought may be, the time when a reasonable degree of economic equality seemed to be within reach now belongs to the past and, if experience is anything to go by, efforts to bring it back will in all likelihood end up making life far worse for the people they were supposed to benefit.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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