Thursday, October 21, 2010

The battle for France

The French government, in an effort to save money and lower taxes for the rich, wants to raise the retirement age. The people don't like it. And so they've responded the way the French do, with marches, strikes, and blockades. Things are now getting serious - the country is running out of petrol, the electricity system is collapsing, and there have been riots. Faced with this level of protest and public opposition - 71% of people are apparently against the change - any normal democratic government would have seen the writing on the wall and buckled. So why haven't the French?

First, there's the normal insulation of the government from the people. The strikes and protests don't affect them. There is always petrol for government Ministers, they can always fly wherever they want, they are always protected by their security detail and staff from ordinary life. They don't buy their own coffee, they don't do their own shopping, they don't drive their own cars, and this effectively makes them immune to the pressures of ordinary life. But more importantly than that, unlike Westminster systems like New Zealand, Ministers are not elected. Under Article 23 of the French Constitution, they cannot be members of the National Assembly or Senate. They depend for their position solely on the Prime Minister. Their political careers aren't on the line. And this makes them immune to popular pressure.

So what about the individual legislators who are actually passing the bill? Well, its currently before the Senate - who are also not directly elected. Instead, they're elected indirectly by 150,000 local officials (mayors, city councillors and the like). Worse, they serve a nine-year term. With their next election in 2017, they really don't have to give a shit what the people think.

And that's why France is such a mess at the moment, and why large protests there almost inevitably escalate to rioting: because they have an unresponsive government, constitutionally insulated from popular pressure. The people can't credibly threaten to vote them out. Which leaves burning stuff as their only way of getting their point across.