Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Night follows night

I leave Paris for a few days to go to Britain and I return on the Eurostar from suburban Waterloo to ....... Britain.

What's going on? Has the tunnel become a gash in the time space continuum?

Well, yes.

Sgt Major Sarko, tanned and revitalised after his summer jaunt to his American friends, has announced how he's going to revamp France's pension system.

The problem is the unions don't like what's in store and have threatened to take to the streets in protest.

And who could blame them. Some of the boulevards are particularly fine at this time of the year. Yellowing leaves falling wistfully to the ground. Crisp air, cafes amid well-appointed buildings. What impassioned protector of anachronisms wouldn't want to be out fulminating of a late autumn morn?

Sadly only a happy few - roughly half a million of the workforce - benefit from the deals that were hatched in the Ice Age. OK, not quite that recently.

In One Million Years BC when scantily-clad cave dwellers with an uncanny resemblance to Raquel Welch roamed the plains, an understanding was struck in which certain state workers got special early retirement privileges.

The idea was to show gratitude for sterling service in the face of various dangers.

So the likes of train drivers would naturally be included in the package. But since the understandings were reached, times have changed and steering a train is no longer a labour of sweaty toil beside a raging furnace for an engine.

France has invested spectacularly in its railways to create a fast, efficient and accessible service that makes British travellers drool in envy.

Sgt Major Sarko says this modus operandi is financially unsustainable. But the moderate unions - such as the CFDT - say hang on a minute, why?

I'm personally happy with my lot and if my taxes help a former Comédie Française worker or a train driver ease into retirement at 50, then I say cool. But the politicians say non, non, non.

They claim it is an antique bubble which is costing the taxpayer nearly 4.5 billion euros a year.

François Chereque, head of the CFDT, says there'll be conflict in the style of Britain's 1979 Winter of Discontent if the right attempts to pierce it.

I'm no towering political historian but I just happen to remember that winter. Didn't it kill off what we used to know as socialism in Britain and bring in Margaret Thatcher for the start of 18 years of unadulterated Tory rule?

It's certainly been argued that the Labour party, which has been in power since 1997, is in fact just a slightly more diluted version of that Blue rinse.

Hello Ségolène. Hello Mr Hollande. It seems to me that the French socialist leaders ought to be geting the trade unon bigwigs round for beer and sandwiches to tell them to lay off the tough talk and reform with dignity because the good run, whether they like it or not, is up.

The same socialist leaders have seen to that through their spectacular incomptence in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Even since those losses there's been little coherence. They've chosen instead to parade their political paralysis with internecine battles for the leadership.

All they need now is unions playing into the Sgt Major's dream scenario in which he's able to perpetuate his portrayal of the dynamic mechanic changing a sclerotic machine.

I was living in France in 1995 when the then prime minister Alain Juppé had to abandon such reforms after three weeks of strikes.

La galère - the struggle of travelling to work - was the motor for many a conversation. Back in 1995 Jacques Chirac's best intentions as a new president foundered and Juppé was sacrificed. The protégé was later exposed as something of a crook but he might have been humane. They might have got a better deal.

There's been nothing so far in the Sgt Major's manoeuvres to suggest that he grasps compassion.

Any fractionally decent thinker on the centre left would have known 12 years ago that it was a Pyrrhic victory. That trouble was brewing for later.

And here we are at later. September 2007.

France on the verge of feeding on the socially divisive scraps of early eighties Britain.

Left, right and centre here should shed their ideologies and have an out of body politic experience.

They ought to have a forensic review of what happened in Britain because it was brutal, bloody and unpleasant.

And the irony is none of the players appear to have won.