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Why they burn cars in France & we protest peacefully

Written By: - Date published: 1:00 pm, October 22nd, 2010 - 31 comments
Categories: activism, democratic participation, International - Tags:

Vernon Small had an atypically disappointing piece in the Dom the other day that basically concluded everyone must be happy in New Zealand because the 20,000 protesters who turned out on October 20th did so peacefully and legally, whereas in France there is rioting in the streets.

I/S at No Right Turn explains why people have to take to the streets to get affect political change in 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.”

I would add to I/S’s comments that the French President is also elected for a very long term – 5 years, formerly 7 – and only one incumbent President has been defeated since the end of World War 2.

In New Zealand, we have the real opportunity to change the government within a reasonably short period of time. You can credit that to a long history of British elites who have realised that the best way to retain privilege is to mete out some power to the masses.

We don’t need to riot, we can kick out the government. The way things are going, we’ll be doing that within a year.

31 comments on “Why they burn cars in France & we protest peacefully ”

  1. In New Zealand, we have the real opportunity to change the government within a reasonably short period of time.

    There’s arguments to be made in favour of longer terms, so that politicians aren’t constantly in point-scoring election mode. With three years they get a one year honeymoon in which they can get away with murder because people are sick to death of politics after an election campaign and aren’t ready to re-engage. Then there’s about a year of “proper” governing. Then they spend the third year doling out pork to get elected, so everyone becomes blissed out on tax cuts or whatever bribe is being offered.

    I quite like the Australian Senate system (although it’s not unique to them) of longer terms but half-Senate elections, so the personnel changes every three years but not in its entirety.

    You can credit that to a long history of British elites who have realised that the best way to retain privilege is to mete out some power to the masses.

    And when they invented it, representative democracy via the Westminster system was the best way to give power to the masses, given the limitations (or non existence) of technology, widespread public education and a host of other things. But not any more. Our Parliamentarians don’t travel days by horse to the next session, nor do they wait a month to receive by messenger a missive from a constituent.

    We might have a better system than France, but it’s far from perfect.

    • And when they invented it, representative democracy via the Westminster system was the best way to give power to the masses

      Insofar as “the masses” meant a small clique of rich landowners. And even after the Great Reform Act, only one in six adult males could vote (increasing to 40% in 1867). It was the French and the Americans who gave power to the masses, not the British.

      • Yes sorry I/S I should have said “Parliamentary system” rather than “Westminster”. I was including Britain in that, but not exclusively.

        You’re right, the franchise was restricted… as it was in the US of course till the Civil War.

        But let’s not let my historical imprecision muddy my point – that representative democracy in its present form, regardless of who claims credit for it, has had its day.

        Fascinating analysis of why France is as it is, BTW. I knew the Cabinet were appointees, as in the US (who mostly seem to avoid car burnings, interestingly… there’s undoubtedly some Gallic passion at work) but didn’t know that “representatives” were elected in that way.

        • KJT

          No such thing as “representative democracy”. Democracy is rule by the people for the people.
          Not rule by 120 largely self selected incompetents who cannot get a real job.

          Though maybe, judging from today, some people in the news media who actually think about what they are saying.

    • Draco T Bastard 1.2

      I quite like the Australian Senate system (although it’s not unique to them) of longer terms but half-Senate elections, so the personnel changes every three years but not in its entirety.

      An interesting idea but I don’t think it could be worked with an MMP system.

      • Separate elections for half the electorate MPs + party vote, then at the next election the other half our MPs + a party vote? If a party’s party vote dropped then some list MPs would be gone in half a term, but too bad I say 😛

        List MPs would be safe (unless the party vote dropped) for a full term of two cycles, with the new blood coming in to fill vacancies created by an increase in the party vote, so I don’t see that as insurmountable, if we wanted to go that way.

    • felix 1.3

      “Then there’s about a year of “proper” governing. “

      Do let me know when that starts, won’t you Rex?

      • Any minute now… wait for it… oh hang on, we’ll just deal with Paula Bennett… okay we’re all ready… oh damn, Anne Tolley… righo that’s sorted now… oh FGS David Garrett now?! Where were we…

  2. insider 2

    Maybe they just burn cars becuase it is a tradition? A bit like 21sts.

  3. Chess Player 3

    Popular post, this one…

    • Vicky32 3.1

      Just wait, it’ll come!

      • I dunno that it will. Yesterday a similar post on protesting drew 10 comments (three from me!) and one on this bloody Hobbit posturing drew 512.

        Same is happening today, with 153 on yet another Hobbit post (as I write this) and bugger all on this.

        Yet te issues raised by Eddie yesterday and I/S today are about the way we do (or don’t do) things in NZ, how we bring about change, what might need to change in the national psyche if protest is to be more effective… all issues which, while more cerebral than where some Hollywood drivel gets made, have far greater long-term relevance.

        Bread and circuses, as they say…

        • wtl

          Somehow people have very strong opinions about the hobbit issue. While I can understand the RWNJs going overboard using the opportunity trying to hammer their point home (which comes down to ‘unions bad’!), won’t I don’t get is why everyone else is so caught up in the issue. I guess if we knew how knew the answer to that question, it would be simple to get large protests started 😉

          • Rex Widerstrom

            Elect short protest leaders with big ears?

          • lprent

            I’ve been surprised about the extent of interest in the issue myself. It has generated what must be a few thousand comments over the last weeks in a series of posts. Irishs post of a few days ago has more comments than any post done in this sites three years of history.

            But what is interesting to me is reading the stats of who is reading the post. Looking at the backend stats I usually look at pageviews vs unique page views. The former excludes as far as is possible people revisiting the same page.

            With the most popular posts over the last 3 years like the sprouts one on Paul Henry (top in unique page views in our history) or my one on Chris Carter (top in total page views) we usually get a ratio of around 1.5 or lower for page views / unique page views. This is pretty consistent amongst all of the posts with high page views and indicates a wide readership with a large number of people reading the posts and their associated comments.

            But Irishs post on the Hobbit dispute has a quite different profile. It has a ratio of 1.94 which is also unique amongst posts with a high page view (in fact I can’t see one in the top 50 that gets anywhere close to that). To push the average like that, it means compared to normal high volume post there was a quite small group repeatably viewing the post presumably to respond to other peoples comments.

            This is borne out when I look at the entrance paths to this post. A whopping 39% of all entrances to this post were from people already reading this post. The norm is usually more like 15%-20% even for high volume posts. The Chris Carter post mention above appears to be the next highest at 34% in recent times. In fact you have to go back to a guest post on the looney lord before finding a post with such a high re-entrance level. I guess it is just a sign of a divided partisan war in the comments section..

            Of most interest for me was that the server survived the onslaught in Irishs post without really bothering to get warm in terms of CPU usage. I’m sure that there were times when it slowed down because I could see a few 100% CPU spikes lasting for some seconds and a proliferation of worker threads and processes. But it didn’t get close to hitting resource limits for any duration. Bloody good thing as well, I’m right in the middle of the final weeks of the current project heading to the first deliverable. I don’t have time to fix the server…

          • Roflcopter

            There’s so much at stake here, for NZ as whole, this eclipses anything Chris Carter brings to the table.

            • lprent

              I’d agree with that comparison, but I’d also say that this isn’t that important an issue compared to others of more pressing concern. It is pretty strictly a sideshow. I’m only really concerned that it will be an expensive sideshow. To me it looks like a tax break negotiating stance that seems to be escalating out of control.

  4. Bill 4

    By the logic displayed in the post, the USSR should have been a 70 year riot fest and China a 24/7 firecracker.

    Unaccountability does not lead to an outpouring of expressions of grassroots democracy. Tradition, ongoing organising and a lack of ‘rightful’ fear do.

    Questions. Can the reactions of people in Greece be explained by the same logic? Was the blockading of major oil refineries in Britain a couple of years back because of the unaccountability of British MPs?

    Given the misplaced and widespread respect for authority in NZ, I’d suggest that protest in NZ is law abiding because NZ is comprised of a largely cowed populace. Sadly.

    • Vicky32 4.1

      The sheep may safely graze, is how I tend to see it, and I find it sadly frustrating, especially compared to what my Italian friends (those here in NZ, and those still in Italy) tell me,
      I remember the one who has been in NZ for 30+ years, talking about gleefully jumping on cars (though not burning them) when he was young back in Italy, and the like…

  5. Rich 5

    It comes down to how capitalism dodged Marx’s predictions of collapse by creating a large and comfortable middle class (which didn’t exist in 1867) that has the illusion of ownership and control. In NZ, this was done very successfully and we have a large number of the population that are deluded that they have an identity of interest with the ultra-rich.

    In France, that clearly hasn’t worked as well and people still see themselves as part of the working class, and hence rebel against having their rights taken away by the state.

    This is going to happen in more and more places as globalisation, resource shortage and climate change remove the ability of the ruling class to cushion the lot of the middle class.

  6. Jeremy Harris 6

    “The French government, in an effort to save money and lower taxes for the rich, wants to raise the retirement age.

    Or could it be that when people are living till 80 retiring at 60 is unrealistic…

    • Vicky32 6.1

      I don’t think it’s so much the retirement age issue, as the principle of the thing, changing the social contract so suddenly..

    • Bill 6.2

      Retirement was the deal. Work your way to freedom was the carrot…buy your ticket.

      Are you saying that freedom under market capitalism is unrealistic? Then what do you suggest we do? Dump freedom? Or dump market capitalism?

      • Carol 6.2.1

        Actually, I saw a young French woman protester being interviewed on AlJazeera NewsHour. She was asked why she was protesting. She said they were cutting pensions now, but it is only the beginning & they will cut more welfare state stuff next & that’s why she was protesting.

  7. Eddie,

    In a word bullocks and if you’d ever been to France for an extended period of time getting to know the French you would have known.

    The French have a special day called “jour de la Bastille” and it commemorates the French Revolution.
    I thought I didn’t want to bother clearing up your confused reasons for why the French revolt when the revolt so to speak but than Mike Whitney did it in such a spectacular way I did not want to deny you his insight.

    Why do the Kiwi’s demonstrate peacefully? Because like the Americans and the English they still live under the illusion government gives a crap and they are all still in for being part of the elite one day if the are obedient and work hard that is.

  8. Swampy 8

    As usual IS is light on the facts. Like most countries the President has to get a law through the elected House, which is like our House, politically accountable to the electorate, and this is the case in this situation. Claiming their senate is unaccountable is basically nonsense because New Zealand doesn’t even have this check on the power of the lower house that so many other countries have. In addition the Senate’s powers can be overridden by the Assembly.

    The truth about the situation in France is that their labour laws give their unions far too much power, the kind of power our unions used to have before National put in the Employment Contracts Act. This has fostered the involvement of hard core communism in the union movement there with extremist activism against the government which is anti democratic. France actually has such rigid labour laws blocking young people from getting into the workforce that they have high youth unemployment. I guess that there must have been a youth minimum wage policy like the silly one that Labour put in here.

    • Swampy,

      Did you know that the descendants to the French throne still lay claim to that throne. The same throne the “Rabble” threw them off of and their ancestors lost their heads over.
      I reckon you’d be clamouring for them eh?

      In France, you see, everybody knows they are just the rabble and that’s why they support those of them who take action.

      The French know what real Democracy is. It is to be vigilant against the ruling elite and if necessary get out the guillotine and take out the undemocratic bits and for some reason that always turns out to be the ruling elite.

      In France the “Rabble” (Or hardcore communists or whatever name you care to give them) take care of their own. They know nobody else does.

      Just some bits to relieve you of the notion that strong pro-rabble laws are bad: France has the highest productivity even though the have the strongest labour laws and the lowest pension age of the industrialist countries.

      Capcha: vacations. Yeah, and those too.

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