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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Oh France!


Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Oh France!

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Will Americans follow the French example of mass civil unrest? – Paul Joseph Watson
Recent developments in France have proven very instructive. As Barbadians we have a mentality that the solutions to our problems reside elsewhere; that is, somewhere “over in away”. This is so much a part of our psyche that even our policymakers look to overseas consultants and professors to come into Barbados to show us the way out of our difficulties, whether those problems are in agriculture, the health sector, in the economy or in education.
The reality is that many of the problems with which the developed world is grappling we have already solved without even “batting an eyelid”, causing social unrest or dislocation.
Both the print and electronic media across Europe have been inundated with news of the social upheavals that have engulfed not only Paris but have spread to other major cities, including Marseilles and Lille in the North of France.
An estimated one million protesters filled the streets to try to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to drop his plan to raise the retirement age two years to 62, while strikes also disrupted airports, train stations and schools for the second time this month.
The protest movement has been a big test for Sarkozy who, like other European leaders, has struggled to convince his country of the need for cost-cutting and scaling back generous social benefits after the Greek debt crisis scared markets and sapped confidence in the entire 16-nation euro currency.
France’s powerful unions consider retirement at 60 to be a near-sacred right, and more than 230 demonstrations stretched across the country. In fact the passion and sheer determination of the protesters seem to be driven by the view that their foreparents fought for retirement at sixty and as such it is a “sacred cow” that cannot be touched.
Protesters are counting on people power to pressure the government to back down on its plan to up the retirement age, with a second round of strikes expected to hobble public transport, air traffic and schools across France. Further massive strike action has been called as refinery strikes and fuel blockades threaten to paralyse the country. It is estimated that about 25 per cent of France’s service stations still have no fuel. Fifty-one oil tankers lie awaiting off the coast and massive shortages have been caused by strikes at the countries twelve refineries. In spite of the government’s intransigence, the unions are “ramping up” the pressure.
Not even the threat of a terrorist attack has proven adequate to dissuade the protesters.
In recent days top officials have said repeatedly that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high, a highly unusual warning in France. But protesters seemed unworried (Angela Doland, Associated Press Writer).
The conservative government insists it must raise the retirement age so the money-losing pension system can break even by 2018.
President Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want full retirement benefits.
Labour Minister Eric Woerth noted: “If we don’t reform the retirement system then we’ll endanger the entire pension system.” Even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. Neighbouring Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67. The United States Social Security system is also gradually raising its retirement age to 67.
But we in Barbados can teach the French how to reform the pension scheme and adjust the retirement age without causing social upheaval. Effective January 1, 2003, a flexible NIS retirement age was introduced. As a consequence of the amendment, in due course persons may retire on an NIS pension at any age between sixty and seventy years. After 2005 the pensionable age was increased by six months every four years starting January 1, until it reaches sixty-seven in 2018 (www.nis.gov.bb/index_.cfm?).
To have achieved this kind of pension reform without “even a fowl cock crowing” was no mean achievement for a small developing country that could least afford any social dislocation. It is against this backdrop that I congratulate the NIS board.
Oh France, Barbade peut en effet vous apprendre une chose ou deux! That is to say: little Barbados can indeed teach you a thing or two.
• Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator; email [email protected]

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