First, some government ministers were caught playing fast and loose with taxpayer money and influence peddling. Then the French soccer team proved better at bickering than scoring at the World Cup tournament in South Africa. And perhaps worst of all for this leisure-minded country, President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to make workers stay on the job longer before retirement.
It was in this depressed and increasingly sour political atmosphere that hundreds of thousands of striking workers took to the streets in nationwide protests Thursday to complain of government callousness and decry Sarkozy’s plans to push back the retirement age from 60 to 62.
For the marchers, the stakes are high. Many workers have come to regard retiring at 60 as an inalienable guarantee of well-being since the benefit was added to France’s social protection system 27 years ago under President François Mitterrand and his Socialist Party. But the protests had a broader political theme, reflecting outrage over mini-scandals that have raised questions about the judgment of some of Sarkozy’s ministers in a time of scarcity and debt.
For instance, one junior minister charged taxpayers $15,000 for fancy Cuban cigars. Revelations of such peccadilloes have embarrassed Sarkozy as he repeatedly calls on the French to make sacrifices to overcome the global economic crisis and reduce his government’s ballooning deficit.
“The ministers are the ones who should be working more,” read a banner carried by protesters in Lyon, one of more than 100 communities in which demonstrators marched.
In addition, the country has sunk into a spell of national blues after the ridicule heaped on its backbiting soccer team. The team’s antics at the World Cup were treated back home as an affront to national honor; a front-page editorial in the influential Le Monde newspaper compared it to the country’s collapse in the face of German occupation troops in 1940.
“You have tarnished the image of France,” Health and Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she told the disgraced players during a den-mother moment in the locker room Tuesday, shortly before they were eliminated from competition by a loss to South Africa.
Ah, the ignominy.
But don’t laugh too hard. The Dems are getting their way, and we’re well on our way to becoming the next France.
Sing it, Elton!