James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mocking the French for getting it right

Everything the American public has been told by the corporate news media about the anti-austerity uprisings in France, England and other European countries is a lie.

The picture we've been given by our big newspapers, magazines and television – as always, especially television – is as phony as a photograph showing Sarah Palin sitting on Barack Obama's lap and nibbling his ear. It's a picture so false as to make Fox News domestic political coverage look fair and objective by comparison.

This is important. The real story hidden by the fakery is enormously important to the people of the United States.

If Americans knew what the protests really are about, and what actually is being done by the governments of France and England, and Greece and Spain and other countries, some, at least, would have a different understanding of what is being done here to place total economic power into the hands of the very rich. The protests would take on an aspect 180 degrees from what most Americans now believe of them.

The focus has been on France, because that presents the easiest target in this country for false coverage.

We've been told over and over by everybody from Fox to the New York Times that the blockades and shouting and marches in France are all about the “fact” that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his gang want to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Snotty coverage implies, or flatly states, that the lazy, sex-loving, low-producing French people simply are not willing to work to age 62, that they want to have their six-week summer vacations and long weekends and retire with full, abundant pensions at 60. Virtually all of our corporate media states, or strongly implies, that those silly French people just can't or won't grasp economic realities which require “belt tightening” and major reductions in spending for social programs in order to save their national economy from collapse.

The picture is akin to the stereotype of listless, music-lovin' “darkies” once common to the American press, and it is no more accurate.

Descriptions of the French economic problems are equally fictional, as false as the stories Americans have been told for the past year and a half or so about our own economic situation.

First: The French are rightfully angry about a hell of a lot more than “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.” But even just on the retirement question, what we've been told is false. Most of the French don't, as implied, now get to retire with “full benefits” at age 60.

French law allows retirement at that age with some pension benefits, but the actual amount of pension one receives depends on how many payments one has made into the retirement system, which means, in effect, how long one has worked. Sarkozy and crew are raising the number of years one must work to retire with full pension from 40 to 43, and they obviously intend to go on increasing that number.

Most French people already must work to 62 or even 65 or older to get full government retirement benefits. The new level will be higher, with more raises in retirement age to come.

Remember, most people don't start working full time at 16 or 18 or even 22 any more. To be fully and well employed in France, as here, one has to get an education or some sort of advanced training, and then wiggle into a career or long-time job path, which takes time.

“Full” retirement benefits, not incidentally, amount to about 40 percent of one's pay at the time of retirement. On its own, that does not provide a life of ease for people in France any more than it does here.

A more complete explanation of the retirement situation, and what the French are really angry about, is in a very good piece on http://www.counterpunch.org by Diana Johnstone. She is the author of many articles and books on European politics and a graduate of my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. She has lived and worked in Europe much of her life.

Very briefly -- in my view, not Johnstone's -- Sarkozy is France's Ronald Reagan, with strong overtones of George W. Bush. He is taking his country down the road to a new Gilded Age. He campaigned on a theme of improving the economy for all the French but, like Reagan and Bush, what he's really about is giving as much power and as much of the country's wealth as possible to the already super-rich at the expense of the average French citizen.

Like Bush, especially, his inner circle is full of self-enriching egoists who seem to devote themselves mainly to finding extremely high-paying “positions” for their wives, offspring and cronies. Some of them are known for personal tax dodging on a jaw-dropping scale.

As here, the French people have had their pockets picked in order to replenish and expand the purses of the very wealthy people who contributed most powerfully to that country's and the world's economic distress. There, as here, there has been no real attempt to hold any of the financial finaglers and outright frauds responsible for their actions.

The major difference between France and the United States in these circumstances is that many of the French, better educated than average Americans and with a far greater understanding of basic economics, know that they're getting screwed and, even more importantly, they know who's doing the screwing.

In America we get Tea Parties and such -– gangs of the terminally ignorant howling after “liberals” and working mightily on behalf of rich right wingers such as the Koch brothers to bring about their own economic and political ruin.

In France, a substantial number of the people know they are the targets in a class war designed to put the wealth and the political power of the nation entirely into the hands of a tiny minority who already have most of the wealth and a great deal of the political power.

That demonstrates, I think, that the dumbing down of the public education system, long a major part of the right wing crusade in this country, is farther along here than in Europe. European oligarchs also are behind in pricing the poor and middle class out of higher education.

(An oligarchy, and corporate moguls, most emphatically do not want an educated public; they want a public trained for jobs, but with little capacity for critical thought beyond solving small on-the-job problems.)

What's going on in Britain and, to varying degrees, elsewhere in Europe is part of the same movement under way here and in France. The British far right, often less willing to hide itself behind populist fiction than American and continental right wing extremists, is more openly stomping on the general public and grabbing its worldly goods for the very rich. If the British oligarchs were less obvious, they may not have triggered the degree of anger they now face from some of the British public, which seems to be little, if any, brighter than our own.

That's just a guess on my part, based on what I see in reading the news coverage we don't get from our own “media.” I've spent some time in England, but not for quite awhile, and I make no claim to really knowing the British.

You'll note that American news and commentary about the situation in Britain is greatly different from news and commentary on France's upheavals. For reasons I have never fully understood, Americans love to take a superior attitude to the French, to belittle them and to pretend they are considerably less than they are. For example, the fact that French workers are more productive than American workers on an hour by hour, week by week basis, as shown by various productivity studies, would horrify most Americans -- if they could bring themselves to accept the demonstrable truth.

Anyway, that attitude makes it easy for our media, politicians and corporate leaders to sell this country on the idea that the French are just being their usual silly selves in protesting government moves designed to weaken their economic standing and shift more power to the money elite.

My local birdcage liner, the Minneapolis Star Tribune (known in recent years to many of my news-savvy friends and older journalists as the Star Trivia) has carried not only the inaccurate “news” coverage but a couple of commentaries specifically created to trivialize the fight of French against big buck elitists.

One was an editorial from the Wall Street Journal, which always can be counted on to scorn the interests of the general public anywhere. That piece of trash took the standard corporate line that the French economy –- and, indeed, all economies -– soon will crash if working people don't give up their “entitlements” (such as pensions, health care and other trivial luxuries) and allow the rich to determine what they can “afford.” It's attitude was belittling in the extreme.

The other was a piece by one of the paper's fluff columnists, a sort of surrogate shopping wife who specializes in stroking the egos of those whose lives are devoted to trivial pursuits. She said she lived in France for a while when she was in her 20s. Demonstrating a complete absence of knowledge of what the fight really is about, her take was that the French are quaint in their insistence on fighting pension cuts because “a way of life is at stake here, including long vacations and even longer lives of retirement freed from having to work at all.”

This popsy also declared her love of “scrumptious” France and went on for some time describing fictional French attitudes that essentially created a picture of a country populated by good natured, charming but self-centered children. Just like those darkies.

(To be fair, her male counterpart is equally trivial.)

She may have lived in France, but she was a suburban American tourist the whole time, apparently. Her fictional, cute France is nothing like the reality as I've seen it.

But her take is common in this country. Millions of Americans seem unaware of the fact the French people are normal human beings who study, work, love, live, sometimes fight and die just like real human beings. As I said, the fiction helps the economic elite trivialize the very real struggle of at least some of the French people to save their economic and political system.

This is not just a French fight, of course. Nor an English fight. Nor a problem faced just by the people of Greece and/or Spain.

The corporate elite is international to a degree it has never been before. The banks, other financial institutions and most major industries are fully international. A board chairman of one company may be French, another Italian and another American by birth. Those national designations mean nothing any more, other than a current place of principal residence. The CEOs anchor their $30 million yachts in the same harbors at the same seasons, and they sleep in each other's beds.

Sadly, we won't see Americans taking to the streets to protect their way of life. Those we do see in the street are marching on behalf of the very people who are pushing us back to a life of economic servitude.