What follows is a translation of an interesting if pedantic editorial by Claude Imbert, an editor of Le Point, a French center-right news weekly.
Psychodrama of defiance
For a long time the French people, Europe's most pessimistic, has been brooding. The conflict around the retirement age has laid on another layer.
In this psychodrama of French depression, the unions first run after a restless base, then after a generally uneasy public opinion. And finally they go after youths uncertain about their future. It is a pitiable spectacle fanned by yellow journalism, that marker of crumbling societies.
As for the powers that be, driven by the threat of national bankruptcy, they also run after an inevitable austerity. It gives in bit by bit, bogged down by the Sarkophobie erupting from elite thinkers and street performers. In this free for all, the auctioneers of public opinion bid to stoke anger and chagrin. It's a great uproar, with rioters and slogan. May of 1968 was about a Utopia of freedom, while October 2010 is about an egalitarian Utopia (the "rich" will pay). It's the illusion that brought down the 20th century!
A vice has invaded French democracy, that of the power of the street over the power of the vote. In the marchers' faulty accounting, a major doctrine opposes popular "legitimacy" to the legality of an elected power. And--sound the anarchist drums!--the real country vs. the legal country. Despite the short five-year presidential tenure, some sorcerors' apprentices, with their throats full of "the people", gargle out a sort of sovereign call that would abolish the decisions ratified by the vote. So is there only one French People, that of the strikers? That which empties the gas tanks and dreams of a national economic coma? That of the submission of the national will to the whim of a fever of opinion? Well then! Behind that illusion, adventure waits in the wings.
Some clever minds suggest sanctimoniously the use of the referendum. Aside from the fact that there are no texts to regulate referenda in France, it's obvious that a referendum on raising the retirement age would work on a Manichean yes or no vote. Why? Because the majority of those who oppose reform themselves proclaim the need for a reform, just a different one... Which one? How can we subject a complex debate to a simple "yes or no"? If Parliament exists, with its two chambers that we've just strengthened even more, it's so that the people give it the means and capacities to compare, discuss, and amend the projects of the Executive.
Neither can we forget the French tendency to use referenda not to respond to the question posed but rather to vote for or against the power in place. In the midst of an antireformist fervor, the French are sure to vote not like the Swiss who, when faced with questions about retirement and medical insurance, reject demagogery. No, the French would vote against Sarkozy. So goodbye reform, hello abyss!
This worrisome and increasingly relevant debate about the legitimacy of the legal power brings out an unexpected twist, that of the anarchic empire of opinion. Legal power only can breathe with the oxygen of confidence in institutions. Researchers such as Dominique Schnapper are looking to find the roots of a "society of generalized defiance" among the French. And the signs of a dangerous tension in the democratic equilibrium.
On one hand, citizens increasingly use the critical faculties of an increasing individualism. On the other hand, in our complex scientific society, citizens are more and more dependent on and influenced by other people. Such is the legislative, administrative, economic, and financial complexity of developed democracies.
Hence in his critical exuberance, the citizen develops the right to judge everything for himself, even as he masters less and less the multiple and complex mechanisms of the social machinery. This is a perilous contradiction that was foreseen by all the early visionaries of democracy. On the one hand there is the temptation to radically reject authority, and on the other hand there is the pressure of an ill-understand collective interest. This public interest is also degraded by the mediocrity or the exhibitionism of those who are supposed to serve it.
In the textbook case of retirement, the individual, freed from the trust normally given to the elected authority, refuses to accept mathematical evidence of the distribution mechanism. But this is above all because his trust in politicians, economists, judges, and the media continually erodes. But trust is the democratic foundation of the social and national order. The elected should be worthy of trust. Citizens should not deny them that trust in a fit of anger. Democracy is a fragile privilege of civilization: it is earned.