[Viewpoint] As alike as two peas in a podSouth Korean President Lee Myung-bak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are very much alike in style and wants. Because they want, think and seek similarly, they often clash on the global stage.
When the French president forwards the pawn of vintage wine, his South Korean counterpart responds with the pawn of traditional rice wine. The pawn of TGV is met with KTX. If Sarkozy shouts Napoleon, Lee will likely retort by touting General Yi Sun-shin.
Lee has probably been an eyesore for Sarkozy, especially when he flew to the Arab Emirates to snatch away a multibillion-dollar nuclear reactor project that Sarkozy has long campaigned for a French consortium.
The two countries have clashed wherever orders for nuclear reactor and high-speed railway projects have been put to a bid.
The two countries also wrangled over the hosting of the G-20 Summit. Sarkozy had to swallow his disappointment when Seoul was announced as the next host city at last year’s G-20 meeting. France will host the next G-20 meeting.
Sarkozy is currently enduring his most difficult time since taking office in 2007 with his approval rating at the lowest level for him, as fierce mass protests over his pension reform continue for the second month.
Usually, French protesters - old and young - swarm the streets, challenge riot police, cause power shortages and spread chaos with the nationwide strikes.
The protesters, who first marched onto the streets clad in festival costumes, turned violent. They threw firebombs as the controversial pension bill - which proposes to raise the retirement age to 62 from the current 60 by the year 2018 - is set to become law this week.
A glamorous banner says: “No To Pension Reform!”
The drama reminds of the protests that overtook France in May 1968. A liberal student movement against the authority and traditionalism unleashed a general strike across the country and almost toppled the Charles de Gaulle government.
Poets and philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre supported the liberal revolt against censorship and control. De Gaulle, fearing a civil war, agreed to hold general elections.
The recent protests in Paris emulate the 1968 model that started out in festive ambiance and later evolved into fierce resentment against elitism and authoritarian government.
The reform of social benefits drew complaints over the scandalous personal lifestyle of the president and his family members, with his 22-year-old son who had political aspirations and with the model/singer first lady more preoccupied with fashion and music than public affairs.
When Sarkozy defended his Labor Minister Eric Woerth against allegations of taking illegal political donations, calling him an “honest and competent man” and placed him in charge of the pension overhaul, the French tolerance instantly blew over to a “resistance” movement against the “obliviously lying and elite government.”
Sarkozy may be despondent over the strong public opposition to his pension reform and austerity measures when France’s fiscal deficit takes up 7.7 percent of its gross domestic product, well over the three-percent level advised by the EU Congress.
The national pension runs up a deficit of 30 billion euro ($41.8 billion) every year, accounting for the bulk of the fiscal deficit.
What the president is proposing to the people is to work two years more and live off pension two years less so that the future generation can get some of the social benefits.
Considering the radical cutback on pensions pursued by our liberal government in 2007, the proposals are actually very modest. The French public may have attempted to overturn the government if they saw our “pay-more-and-get-less” reform package.
France is known for its generous pension package, even though its retirement age is average in comparison to other European countries.
As the pension system is tied to various funds, coalitions and labor unions, the French governments have all failed in their reform attempts.
To avoid the setbacks of the past governments, the incumbent president bypassed the incremental step of building broad national public support and instead sought direct legislation.
The president believes he has the support of the silent majority. A poll showed that 53 percent of the population approved the reform and 70 percent believed it was necessary.
But the president is nonetheless criticized for opting out of other options such as a cut in defense spending and an increase in capital gains taxes.
The youth under the threat of losing jobs with unemployment hovering over 30 percent are particularly crying out in disdain over extending their low-pay work life for two extra years.
Seoul nights were lighted with vigil candles and Paris’ with burning cars.
The leadership in the two countries again showed similarities to the fact that their ambitious plans faced strong challenges at home.
The conservative leaders’ actions to endorse the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and pension reform were both reasonable, but it was their unilateral way of pushing them that irked the public.
Authoritarian ways can never win public support. President Lee is an expert for meeting strong opposition because of obliviousness and disconnection with the public.
He may have a word of advice, something like “stick it out” when he meets his French counterpart in Seoul for the G-20 meeting next month.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
by Song Ho-keun