[Viewpoint] Disgruntled generation hits the streets

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[Viewpoint] Disgruntled generation hits the streets

Last weekend, I spotted a photograph on the international affairs page of a Korean newspaper. The caption of the photograph, taken in Paris, read: “A high school couple blocking riot police.”

Two high school students were lying in the middle of a street, hugging tightly, to protest pension reforms proposed by the French government.

The riot police seemed to be at a loss, not knowing whether to proceed as usual. It was unclear whether the young students had planned the protest or acted on a whim. Was it an act of resistance? An immature dare? Or an expression of a desire to break away from reality?

In France, protest is a national sport. To adults, demonstrating is a core right of France’s democracy. To the youth, it’s a rite of passage in becoming a responsible adult. French children grow up to become citizens, conscious of their civic rights. They learn it from their parents and teachers who go on strike and get involved in street rallies.

Most French people believe that even minors have the right to exercise freedom of speech, and they are not surprised to see teenagers participating in protests and rallies.

Victor Colombani, 16, is the leader of high school-aged protesters against the French government’s pension reforms. He is enrolled in the Henri IV High School in Paris, one of the most prestigious high schools in France. Since he was elected to head the National Union of Secondary School Students earlier this month, he has been busy rallying high school students around the nation, making protest plans and granting interview requests.

His father is a reporter at Le Monde, and his mother is also working as a journalist. According to the weekly newsmagazine L’Express, Victor’s parents do not oppose their son’s involvement in the protests as long as the activity does not affect his academic performance. Teachers at Henri IV say they allow Victor to exchange text messages related to the UNL activities during class.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy has staked his political career on the pension reforms, and it is an unavoidable choice for the future of France.

Basically, under the current pension system, a retiree does not receive the money that he contributed when he worked because it is a system in which the working generation’s contributions are used to support the retiring generation.

Because of the country’s low birthrate and high unemployment rate, the working population is diminishing while the average Frenchman’s lifespan is rising. It can only be expected that the pension fund is running low. Last year, the deficit in pension funds was 8.2 billion euros ($11.5 billion), which is expected to increase to 30 billion euros this year. Since the deficit has to be completely filled up by public finance, both the pension funds and the treasury will go bankrupt if the system is left as it is.

The gist of the pension reforms is to delay the minimum retirement age by two years from 60 to 62 and the age to start receiving pensions from 65 to 67. Therefore, if you wish to stay at your workplace until retirement and get a little more pension, you need to work two more years and wait an additional two years to enjoy the benefits. Workers are not thrilled about the changes. In short, they would have to work more and get less.

The reforms will bring a dramatic change to the principles of the French welfare system that has been maintained for more than 70 years since the 40-hour work week and paid holidays were introduced in 1936. Nevertheless, most French workers acknowledge the need to reform the pension system.

Yet, nationwide strikes and demonstrations have continued for seven weeks because the French are not satisfied with the way the government is pushing the reform. It is a complicated and sensitive issue that even the most considerate dialogue would have hard time with.

However, Sarkozy and the ruling party are railroading the reforms because the Union for a Popular Movement has a majority in the National Assembly and the Senate respectively.

While schools are on fall break now, regular classes were not in session at 312 high schools - or 7 percent of all high schools in France - because of walkouts or early dismissals last week. Students flooded the streets with signs denouncing Sarkozy and chanted slogans opposing pension reform. The police were taken by surprise as teenagers arranged protests over Twitter and Facebook.

While most students seem to enjoy rallies, some engage in illegal acts such as violence, pillaging and arson. Victor said: “We came out to the streets to express the anger and frustration that the young generation feels.”

He criticized the government, arguing that excessive involvement of public authority encouraged acts of violence.

If the demonstrations in 1968 that led France to the verge of a revolution were a cultural clash between generations, the ongoing friction is an economic clash between generations. It is a rebellion of a generation that is left with little hope. If its future is not filled with hope, France might end up with a more serious crisis than it faced in 1968.

The economy is a more pressing issue than culture. The government should not be gratified just because the pension reform bill was passed in the Senate.

They need to contemplate how to comfort the anger and frustration of young people. And Sarkozy’s government is not the only one in the world facing that particular challenge.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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