The headlines are ablaze with reports of strikes in France, and the strikes are getting increasingly intense. As the date arrived for the Senate to vote on the legislation to increase the retirement age (the lower house, the National Assembly, already had passed it), things began coming to a head. Protesters blockaded Marseille’s airport and strikers shut down fuel depots which in turn caused a quarter of the nation’s gas stations to run out of fuel. More young people joined the fray, barricading high schools and taking to the streets nationwide.
Some of them were masked and hooded, raising fears of a replay of the banlieue youth riots back in November 2005 in which 10,000 cars were burned. Vehicles have been set on fire and overturned. Police turned to teargas and helicopters to try and control the situation as the Senate vote loomed (update: the Senate passed the legislation on Friday October 22, but the unions, students and other protesters say their direct actions will continue).
A couple of weeks ago, when I was in Paris, things were not quite this heated but you could feel the momentum building, could see that the kindling was piling up. I witnessed one protest of sorts; I was standing on a street corner, on a beautifully sunny fall day in Paris, when all of a sudden the boulevard was filled with hundreds of rollerbladers! They whisked by in earnest, chanting slogans, some of them were dressed in colorful wigs, brightly painted faces, theatrical props and costumes. Their protest didn’t feel threatening, in fact the mood mostly was festive. It was kind of like watching a Critical Mass bicycle ride in San Francisco or other US cities. The faces of the protesters reflected a mixture of joy and determination, but the carnival atmosphere in no way diminished the seriousness of their challenge to the political authorities. The street was paralyzed and motorists were honking their horns.
The media has been reporting that the French are protesting the increase of their retirement age from 60 to 62, but this is only part of the proposed legislation. It also raises the age for retirement with FULL benefits from 65 to 67. Most of the French retiring early do so with only partial benefits. This is an important distinction, yet most media outlets have stubbornly refused to report it. It seems that they have decided that the French are whiners and complainers — come on, is 62 years old for retirement really such a bad deal? — and want their news audiences to think that too. But that’s not the entire story, many French effectively are having their retirement age increased to 67, not 62 as widely reported. It’s amazing to me that the media can’t get this simple distinction right. Perhaps they don’t want to.
Anyway, as I was standing on the street corner watching this critical mass of rollerbladers, I saw a few of them stop at a nearby Tabac for a quick drink. I decided to talk to them and crossed the street to do so. They were quite friendly, the English of one of them sufficient to carry on a conversation to which the others added a few words and an occasional head nod. Dressed in his bright red striped lycra, he looked to be in his 20s and responded to my questions with replies that perhaps could best be described as “protest normal,” mostly unremarkable and unsurprising. But then he said something that grabbed my attention. He said it after he began asking me about the situation in the U.S., which I quickly summarized – workers’ wages flat for two decades, the wealthy pocketing a greater share of national wealth, 50 million Americans without health care (nearly the same as the population of France), 45 million – and 20 percent of children – living below the poverty line, and great frustration and anger over all this as well as over the bailout of the banks that are back to making handsome profits even as the rest of the country remains stuck.
He translated into French for the others, and they all shook their heads. That’s when the one with the accented English blurted out, “Where are you Americans? Why aren’t Americans out in the streets? If Americans are angry, why aren’t they out in the streets like we are?” He said something quickly to his comrades in French, then reverted back to English. “It’s like Americans have gone to sleep or something. You used to have many protests.”
I explained that most of the protests over what is going on are coming from the right — from the Tea Party movement, Fox News, Glenn Beck’s protest at the Lincoln Memorial. But that even those are quite small, for the most part. There is no mass movement in the U.S. protesting the theft of their country, i.e. the massive transfers of wealth from working people to the wealthy. I explained how the left mostly has been neutralized because it is afraid to appear to be anti-President Obama. They mostly are putting their effort into getting Democrats reelected on November 2 and retaining Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. In any case, the left has not mobilized in any major way since the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. Neither the Iraq invasion nor the presidential election debacle in Florida in 2000 inspired mass protests on the left.
They looked grim and shook their heads. They said something back and forth in French. It was time for them to roll on and we said our goodbyes. But it left me walking down the street, muttering to myself, “Yes, where is the American left?” Not only is it mostly quiet, it’s pretty fractured, not necessarily into warring camps but each into its own kaffeeklatsch comfort zone. You have the labor left, the limousine liberal left, the Huffington Post left, the rainbow/ethnic minority left, the green left, all of these and more calling themselves “progressive” today. They flexed their muscles, or so they thought, in pushing Barack Obama pass Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary and then past John McCain into the Oval Office. Those were heady days, never was it better than during the interregnum between that magnificent election — celebrated around the world — and the swearing-in ceremony of the first black president in US history. It was like Obama was president of the planet during those early days, so much was he regarded as a transformative figure not seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But the progressive left forgot the crucial words that FDR told labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph when he met with the president and urged him to take action against discrimination. “I agree with you,” said President Roosevelt. “Now go out and make me do it.”
The left didn’t mobilize to make Obama do anything. Nor did it mobilize to pressure any of the foot dragging conservative/Blue Dog Democrats. Instead, the left sat back and waited for Obama — who was viewed as a kind of savior — to do it. And when all-too-human Obama was hit with the buzzsaw of Republican filibusters in the Senate — turning a majority body into a near-super majority legislature where 60 out of 100 votes is needed instead of 51 to get anything done — that was the formula for a mediocre first two years.
Of course Democrats are trying to say they had a magnificent two years — health care reform, financial reregulation, preventing a depression. But it’s pretty easy to argue just the opposite, that the first two years are a disappointment — health care reform, financial reregulation, preventing a depression by handing the keys to the treasury to the banks and financial industry CEOs. Health care and financial regulation reform both became watered down because President Obama couldn’t find 60 votes in the Senate to tackle the biggest challenges — “too big to fail” in terms of financial reregulation, and “cost control” when it comes to health care. Truth be told, his health care reform started us in the right direction but does not take us even half way there. It was a major step — sort of — toward providing universal coverage, but still to come is reining in costs. To accomplish that will require corralling for-profit healthcare corporations, which will be much more difficult to do than passing a law which simplistically mandated that all Americans must buy health care by 2014.Given the outrageous premiums that these greedy, gouging healthcare corporations charge, that’s like trying to end homelessness by mandating that everyone must buy a home.
In addition, there has been little accomplishment on climate change (again, Obama did not have 60 votes to move forward with the House bill already passed, and as a result went to the Copenhagen summit empty-handed, leaving the Europeans looking like a jilted bride at the altar). And of course looming out there is Afghanistan/Iraq/Gitmo, and the ongoing blowback of American foreign policy.
With an election approaching, it’s understandable why “the left” has had to hold its nose, drink the Kool-Aid and try to reelect Democrats. But in the words of that famous American and former slave, Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand, never did and never will.” The left has given Obama a free pass and it seems to me that it hasn’t helped the left or Obama. And it hasn’t provided a clear answer to that poignant question posed by one French rollerblader: “Where are you Americans?” Yes indeed, where are we?
Republished with the author’s permission from the Washington Monthly.