Mar 1 1996

Let Them Eat Baguettes

U.S. Press Teaches Austerity to French Strikers

For three and a half weeks last December, hundreds of thousands of workers and students took to the streets all over France.

Thousands of nonunion workers and citizens joined the protests against government “austerity” proposals that would slash benefits, increase health care costs and cut funding for education. Something important was happening, but the mainstream U.S. media, constrained by their own assumptions about labor action and economics, couldn’t capture it.

Instead, corporate-owned media forced the remarkable events into their standard “strike story”: Time magazine (12/25/95) complained that strikers were “snarling traffic, fraying tempers, souring the crucial pre-Christmas shopping season and threatening to choke the sputtering French economy.” The New York Times, meanwhile, revealed its reporters’ priorities with headlines like Dec. 7’s “Paris Slows To a Crawl, But Still Has Baguettes.”

Along with the expected fixation on Parisians forced “to walk, bicycle, hitchhike and even rollerskate to work” (New York Times, 12/2/95), press accounts cast the issues of the strike in language all too familiar to U.S. workers. French Prime Minister Alain Juppe wanted merely to “tighten pension schemes” and “streamline the heavily indebted state-owned railways,” the San Francisco Chronicle (12/21/95) informed readers; “union bosses,” on the other hand, “have never put forth any credible suggestions of their own.”

Juppe’s “firmness” was a preeminent concern for mainstream journalists–as in, “As Prime Minister Juppe Holds Firm on Social Reform, the Unions Call for More Crippling Strikes” (Time, 12/18/95). Time seemed particularly preoccupied with the prime minister’s machismo quotient, predicting a “final, humiliating retreat” if he backed down (12/25/95).

In contrast to the firm Juppe, French union members were portrayed as greedy and lazy, with unrealistic expectations. Public sector workers were “coddled” (Time, 12/11/95), with “luxuriant” benefits (Newsweek, 12/11/95) and “cushy social programs” (Business Week, 12/25/95).

But in place of any real economic argument about why, for example, universal health care is a “luxury” that ought to be cut, U.S. readers got superficial analysis like that of the New York Times‘ Craig Whitney (12/10/95), who claimed simply that the French have “been using credit to pay for the good life for a long time, and suddenly the bills are all coming due.”

Disintegrating Europe

The mainstream press frequently accused strikers of trying to wreck the economy. But a tough line against the French

protesters seemed especially urgent for mainstream pundits, since these workers were not just “souring” the shopping season, but actually endangering the future of all of Europe. If protests force the government to alter its plans for drastic cuts in social spending, report after report warned, France won’t meet the strict budgetary requirements for the creation of a common European currency by 1999.

“Without the participation of France,” according to Business Week (12/18/95), “monetary union will collapse–and so will hopes for a wider European integration.” Like many of these ominous accounts, Business Week neglected to tell readers that France is not alone; except for Luxembourg and Germany, no European country meets the common-currency requirements.

Pointing out that most countries don’t fit the budget demands imposed by European Union leaders might have inspired questions about the real purpose of those demands: Are they intended to unify Europe, or reshape it according to an elite agenda? But while acknowledging its “unpopularity”–or, in the L.A. Times‘ terms (1/1/96), the “stiff resistance from Europeans wedded to worker perks”–most reporters never questioned the necessity of drastic social spending cuts.

Indeed, the somewhat bizarre assumption that freezing wages, raising the cost of education and eliminating guaranteed healthcare would ultimately lead to prosperity for all was an article of faith for most journalists. If only the workers understood that the government had their best interests at heart: The New York Times‘ Whitney (12/31/95) described the crisis as “a struggle that has come to be viewed as a test of whether French workers can ever be brought to accept the idea that sacrificing a high

standard of living may be necessary to preserve jobs.”

The People as Obstacle

With the needs of the market front and center, the needs and sentiments of the public often seemed a mere afterthought in the media discussion. Time (12/11/95) was not the only outlet to use coverage of France to express the disturbingly anti-democratic idea that the job of national leaders is not to listen to the people, but to “persuade” them “to accept…sacrifices.” The New York Times (12/28/95) spoke of public outrage over abandoned social programs as an “obstacle” for Europe’s leaders to overcome, and Business Week (12/18/95) openly advised that “Paris must muscle through its budget cuts fast.”

With the human costs of such “muscle” left out of their equation, U.S. reporters were at a loss to explain why, while they were running headlines about “The Strikes That Stole Christmas” (New York Times, 12/24/95), opinion polls showed that the majority of the French public supported the protesters. While not digging too deeply for the reasons, journalists at least admitted their confusion: The New York Times‘ Youssef Ibrahim (12/13/95), for example, described “a baffling sympathy among the public at large, despite the considerable discomfort the strikes have caused.”

Popular support for the protesters didn’t baffle U.S. labor advocates, whose opinions were largely missing from the

mainstream press, but appeared in alternative media coverage. Elaine Bernard of the Harvard Trade Union Program told the radio show CounterSpin (12/15/95) that, as with recent similar protests in Belgium and Ontario, the French strikes’ popularity showed that “in fact, the labor movement is speaking for the majority.”

Bernard argued that what’s happening in France is directly related to what’s happening right here in the United States (although what’s called “austerity” or “structural adjustment” abroad may be called “shrinking government” at home). U.S. workers, she said, could draw some inspiration from seeing “people standing up in a very powerful way to the neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation and ‘free trade.'”

Beyond their specific concerns about pensions and benefits, Bernard concluded, French workers “are saying we have created a certain standard of living and there is a social contract here, and we’re not prepared to let business and government break it. We’re prepared to go into the streets to prevent that.”

That’s a pretty potent message. No wonder the establishment press in the U.S. didn’t want to deliver it.

Labor Media Watch is a joint project of FAIR and the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, CUNY.