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  • John Riceburg: France can get its protest on, why not Germany?


John Riceburg: France can get its protest on, why not Germany?

Yesterday, thousands of protesters filled the streets of Paris. In Berlin, the only thing making noise are the tourists. John wonders what's going on.

Image for John Riceburg: France can get its protest on, why not Germany?
Photo by Alessandro Prada (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s an old joke, variously attributed to Lenin or Stalin, about German aversion to protest. It goes like this: The Germans will never start a revolution because a revolution would require stepping on the grass.

In Paris, thousands of people were out on the streets to protest against the government’s plans to reform the labour law. Trash is piling up on the streets because the waste collectors are on strike. Half of trains aren’t running and lots of flights have been cancelled because engineers and pilots are refusing to work. Dockers are blocking the entrances to ports and even workers of nuclear plants have set tires ablaze. Above all, the youth are resisting tear gas and police batons.

It’s beautiful. Put some hardcore electro on top of the scenes, and Paris looks like a magnificent work of emancipatory art.

But I’m stuck in Berlin. Here, everyone was glued to their TV screens watching 22 millionaires kick a ball back and forth.

The French government is trying to implement reforms which would make it easier to fire workers. It’s all about increasing the bosses’ “flexibility”, i.e. destroying workers’ job security. They want to make it easier to hire and fire at will.

These exact same reforms were passed in Germany more than 10 years ago under Gerhard Schröder’s SPD government. His “Agenda 2010” introduced Hartz IV and made it way easier to hire people on a part-time and temporary basis. As a result, wages have stagnated. That’s a big part of Germany’s current economic miracle: Labour in Germany is really cheap.

Here’s an interesting but little-known fact. France’s unit labour costs are about 4 percent higher than Germany’s. So it’s not that French workers are militant because they earn less. Quite the opposite: French workers earn more because they are militant.

So all of these Germans waving flags and vomiting with pride about how well the economy is doing? They’re really just proud that they don’t make much money. As long as the “bread and circuses” (or in this case: beer and football matches) keep going, right?

But why are Germans so loathe to fight for their rights? I think this might be historical. Modern France was created by the glorious revolution of 1789 that swept away the ancien régime. The French people have had a number of successful revolutions. German revolutionaries, in contrast, have experienced nothing but defeats. The 1848 uprisings for democracy were crushed by Prussian militarism. The next attempt to topple the Kaiser and install a republic, in 1918, ended with a massacre of communist agitators like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. German revolutionaries never had any success.

Back in 1848, German revolutionary Friedrich Engels wrote: “If the Germans just had a bit of energy, pride and courage, we could proclaim in four weeks: Long live the German republic!” The 1848 revolution was crushed. A century and a half later, I – like Lenin (or perhaps Stalin) – am doubting Germans.