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France's young contrarian
A 22-year-old leads the revolt against strike-addled culture
Matt Welch
National Post
CREDIT: Claire Lim
Sabine Herold, outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, led an anti-union rally in France that attracted 80,000 people.

Most French people devote their summers to quintessentially Gallic pursuits: celebrating Bastille Day, using up some of their minimum five-week vacation time and going on the occasional strike.

But Sabine Herold, to put it mildly, is not your typical French person. Herold, the 22-year-old leader of Liberté, j'écris ton nom (Freedom, I write your name), has in the past few months emerged as the popular and highly photogenic leader of -- zut! -- a burgeoning pro-market, pro-American counterculture in France. Compared in the panting British press to Joan of Arc, Brigitte Bardot (!) and even Margaret Thatcher, she represents something French politics hasn't seen in years: a public figure eager to take on the country's endlessly striking unions.

It is startling to hear any Parisienne, let alone a college student, drop references to Friedrich von Hayek in casual conversation, describe Communists as "disgusting," or lead pro-war demonstrations in front of the U.S. embassy.

Herold is fond of issuing heretical statements guaranteed to make any good fonctionnaire's skin crawl, such as: "I think you have no legitimacy [as a politician] if you've never worked. I don't want to be a kind of apparatchik.... I think if you're not able to do things for yourself, or show that you can help a company, how can you help the state?"

She supports gay marriage and legalizing pot, reputedly whips up a mean five-course meal and uses the word "libertarian" as a high compliment.

Still, no amount of contrarian spunk could have prepared Herold for this past summer. On June 15, in the midst of crippling transportation and education strikes against Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's plan to reform France's ailing pension system, Herold led an anti-union rally that shocked her and the rest of the country by drawing 80,000 angry anti-protester protesters.

In a realm whose coin is the street demonstration, this was reportedly the largest right-of-centre protest since 1984, giving some optimists reason to declare it a turning point in public attitudes toward the Never-Ending Strike.

"We were so surprised to see all these people who just came to say that they were fed up with the unions and fed up with the strikes," Herold told me, still amazed weeks later at the response.

When the pension-reform strikes subsequently fizzled, Herold was immediately feted by Fleet Street, which embraced Herold long before most of the French press even noticed her. The Daily Telegraph proprietor (and former National Post owner) Conrad Black brought the Young Right Hope across the Channel for a whirlwind tour of meet-and-greets with the U.K.'s leading Tories. (Lady Thatcher, regrettably, cancelled at the last minute to attend to her dying husband.)

Some of the most prominent French politicians soon followed suit, eager to learn more about Herold's dynamic young organization.

Oh, and she also found time this summer to graduate from the elite Institut d'Etudes Politiques, study for entrance exams to get into business school, and celebrate her 22nd birthday.

"It's been really, really weird," she says, laughing.

Herold laughs easily and often. And, just maybe, the long-silent French majority that she says shares her views finally has a reason to crack a wary smile of its own: For the first time in memory, they have an influential ally in Prime Minister Raffarin. "He's a libertarian," Herold insists, in excellent, accented English. "The problem is that in his government he has too many other people more conservative, so he can't have a real libertarian policy."

The anti-strike revolt has given Raffarin extra fibre, by most accounts. "The government has stood firm on pension reform," the International Herald-Tribune reported in July, citing Herold's protests. "Now, analysts say, it may be emboldened to push for further economic changes, such as stepped-up privatization of state-owned companies, and efforts to improve the workings of the labour market. Under discussion are reductions in the social security charges levied on employers, which have already been cut back sharply in recent years for some workers."

As important, "public opinion has changed," according to a recent Economist magazine. "In France, a new realism is taking hold: the word 'privatization' has passed from unmentionable to commonplace.... A recent poll suggested that 51% of French people are in favour of the government continuing with reform."

Joshua Livestro, writing in TechCentralStation.com last month, interpreted Herold's street victory as "a turning point not just in the political struggle over pensions reform in France, but also in the relationship between trade unions and citizens. The Rheinland system of centralized collective bargaining seems destined for a radical overhaul. In time, the state of the European Union may be all the stronger for it."

If that sounds overly ambitious, well so is Sabine. Her long-term goals are to chip away at the ossified paternalism in French and European governance, convince a nation that treasures its generous safety net that it simply can't afford it, and confront an entrenched culture that views noisome public sector strikes as the preferred method for conflict resolution.

"It's annoying," Herold says, "because in France, we start striking, and then we go to negotiate. It would be so much more interesting to go negotiate first, and then if nothing happens, just go on strike. I don't know, maybe it's an old love of the Revolution, or that people missed World War II and they want to be in another kind of Resistance."

So how did the elite, conformist French education system produce such a cheery iconoclast? Herold's mother is a schoolteacher and her father is a professor from a village near the northern Champagne-producing city of Reims. Their child says she was "almost apolitical" upon arriving at her "mostly left-wing" university in Paris.

She attributes her political evolution to a professor here, a student there, and a lot of reading: Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville and her beloved Hayek. She joined Liberté, j'écris ton nom two years ago, discovering some intellectual soul mates, but mostly her fellow students considered her "kind of a lost cause."

"Most of the young people in France think that nice people should be left-wing," Herold says, "since we've all been to the same kind of schools, which are state schools, and then in the media there's only one way of thinking."

Those Americans who have been busy these last months calling Sabine's countrymen "weasels" are surely familiar with the notion that the top-down French society tends to produce monochromatic worldviews at odds with the White House. Herold, who considers herself a strong patriot, bristles at the tension, but lays much of the blame on the French government's anti-war policies and the broad-based anti-Yankee sentiment behind it.

"I think one of the big problems in France is that we are anti-American without knowing why," she says. "It's just kind of a natural thing. I mean so many people I meet are anti-war, and they'll just say that Bush is stupid and the Americans are awful imperialists. It's just their typical answer, and they never think of why. That's crazy. I think it's because we're all being brought up like that, especially at school. It's incredible how we're taught about America -- they're always explaining, for example in geography or history courses, how Americans are imperialistic."

Such unusual French sentiments are music to the anglo right's ears -- Herold has been written up favourably in The National Review Online, Investor's Business Daily, Andrew Sullivan's Web site, and hundreds of libertarian and conservative weblogs. The Washington Post's Ann Applebaum mused last month that Herold and the pro-globalization young Swede Johan Norberg, author of the recently translated In Defense of Global Capitalism, represent a fundamental "shift in fashion" away from the usual McDonald's-hating Seattle crowd. The Economist is even bullish on the prospect of long-promised French structural reforms in health care, decentralization, and labour markets.

All of which are tempting thoughts, but a note of caution -- similar optimism has missed the mark in the past. Back in the 1980s, believe it or not, Jacques Chirac was portrayed as a dashing new champion for sensible pro-market reforms, rather than the old party hack he has turned out to be (and probably was then). Bernard-Henri Levy, among many other French intellectuals over the years, was once anointed by the anglo press as leader of a French New Wave that never really panned out. As recently as the mid-1990s, Alain Juppé was mouthing similar reformist noises as Raffarin makes today, but was forced to back down in the face of France's fierce public-sector strikers.

Still, Herold is different enough -- and impressively effective, at least so far -- that a little hype doesn't seem out of order.

Sure, she can sound occasionally rigid (example: "I think people should not talk about politics on stupid TV shows"), but consider that she's only 22, that she's saying much of this with a chuckle, and that this is her first go-round with intense media coverage. (She describes one of Fleet Street's profiles of her as "not very good reporting ... because there are many things I didn't say, or didn't say in that way, or [that were] just out of context.")

And rigidity is one thing, but being blasé about having the Communist Party as a major player in the ruling government coalition (as it was until last year), or having a cultural establishment littered with unrepentant former Maoists, is quite another.

What's next? Herold plans two years of business school, followed by a job in the private sector, maybe some more travel, and then who knows? In the meantime, there are rumours of more strikes this year, as Raffarin tries pushing through the next planks of his "Agenda 2006 reform" package. That's when we should find out whether Herold and the Liberté, j'écris ton nom movement are a media-fuelled flash in the pan, or the beginning of a lasting anti-strike revolt in France.

Matt Welch is an associate; editor at Reason magazine and lives in Los Angeles.; His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright 2003 National Post



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