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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is Managing Director of Intermat, Inc., ( a television company which executive produces programs and consults with industry companies on a variety of issues. Intermat, Inc. is currently involved in approximately thirty hours of television in various stages for a variety of networks. He is one of the Executive Producers of OFF TO WAR, a ten hour series for Discovery Times and for a one hour on international adoptions for Discovery Health. He has consulted a variety of companies, including Ted Turner Documentaries, WETA, Betelgeuse Productions, and Creation Films, Lou Reda Productions as well as many others.

April 11, 2006

In younger years, I lingered once in Paris while indulging an intense love affair with the City of Lights. On subsequent visits though, I felt Paris was becoming an aging courtesan, still attractive yet lacking the vitality it had had in my youthful encounter with her.

Six years ago I was in Paris on business and had a meeting set on the 6th floor of an office building in the central part of the city. Upon arrival, we were met by a representative of the company we were calling upon, escorted toward the rear of the building and taken up a freight elevator.

The main elevators were blocked by French Government workers who were staging a one day sit down strike, protesting the government’s plan for them to work 36 hours a week rather than 35. Leaving the meeting, I looked down the stairwell and saw a very jovial group of individuals sitting there, munching croissants and passing bottles of champagne.

It was a very civilized sort of strike.

For weeks now France has had to deal with student strikes, certainly far less civilized than the government worker’s strike in 2000 and the most disruptive since the student strikes of 1968 that, for a moment, seemed to threaten France with revolution. French students are, in case you have possibly missed this, rioting regarding a law that would allow employers to fire them at will through their first two years of employment.

The government is attempting to address an unemployment rate among youth that hovers constantly around 25% and was a root of ethnic rioting during this past year. The students do not seem to feel this new law is a benefit to them and are being vocal and physical in their disagreement with the government.

In Cannes for MIP, there was hardly a ripple from these events. There were postings of a few flights cancelled; some speakers had to fly into airports other than Nice. With that sense of French civility, protests were scheduled for Tuesdays. On the Tuesday of MIP security outside, inside and all around the Palais Des Festivals was very tight. There were rumors that a dozen students had “stormed” the entrance of the Palais and were quickly and decisively repulsed. If that was so, I didn’t see it though I was breakfasting just across the Croissette.

However, the lack of intensity in Cannes does not change the reality that this situation represents a major crisis for Monsieur Chirac and Monsieur de Villepin. The students and their union allies have given the government until Easter to work out a solution; after that “the gloves will be off.”
This unrest can be a prism to look at a situation in the west which is creeping up on us all.

After the Second World War most western governments created a “compact” with their citizens for social welfare, creating a hammock that would rock the populace from cradle to grave and be an antidote to the wretched conditions in European countries which had allowed Fascism to get a strangle hold on Germany, Italy, Spain and to threaten most other democracies in the 1930’s.

Now, sixty years later the threads of that social compact are getting frayed in most places, a result of factors that include the aging of society, the globalization of economies east and west, technology and the general winds of change sweeping the world.

The French have had one of the strongest of those social compacts and the unrest of the student population and its ill will toward proposed changes is a mirror of much which is felt in maturing economies.

Aging populations outnumber the younger workers who will have to support them. It is no wonder Lord Brown of British Petroleum is suggesting the required retirement age be abolished; his view is echoed on this side of the Atlantic.

Many American baby boomers feel retirement is an economic and psychological impossibility – while we might not want to rock the hammock, we seem to live in a world that cannot afford it and even if we could afford it, enforced inactivity may not be desirable.