TIME WAS one of the great questions of the day was "Why is America not socialist?" The European left just could not understand, and in hindsight they might have been unnerved by, why the pre-eminent industrial society was capitalism’s greatest champion.
A more contemporary version of that high-stool staple on America’s antipathy to socialism is "why was anyone socialist?" That seems to be the question, or at least the consequences of it, that France is struggling to address today. Teachers, train drivers and civil servants are on strike, to be joined by magistrates, lawyers and legal clerks tomorrow.
Some of these people are striking to protest at services being cut, others are protesting at efforts led by President Nicolas Sarkozy to reform, or, depending on your view, undermine, working conditions and pension rights in France’s public service.
Mr Sarkozy was elected to impose a "Thatcher moment" on France, where some civil servants and all train drivers can retire at 50 years of age to enjoy full pensions. France boasts — or endures — the shortest working week in Europe at 38.8 hours. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions record that Irish workers have the second longest at 40.71 hours.
In this latest installment of French social unrest, which has seen Paris effectively paralysed for the first time in 12 years, Mr Sarkozy has substantial support. It has been characterised as a battle between the old France and the France "that gets up early".
It is the battle between those who believe that the old secure and isolated state sector can continue to enjoy its gold-plated privileges and the globalised, international businesses that subscribe to a different ethos.
Just like Ireland really, except our leaders believe they have the luxury of not confronting our public service.
Hopefully our government will be encouraged by Mr Sarkozy’s campaign — and his courage — and even more encouraged by the levels of support he is receiving from all sectors of society.
Everyone knows that reform is imperative and will have to be done sooner or later — why not do it before it becomes an unmanageable burden on us all?