France, 15 of September, 2010. The Pension Reform passes in the National Assembly after months of struggle. The obstruction instigated by the left parties leads to one of these cinema-like scenes when the right-oriented President of the Lower House (Bernard Accoyer) decides to suspend the debates, prompting call for his resignation by the Socialists – when not accusing the current government of fascism and a putsch.
The issue of reforming the pension system is in itself a subject of concern for all aging western democracies. France has an almost completely repartition-based system where working citizens contribute a percentage of their wages to the retirement pensions of the previous worker-generation. No need to explain that with the population pyramid, every developed country is facing nowadays, fewer young workers will have to pay for a “papy-boom” generation that is living longer and longer.
But what is also at issue here is the behavior of the opposition party, this vital nerve of every democracy, which faces the “to oppose or to propose” dilemma: How to make needed concessions without having them considered as surrender of principles?
After years of failed attempt at reforms, the French government has proposed extending the retirement contribution years and postponing the retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018. Even if the Socialists officially accept lengthening the retirement contribution years, they fight against the loss of the symbolic legal age at which you can chose to quit work. The extreme left wing, for its part, is simply denying the reality of the age pyramid: They definitely want to “freeze the counters” up to 40 years of contribution, arguing that people deserve to experience healthy retirement years and that their departure would leave more work to the next generation.
The Socialist opposition clearly decided to apply the “opposing for opposing” strategy, which not only works against their interest, but also prevents any possibility of constructive democratic debates leading to a meaningful compromise.
Such an attitude makes the opposition seem unconstructive and static. At best, it only strengthens the extremes which seem to give voters a clearer choice – even if often extravagant. In the long haul, it weakens democracy not to have opposition parties willing and able to be serious partners in debate and deliberation.
Moreover, crying wolf at every proposition from the party in power turns the opposition into background noise citizens no longer bother to pay attention to. Consequently, it gives the governing party a freer hand in proposing and implementing policies — an opportunity the current French Government did not miss when passing bills against minorities without facing any reaction worthy of being called opposition.
Ultimately, it is up to the voters to reject opposition merely for the sake of opposition, and the extremism it builds. This is not always easy. Strong opposition can provide the appeal of moral clarity and righteous indignation. But it leads nowhere productive. Hard choices are ahead, but they only get harder when opposition parties take on a reflexive opposition stance and make compromise impossible.