The Politics of Protest Avoidance: Policy Windows, Labor Mobilization, and Pension Reform in France
According to Paul Pierson and R. Kent Weaver, the "new politics of the welfare state" is about escaping the popular blame generated by cutbacks affecting a significant portion of the population. Although the concept of blame avoidance helps to explain the political logic of welfare state retrenchment, one can argue that a careful analysis of social policy reform should take into account a largely understudied phenomenon: protest avoidance. Especially present in countries with single party governments and politically active labor unions, protest avoidance is analytically distinct from blame avoidance because it occurs when policy-makers, facing direct and nearly inescapable blame, attempt to reduce the scope of social mobilization triggered by unpopular reforms. In recent decades, successive French governments have successfully introduced major--and unpopular--reforms in the field of pensions, despite the difficulties to frame blame avoidance strategies in the context of France's strong concentration of state power. Focusing on the 1993, 1995, and 2003 pension reform episodes, this paper seeks to demonstrate that right wing governments have generally tried to avoid protest rather than escape blame. We claim that the key element has been avoiding disruptive strike activities by the labor movement, which are highly political in France. We argue that right wing governments have attempted to divide the fragmented labor movement and overload the reform agenda while enacting its most controversial reforms during the summer holiday season. Protest avoidance thus represents a key political variable worthy of study in the literature on welfare state retrenchment. In the future, the concept of protest avoidance could be applied to other countries and policy areas in which elected officials attempt to impose unpopular reforms that trigger social mobilization.
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