Saturday, 30 October 2010

A Freudian Slip dans le Pays de la Liberté

It’s 5th November next week and I’ve got a big bonfire I could light in the potager! I was thinking of inviting some friends over but to give the occasion a French flavour I really need to think of a French Guy Fawkes. Preferably one that doesn’t put me at risk of being held in “garde à vue” for 48 hours like the poor guy who wrote several emails to Rachida Dati asking for une petite inflation! see this article and this one

I think he really meant to write f*ll*tion and his fingers got side tracked on the keyboard! Just like her mouth did in this interview on 26th September 2010 on Canal+. But there again perhaps not!

All I can say is «c’est vraiment scandaleux d’affronter une belle personnage publique comme ca»!
Anyway she says that she felt threatened and made a complaint.  The result was that the man had his computer confiscated and his apartment searched. He was then held under arrest for 48 hours.

Under the current French rules of arrest or “garde à vue” (soon to be changed because they were found not to conform to european law) when you are arrested you are not allowed to talk to a lawyer and you can be denied the right to telephone anyone if the police consider that it might be detrimental to their enquiry (I know of one case where this was applied to a middle aged white skinned woman who was over the limit when breathalysed). The police take your clothes away and give you a thin one-piece suit. Usually the cells are unheated and foul. It is also normal procedure to carry out an invasive body search. This is officially in case you feel like committing suicide and you may have concealed something in a dark place to help you do so! Unofficially it is clearly part of a process intended to humiliate and diminish your resistance to interrogation. There have also been eye witness reports of violence by the police in a number of cases. On 27th January 2010 the Ministry of the Interior accepted that the number of people held under this regime was 800,000 in 2009. You can be arrested and thrown in jail for minor offences like not carrying your identity card or for committing certain traffic offences. Above all never be rude to the police because that is enough on its own to give him or her a reason to arrest you for “Outrage”. (An offence by which you call into question the honour of a public official in the exercise of his or her functions). The numbers of people held in “garde à vue” have multiplied by a factor of 3 since 2003 because the police have been given targets to achieve. This excellent article by Vincent Duclert (in French) gives all the background.

Rachida Dati knows very well what happens to people put in “garde à vue” because she was appointed Minister of Justice by Nicholas Sarkozy in May 2007. In September 2008, however, she announced that she was pregnant and refused to identify the father. All she would say was that her private life was complicated, her baby girl Zohra was born on 2nd January 2009. In June 2009, after having been elected to the European Parliament and whilst retaining her post as mayor of VIIe arondissement of Paris she resigned her post as Minister of Justice.

As a result of her ill-judged complaint against this misguided but unfortunate man she has ensured that the episode of her Freudian slip of the tongue has been propagated everywhere in France and will almost certainly go round the world. He risks up to six months in prison and a fine of 7,500 euros for the specific offence of “Outrage”.  Le Procureur de la République de Valence, Antoine Paganelli, considers that there is nothing disproportionate about the case and that her function as a member of the European Parliament was at risk of being degraded. Clearly ex-government ministers like her need the full protection of the law in a situation like this!

So if I dressed up the Guy in black clothes with a long dark wig, a suitable hat and forgot about the beard and moustache, I could have a traditional Guy Fawkes even though I would know who it really was this year! I might even let my guests in on the secret too, so long as their sons weren’t gendarmes, like those of my next door neighbour!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

And Finally!

Les Carottes Sont Cuites
With the workers of three refineries voting to return to work, the rubbish beginning to be collected again in Marseille and most of the trains now running, the protests are showing signs of petering out. As one interviewee said charmingly yesterday morning “The carrots are cooked! We don’t want to end up burning the furniture like the English miners”! At Brive-la-Gaillarde, however, just to the north of us in the Corrèze they blockaded the petrol depot in the morning but the blockade was lifted in the afternoon. This morning due to continuing strikes in the ports of Marseille and Le Havre there is no crude oil reaching the refineries, so although they are back at work no refined products can be produced.
Commentators on France Inter yesterday morning were saying that the government might have won the battle but they have lost the fight for public opinion. Next time they should hire Alistair Campbell!
Legal or Legitimate
Yesterday evening on a phone-in programme they had received emails from a large number of correspondents who were trying to reconcile the fact that the Deputies and Senators had voted through a law by a legal and democratic process, but it was being challenged by what they considered to be legitimate protests. The politicians were of course quite clear about it. The right considered that the industrial action and street protests were not legitimate and the left thought that they were. Perhaps the public are finally beginning to realize that you can’t govern a country by mob rule.
Reform Union Finances
If Nicholas Sarkozy really wants a fight, however, he could always take on the unions like Maggie did. In France it would be easy to attack their weak point which is funding, since union membership is only 8% of the workforce on average. I propose that:-

• Businesses should have to submit to a vote of their shareholders any proposal to make payments to Unions. Payments made without this approval should carry the threat of a prison term for the directors involved.
• Unions should be forbidden to receive any money in cash even from their members.
• The government and local authorities should progressively withdraw all funding of Union activities over a period of four years.
• To soften the impact on public opinion, and to give the government something to sell to the public, the government should allow individuals to deduct subscriptions for union membership from their income for tax purposes. You could even run a campaign to the effect that everybody should join a union. Since on previous experience it would be ineffective, it would make no difference.

If I am right the unions would see a catastrophic reduction in their income and capabilities because nobody would think that it was necessary to join and support the unions. After all they have never had to in the past.
I am sure that it would quickly become very obvious that some form of responsible representation in the workplace is necessary but the temporary chaos could be used to pass more laws making individuals responsible for costs if they blockaded somewhere that they did not work for.
Manifestos! What are they?
Well that’s my pro-union proposals for the special case of France. Of course no politician would put it in their manifesto before the 2012 election, but that doesn’t matter here because they never write any manifestos! They might have to say what they really want to do and be expected to deliver on their policy proposals!

Monday, 25 October 2010

France wouldn't be France without protests!

The revolt is still underway here. There is no fuel being refined in the whole of France and a third of petrol stations have run dry but the government has ordered the opening of reserve depots and says that things will slowly improve. Perhaps! Perhaps not! I have to say that the supermarkets in this area of the Lot have not so far run out of fuel and there hasn’t really been any panic buying. The school holidays have now started so there is less traffic and less opportunity for demonstrations.  So far there has been no support from the electricity workers and only half hearted support from the transport workers. In the latest opinion polls 56% of the people approve of the protests, which is down from 69% last week but it isn’t over yet.

I think it will eventually all calm down, but it has become more than a protest over pension reform and is now generally an anti- Sarkozy movement. The way that things have happened here in the past is for the Prime Minister (who is appointed by the President) to resign. That, and withdrawing the proposed legislation, usually satisfies the militants. This time, however, Sarkozy has been fully engaged in all aspects of his policies and their execution from the start and he has not stood back like previous Presidents have done. So if he sacks Francois Fillon, the still popular Prime Minister, there would be no perceived change apart from releasing the latter to stand against Sarkozy as the next presidential candidate! As far as I can understand the French constitution there is no mechanism for dislodging a President so, since Sarkozy is a street fighter and will never resign, we can expect a running battle between now and the elections in 2012.

I have been struck by two things during this episode. Firstly there has been a lack of media management and an absence of government ministers putting their views forward, but then we aren’t hearing much from the Socialists either. Perhaps they are fully aware that they face the same problems if they form the next government and they are keeping their options open!

Secondly there is now a refusal by the protesters to accept that reform is necessary. At the beginning there was a real debate about the fairness of the proposals but now that the movement has gained momentum it has become a demand to withdraw the legislation and nothing less will do. The protesters behave as if the government has a bottomless pit of money, is not subject to international competition or the constraints of credit ratings and can always bail out the country financially. This is in spite of the fact that we regularly hear that there are big holes in the social security budget. I can only assume that they don’t believe what they are told.

Certainly France wouldn’t be France without protests but it is more serious than such an easy way of dismissing these events implies. Personally I think that France is effectively ungovernable because it consistently, stubbornly, forcefully and often successfully resists reform. The result is that it cannot adapt to changing circumstances.

Apart from talking vaguely about investing more in research, neither the Left nor the Right have any answer to the rising economic power of China, India, Brazil and the Far East. In Europe only Germany has good growth prospects because the world is prepared to pay a premium for the best quality goods. This week I bought a new specialized Dell monitor and it was made in China. Since most high tech goods are now  made in China, Germany’s favoured situation may not last for long. When I was in the UK a couple of weeks ago I felt that the enormous cut backs in government spending, whilst necessary, would not help to re-launch the UK economy and I was glad that I was not a young person trying to build a future for myself. Meanwhile France has not even begun to face these issues and is still fighting the battles of the last century.

The best socialist candidate for the 2012 elections is Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Although he is a socialist, since September 2007 he has been the head of the International Monetary Fund. If he stands, and if he is accepted by the party, he will almost certainly win the Presidential election. So far he has neither said that he will stand, nor that he won’t. If I was him I would have to ask myself whether I would want the job of trying to drag a reluctant country kicking and screaming into the harsh realities of the 21st century.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

France in Revolt Again?

Militants against the reforms or the government? - France is excellent at mobilising itself and protesting. Perhaps it comes from its revolutionary past. Today, however, France has become a very conservative country which uses people power to forcefully resist change.
Secondary picketing is still legal in France and any organised group can blockade a petrol depot or a factory with impunity at little personal risk. There is no need to have a strike ballot or a cooling off period, and there is no risk of being sued for the losses sustained by the business if the strike is “unofficial”. In fact there is no concept of the difference between official or unofficial strikes; the only thing that matters is how much support the strike attracts.
France has a recent history of governments backing down in the face of public demonstrations which opposed a proposed reform. This encourages people to believe that it is possible to force a government to withdraw a law even after it has been voted through the Assembly and the Senate.
Against that background one can start to appreciate the power that the militants have to challenge a government in France.
Socialism or social protection? - Social protection is so important that it tends to dominate the political agenda. French people expect a government agency to “accompany” them if they have to find another job and they look to the government to support them when they are in difficulty. Capitalism and competition are viewed with suspicion, as is any large employer. As my next door neighbour said “I run my own business, I am an employer and a landlord. That’s three black marks against me”!
Interventionism for ever? - The problem is that France does not live in a bubble protected from international competition. With a decade of low growth, a mounting level of government debt and ever deepening holes in the public finances, there are limits to how much money the government can continue to spend on protecting industries which can no longer compete in world markets. But even the French right wing still considers that spending public money on supporting failing industries is reasonable and correct.
Are the Unions representative? - The percentage of membership of unions in France at 8% is probably the lowest in Europe, yet the unions have some of the highest numbers of salaried staff and the money has to come from somewhere. Until the law of 10th August 2008 was passed, a law dating from 1884 exempted unions from publishing accounts.
It is suspected that many unions were secretly financed by the employers as a form of insurance in order to provide some leverage over their activities and degree of militancy. In addition, about 400m euros of public money in various forms is given to French unions every year. Overall this is a very unhealthy situation because the unions are not representative of the workforce, their funding is suspect and susceptible to charges of corruption and, because they have such a low proportion of membership in the workplace, the unions have no control over the actions of the employees.
No political will? - So France is a country which resists change, has had a series of governments, which have found it impossible to introduce necessary and unpopular reforms, and whose only answer to “global competition” is protectionism. It has the same problems of low growth and poor competitivity as other western states and its membership of the euro zone means that it cannot devalue its currency to become more competitive. There is no shortage of informed comment and proposals to address these issues but there does not seem to be a political mechanism available to implement them.
What future for the young? - France has a workforce which doesn’t expect to get a full time permanent job until they are 28 years old and which expects to stop working at the age of 58 because they have been made redundant. No wonder the high school students are out there protesting with everyone else! What future can they look forward to and how will they be able to afford to retire at 60 or 62? They must be really scared or thinking of emigrating.
Support the strikers? - In the latest opinion poll 69% of the public support the strikes and protests against raising the retirement age to 62 from 60. French people usually get behind the strikers and rarely criticize them. In this case, however, 52% disapprove of blockading refineries and petrol depots, which puts at risk their freedom of movement and their ability to see their families over the half term holidays.
Why now? - I don’t understand why Sarkozy decided to press ahead with this reform now. Sarkozy’s popularity is at a record low and he has no chance of winning the next presidential election. He could easily have ignored it for two years until the next election and then it will most likely be someone else’s problem.
Oh no not again! - Unfortunately the proposed change in the retirement age is so small that it only plugs about half of the calculated deficit so the whole process will have to be done again in a few years time, so we have more disruption to look forward to. The Socialists have said that they want to link the age of retirement to life expectancy. That sounds worse to me! Perhaps it’s time to start laying in the stocks of food and fuel!