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!


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