Saturday, June 15, 2013

France prefers subsidy to égalité

Competition is a dirty word in France. It threatens the privileges of state employees, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Do French unions have too much power? Anne-Elisabeth Moutet debates on F24.

As the French rail strike followed the French air traffic controllers’ work stoppages last week, and tens of thousands of passengers and commuters saw their plans disrupted, it became a point of perverse pride for French commentators to deny that anything was very much amiss. The government, we were told, wasn’t really unhappy with the popular message being sent to Brussels, whether on the Single Sky Initiative, or the (very slow) opening of the French railways to free competition. In fact, it was felt at the Élysée that François Hollande, a man who doesn’t come equipped with a handbag, would only find his negotiating stance against too-fast reforms strengthened by this visible expression of national hostility.

British public opinion sees the EU as a source of Byzantine regulations hampering free trade. A large cross-section of the French are incensed by what they see as the European Commission’s Anglo-Saxon-tainted liberal economists and free-marketeers attacking the myriad privileges and protections that make the life of those happy enough to benefit from them so comfortable.

Competition is often a dirty word in France: never more than when it threatens to disrupt “avantages acquis” (acquired advantages), the gold-plated benefits a group of (usually) public employees has managed to have enshrined in contractual agreements. For years, among the various bonuses that can double an SNCF railwayman’s salary, was a “prime de charbon” (coal allowance), finally cancelled long after the last steam engine was retired. Pension age starts at 50 (soon 52) for train drivers and 55 for most other personnel.

Similarly, the 300,000 employees of EDF, the nominally privatised national electricity utility (the French State still owns 85 per cent of its equity) enjoy subsidised meals, holidays, cultural events, housing, as well as huge discounts on their power bills, lifetime employment, and early retirement provided for by a pension fund separate from the cash-strapped national system. Most of these perks are managed in-house by a committee dominated by CGT, the Communist union, on a €500 million budget funded by a statutory 1 per cent contribution of the company’s turnover. As a result, EDF, a multinational corporation of recognised excellence, turns only nominal profits compared with its competitors.

It hurts to lose these benefits, which explains why the French public sector strikes so often and so fiercely. The paradox is that apart from the quarter of the French workforce employed by the bloated French state, almost no one else in France belongs to a union – only 7 per cent of the 22.3 million-strong workforce do. Yet because the role of the unions is enshrined in French labour laws, the country’s main union representatives are party to all government negotiations on social reform – with predictably intransigent results.

Since 1979, when Giscard d’Estaing’s then PM, Raymond Barre, a no-nonsense professor of economics, tried to go blood, sweat and tears on the French after the second oil crunch, and lost, the mantra in Paris has been negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. Less than two years later, Ronald Reagan broke a lockdown with striking American air-traffic controllers by firing every one of them, and replacing them by requisitioning their military counterparts. The French still haven’t recovered from such a terrifying spectacle. The only prime minister to try to hold firm against a public service general strike, Alain Juppé, had to cave in ignominiously after two months in 1995, and his boss Jacques Chirac lost a general election just 18 months later. In short, courage doesn’t pay in France.

Needless to say, François Hollande doesn’t want to consider such extremes. For one thing, all this week’s strikers are his natural constituents: the last group of socialist voters in France are government employees. Teachers will, in all likelihood, stay with him, but train or air-traffic workers could succumb to Marine Le Pen and her populist, anti-Brussels, anti-“international finance” stance –or the increasingly similar-sounding Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the extreme-Left leader.

France’s socialists have had no New Labour conversion in which they officially renounced Marxist ideology. Hollande declares himself to be a social democrat in private, or abroad; but denies it frantically in public. As a result, a strange parody of class war will continue here for the foreseeable future, defending privileges instead of fighting them, led by unions representing little more than their own apparatchiks.

© Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, 2013

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Like her French, Camilla's visit was 'formidable'

The Duchess truly charmed us on her first solo trip abroad, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (R) listens to explanations by a Louvre staff member as she visits the Louvre Museum on May 28, 2013 in Paris
A member of staff shows the Duchess of Cornwall around the Louvre Museum Photo: AFP/GETTY
There was something delightfully pre-celebrity about the Duchess of Cornwall’s visit to Paris last week. For one thing, most of us knew nothing about it. Nice middle-aged English lady takes train; goes to charity shop; has a slice or two of saucisson in the Boulevard Raspail street market; nips into Dior to be shown fairy-tale size-zero dresses into which neither she nor any of her entourage has a hope of fitting; takes in the Mona Lisa at the Louvre; looks at horses; and rounds up proceedings with a drinks do at the British Embassy and a cosy dinner with friends. This is firmly Don’t Tell Alfred territory, belonging in those earlier times when France was a kind of sunny hinterland for Mitford sisters of the not-enough-married (Nancy) or too-married (Diana, Lady Mosley) variety.

Non-Royal reporters here in France (that’s everyone except Paris Match and Gala) remained in blissful oblivion of this event: the first solo visit by the future British Queen abroad. Camilla – we call her just “Camilla”, just as France Soir in its 1960s heyday chronicled the ups and downs of “Tony et Margaret” (Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret) – hopped off her Eurostar at Gare du Nord with very little fracas, and with her pared-down entourage, went largely unremarked in the streets until she was called upon to perform.

She sent off a bike expedition for Help for Heroes from the grand courtyard of the Invalides, and made a short speech in excellent but accented French at the Communauté d’Emmaüs at Bougival, West Paris. Like her mother-in-law, although perhaps more approachably, she showed perfect, smiling courtesy throughout. But you could tell she really felt in her element with the Garde Républicaine horses, their riders, even their farriers. (How many Gardes Républicains does it take to shoe a horse? Three – one to hold the horse, one to hammer the red-hot shoe, one to speak to Camilla, carefully omitting that Napoleon is buried next door.)

The visit couldn’t have been better calibrated to French sensibilities. Emmaüs UK, the charity of which the Duchess is a patron, is a 1990s-created offshoot of perhaps France’s best-loved movement, founded in the immediate post-war years by a Catholic priest and former Resistance member from Lyon, Abbé Pierre, who relinquished his MP seat to take up the defence of the homeless in a country still scarred by the war and under rationing edicts. Until his death in 2007, Abbé Pierre regularly polled at the top of a list of France’s most-liked personalities. Emmaüs, which concentrates on giving the destitute a place to live and to work, is a kind of French Oxfam, with low overheads: no glittering fundraisers or expensive headquarters.

As the Duchess visited one of the Emmaüs thrift shops, the British ambassador, Sir Peter Ricketts, made a point of buying her a pretty, rectangular Cartier-lookalike watch, a snip at 10 euros. This was no Chinese fake, but bore the name of the defunct Lip watchmakers, France’s only would-be workers’ commune back in the 1970s. If intended, this was an elegant historical reference and a dream diplomatic gesture, appreciated by anyone in François Hollande’s Socialist government: a Lip watch bought at Emmaüs is worth 10,000 social- conscience cred points.

In short, in terms of easing the Duchess into her next big part, you could say the visit was a real low-key success. The French, like the rest of the world, had happily gone Diana-mad in the 1980s and 1990s. Following Charles and Diana’s state visit to Paris for this newspaper in 1988, I well recall the crowds, the press photographers in their dozens, the breathless segments opening the evening news. We got Diana at the Elysée with François Mitterrand, and Diana at the Hôtel de Ville with Mayor Chirac (a presidential hopeful at the time, he was very keen on the reflected glamour), and the reception at Versailles with former president Giscard d’Estaing (who would much later write a rather silly self-insertion roman à clef in which he had an affair with the princess). It was all about the bling.

Last week’s Paris trip was pretty much the exact opposite of that (no novels in the offing, I suspect), so much in fact that no one even thought of bringing up comparisons. Characteristically, when she posed in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Duchess made sure that she wasn’t obscuring Leonardo’s picture on the photographs (“Can’t have that!”) – this wasn’t going to be a Taj Mahal photo-op.

When Sidney Toledano, the CEO of Dior – and the man who personally fired the most famous Briton in French fashion, John Galliano, two years ago – showed Camilla around the present-day ateliers and the New Look frocks of the Dior museum, nobody mentioned that Dior had named a handbag after Diana (her ubiquitous Lady D quilted bag). Instead, everyone made much of the Duchess’s charming second-hand raffia clutch, a novelty item with no pretensions to It-ness, embroidered with the word “Paris”.

Nor did French fashion writers make anything of her Anna Valentine outfits – although the online comments sections weren’t always as charitable: a floaty printed dress worn with a sharply-tailored mustard jacket passed muster; so did a classic Burberry trenchcoat; the dowdyish coat-dresses (“housecoats!”) didn’t.

This didn’t matter. In today’s depressed climate, France is nursing what feels like the mother of all Eurozone hangovers: right now, the nation can take neither overbearing First Girlfriends with a waspish line in tweets, nor size-zero princesses in 5in nude heels and look-at-me clothes. The French are notorious for being coldly, elegantly uncomfortable, but right now they are atypically amenable to a bit of cosiness – and Camilla looked cosy all right, especially as she didn’t really need a refashioned image in the first place.

We are tolerant of affaires de coeur. We never really held Charles’s infidelity against him to begin with. In fact, one of Gérard Depardieu’s best movies, Bertrand Blier’s award-winning Trop Belle Pour Toi (1989), described a rather similar set-up, with the Depardieu character neglecting his high-maintenance, beautiful wife, the former Bond girl Carole Bouquet, for the homely but warm Josiane Balasko. We gave it a slew of Césars (the French Oscars) and the Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes.

With no monarchy in our own country, the French like kings and queens abroad. And while we require a great deal of majesty from our presidents – the Fifth Republic, after all, was tailored to Charles de Gaulle’s specifications; it’s one of François Hollande’s many political mistakes that he described himself as the “normal” president – we prefer, all things considered, the more relaxed type in neighbouring nations.

The one reigning French citizen is the Prince Consort of Denmark, Henri de Laborde de Monpezat, husband to Queen Margrethe, and for years the Danish royal couple have spent family holidays in South-West France with minimum fuss. The French see the Queen herself as a grandmother and an animal lover (yes, we do like animals: one of the longest-running television programmes here is a much-loved show on pets called 30 Millions d’Amis), as well as a kind of monument. An extraordinary constant over the years.

On present form, Camilla seems well placed to ease herself, almost by stealth, into solid monumenthood.