Competition is a dirty word in France. It threatens the privileges of state employees, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
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