Category: politics

Another French strike

The French need some kind of pension reform. The current French state budget is seriously in the red at roughly 7.5% of GDP last year, well outside European norms. France have a policy of statutory retirement from the age of 60, for men and women. This is already more advantageous than the UK where it has been at 65 for men, 60 for women since I can remember – and now seems to be indexed on the number of qualifying years.

Of course the unions are all out on strike tomorrow with most complaining in simple sound-bites about how everyone will have to work longer before retiring whilst conveniently ignoring the massive budget deficit, increasing life expectancy and the fact that state pensions are a pittance anyway. Far better to invest in a private pension in order to retire early, instead of living – though the state hardly sets a good example – beyond your means and hoping that as soon as you’re 60, the state will provide because it doesn’t and won’t.

The strangest thing is the way the media seems to be managing pension reform. I’ve heard people close to retirement age call in to radio stations with invited politicians on a panel and complain they will now have to wait longer to get their pension. These people will in fact be unaffected by the new pension plans which will not come into force fully until 2018. The roll-out will be on a sliding scale – those born in 1950-1956 will not be required to work a full further 2 years to get statutory pensions. Even then, there is also a system of qualifying years (41 for France compared to 44 for the UK). On top of all that, the French system indexes pensions on earnings in the last years before retirement, whereas the UK system is indexed on contributions. Did anyone on the panel explain this to the caller? The responses sounded rather obfuscated to me, with debate on how they might define exceptions to the rules and other information which played on the complexity of the reform rather than serving it in palatable doses.

Other major differences include when you qualify for any kind of pension – in the UK there are “basic” and “additional” pension requirements. In France there’s a notion of “full” pension at 65 for men, but a plethora of exceptions for state workers, and those who have physically demanding jobs.

From my point of view the big failure of the French state is that Nicolas Sarkozy is increasingly seen as an elitist with a xenophobic agenda. He certainly does not suffer fools gladly and seemingly has nobody in his party willing to explain properly the ramifications of his needed reform. Corruption and nepotism has been quite visible too, but then the UK can hardly say it’s any better in that respect. So we’re set for a drawn out program of strikes just so someone might deign to make sense of the situation. Instead of which the system will become so complex that nobody will be able to understand it, and everyone will have lost. You still won’t be able to retire at 60 – or 65 – on a decent income anyway.

[edit]: Comment from a friend on Facebook :

The French should not be allowed to retire until they have made up all of their strike days. I think a two year extension is generous!

Strike Action Causes Crowded Platform
Originally uploaded by simon_music

Credit Crunching

Seen on Slashdot, talking about the credit crunch:

“People are not buying bullshit anymore. Not because they don’t believe the bullshit; they never did. They are not buying it because they can not sell it on to someone else.”

French Election Day: Summing Up

Here’s a quote that aptly sums up the election campaign, mostly from an online standpoint. It probably reverberates enough to be applicable to most other election campaigns of recent years. From (yes or no, clever…).

Que les organisations de militants arrêtent de pourrir les commentaires de blogs, forums, sondages et quotidiens en ligne ; qu’ils arrêtent d’envahir Youtube avec leurs vidéos grotesques ; qu’ils épargnent les murs de leurs affichage sauvage ; que le matériel de campagne officiel soit plus orienté vers l’information que vers la publicité ; que notre argent ne servent plus à financer des meetings religieux ; que les candidats profitent de la campagne pour nous parler de leurs idées au lieu de monter des coups de communications et du lobbying médiatique en série. Qu’on arrête de nous prendre pour des jambons quoi…

Which, roughly translated, means

Could the Militant organisations please stop lowering the tone of blog, forum and [online] newspaper comments; stop invading YouTube with grotesque videos; spare the walls their bill posters. Could the official campaign propaganda be oriented towards information and not advertising; our money stop being used to finance religious meetings; the candidates use the campaign to speak of their ideas instead of communications strategy and serial media lobbying. Could they, like, stop taking us for pork / sheep…

Original French text from “Spécialiste de rien du tout” who also made an excellent analysis of the campaign posters (in French). You might also want to read a fellow Englishwoman in France’s view of the recent TV debate.

Choosing a President

Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy

The political excitement is mounting; for weeks now, the focus has been on the presidential race. A couple of Sundays ago, the first round saw a massive 84% turnout and the two main parties’ candidates came first and second. On the right, for the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy. On the left, for the PS, Ségolène Royal. So these two top placed candidates (gaining 31% and 26% of the vote respectively) now fight it out in a second round this Sunday.

Opinion polls consistently put Mr Sarkozy ahead by 1-4 points, but the number of declared undecided voters easily outweigh the margin of error in these rather unreliable gauges of public opinion. Last night a televised debate between the two candidates overran by at least half an hour, and showed Mrs. Royal to be rather more aggressive than usual, and Mr. Sarkozy rather more calm. The end result seems to have smoothed the rough edges around each candidate.

As an Englishman in France, I don’t have the right to vote, even though I do pay rather a lot of taxes :-(. You must have French nationality – which I can legitimately claim, being married to a French national – to vote in presidential elections. So I follow the elections full of contradictory emotions. On the one hand, the chosen president will probably have some impact on my professional life, particularly in the case of a win by the right. On the other, since I don’t have the right to vote, my opinion won’t count.

I could perhaps persuade others to vote in one way or the other on Sunday, but here is not the place to cite my political opinion. Even if freedom of speech protects political opinion more than anything else, I think I’ll stick in the undecided camp and leave the French nationals to choose for me.

UPDATE: Surfing around, I just found that Paddy Power are giving 4-1 for Ségolène Royal and 1-7 (or 7-1 on) for Nicolas Sarkozy. The right are clear favourites…

Happy May Day

Today is “International Workers Day” a.k.a. Labor day in the U.S., May Day in England, and here in France we celebrate the same thing, la fête du travail. Along with a number of pagan festivals which have always celebrated May, it’s specifically a commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago, Ill. when the 8 hour working day was fought for.

It’s a day where the unions traditionally march in protest of the latest government policies. In England it’s the anti-capitalist movement, in France they’re out against the CNE, the special contract for young employees in their first jobs. This is considered the “brother” of the CPE which caused an outpouring of violence, protest and general unrest earlier in the year.

On that urban issue, I noticed an article about the recent unrest in France written by an old lecturer and friend of mine at Warwick University, Jim Shields. He suggests :

Ethnic minorities remain almost entirely unrepresented on French television, as in the higher echelons of business, the civil service and the professions; and there is not a black face among the 555 deputies representing mainland France in the National Assembly. In no other European country are immigrants more brutally segregated, and in none other is the political elite more loftily exclusive. At the same time, no European country has been so resolute in refusing the ‘Anglo-Saxon model’ of multiculturalism and banishing expressions of religious difference from its schools and public sector.

So France embark on more protests against policies aimed (ostensibly) to improve youth unemployment issues. Sadly the urban issues pull much harder at my conscience on this day which we celebrate the start of summer* – and the day that is 6 months from All Saint’s Day, the start of winter*.

*There are several times of year that you can celebrate either of these events…

Contrat Premiere Embauche (French Labour Law)

Students confront Police at the Sorbonne

Employment law in France is, to an outside observer used to the Anglo-saxon system, all about employee rights. Trade Unions are strong and their socialist leanings mean that acquired employee rights cannot be taken lightly. The desire of the current right-wing government is to make employment law more flexible for employers, allowing them to have recruitment policies which would make their business more profitable at the expense of employee job security. Should it all be about capitalist aims, or rights to employment with job protection and social rights?

The latest change to French law – to bring in a “contrat première embauche” – will allow employers to have newly recruited young employees sign a contract which can be terminated without reason in the first two years. Whilst this may in reality seem like a step backwards (at least to the French), bear in mind that the current option is often an unpaid internship or a multitude of fixed short term contracts before people actually get a permanent contract. This is due to the fact that sacking someone after a few months of a permanent contract agreement have passed is difficult, unless solid proof of their continual poor performance can be provided.

Current French youth unemployment is at 22.8%, so I find it a bit rich when the argument given by students currently striking and occupying their universities, which led to and intervention by the riot police, is that the new law leads them into further precarity. A move made to encourage right-wing capitalist employers to take on young inexperienced staff is surely to be encouraged, whatever your political leaning. If it causes unemployment to rise, then it should be removed. Until then, why not test it? Because let’s face it, whether you have socialist principles or not, the employers that aren’t taking on new staff on a permanent basis are more likely to be right wing.

Image credit: Olivier Laban-Mattei, AFP

More train strikes

A double decker TGV

As most of you know, the French love to go on strike. Especially the public sector, with the lead generally being held by train workers. Yesterday, the SNCF (French national train company) were on strike, causing packed trains and leaving many people stranded waiting for a train to get home. Even with only 30% (highest estimate) of employees actually on strike, services were reduced to about one third of normal levels. The strike has just been ended with an offer of a 120€ bonus and a pay rise of 0.3% from January, and this before pay negotiations for 2006 have even officially started. Pay wasn’t the main reason given for the strike in the first place: the train unions fear privatisation of the SNCF, something which the government vehemently denies. As I understand it they were therefore on strike because of the fear of privatisation, although no project exists officially in government.

Using public transport in France on a daily basis is a risky business. You will be subject to crowded trains at the best of times, but during strikes your journey to work can be a living hell. During the summer heatwave of 2003, commuters had the double stress of a train strike and hot weather. Packed trains with temperatures at 40°C is something I’ll never forget. The only mitigating factor is that the state subsidises train travel: a monthly Paris métro pass will cost about £35 (51.50€) whereas the London tube equivalent costs £82.20 (120€). Strikes in London are far harder to bear when your travel costs are more than double, thankfully they don’t happen as often.

Train employees have a job for life and a number of advantages like subsidised summer holiday retreats and free train travel for their families. However they are rarely happy with their pay conditions and the travel unions are quick to call for industrial action. If you’re living in France, just be happy that you’re paying less for your tickets and generally have a better quality of service (especially the excellent TGV service) for the moment. For all the arguments about privatisation, look at your monthly ticket costs and perhaps you can console yourself while getting shoved around in a crowded train on your way home.

Image credit: Gerald Brimacombe.

Urban Violence in France

Burning car in the Paris area (Reuters)

Residential areas around France are burning. Cars are being torched. Local commerce is being reduced to broken glass, ash and smoke-damaged furniture and fittings. For the last couple of weeks, there have been a number of events around Paris which have caused widespread alarm.

The initial event which seems to have sparked off the violence is the case of a couple of boys who died after being allegedly chased by the police. The ran and climbed into an electricity substation and were electrocuted. Police denials and poor political followup only served to fuel the fire.

At the centre of the political issues is the French home office / internal affairs minister Nicolas Sarkozy (fr), a right-wing politician famously quoted in a previous case of urban unrest as saying “we’ll have to clean up these areas with Karchers”. (Karcher is an industrial cleaning machine manufacturer.) Sarkozy is pushing hard to improve conditions via radical methods in these “difficult areas”. What he means are those mainly poor areas with high percentages of first, second and third generation immigrant families, which are labelled “difficult” by the press and by politicians alike. Sadly, Sarkozy’s hard stance and unfortunate vocabulary is probably doing more harm than good. He is right to say that something must be done, but suggesting things involving industrial cleaners or using other language like “racaille (fr)” which can be interpreted as “yob” by some and “counter-culture” or “bohemian” by others instead of using words like “casseurs” (those who break things) is making him move further to the right and exciting the extremists who are rallying behind the fascist national front.

The violence is spreading at the current time, and some of it is happening quite close to me in neighbouring towns and communities. Yet again the French policy of areas of high rise housing where immigrants and the poor are grouped together coupled with low urban investment is raising its ugly head. France is not a cool place to be when you have the hard right rearing their heads and speaking out against immigrants. Especially when this fuels urban violence around areas where the young and old alike are reduced to auto-destruction of their own areas in order to be heard. I have to face the fact that many French businesses, state services (like town halls, etc) and the middle class are totally out of tune with the difficulties faced daily by those people who are poor, under educated, and living in a parallel economy in their ghettos.

Image credit: Reuters