What the French do well – Strike!

Here we go again and this time it will be worse than in 1995. The strikes set to begin next week risk to last and life for the French will be difficult.

The national train company SNCF will strike to maintain their privileged retirement scheme where they get to stay home at the age of 50 or 55 according to their job. This pension scheme dates from the days of steam locomotives when the job was much tougher. Other public transport workers (buses, metro etc.) will be striking for the same reason. In 1995 the French government had to back down after five very difficult weeks but Sarkozy says he will not withdraw his determination to put them on the same retirement plan as other French workers; that is to say after 41 years of paying into the pension fund.

To face this, my son Demetreus is lending me his bicycle.

The electricity EDF and gas GDF employees too are going to strike too for their privileged retirement plan. So, I’ll eat more salad and put on an extra sweater. Air France workers will be striking for wage hikes. Their two day strike two weeks ago cost the company 60 million euros and sent the stock down 12% which means billions in virtual euros at the Bourse.

The Paris Opera is also on strike. Some of them (comedians and dancers) get to retire at the age of 40.

Students are beginning to strike against what they see as the privatization of Universities and the take over by private enterprise. They say this will mean inequality in the quality of education between the different faculties. They have been making a real mess of things: sit-ins on the train tracks, marching in the streets, occupations and blocking the entrances to the schools. The last student movement two years ago against a law which would have given youth less legal protection in employment in a bid to encourage employers to hire more put hundreds of thousands in the streets, sent the government into a tail spin. The government withdrew the Bill. Employers say they hesitate to hire because French law makes it so hard and expensive to lay people off.

President Sarkozy chose his first target for reform well. He knows transport strikes are very unpopular and he hopes to have public opinion on his side. Especially as people who have to work until they are 60 or 63 for retirement do not like paying for people who leave at 50. He obviously wants to do what Margaret Thatcher did with the Miners in 1981. When she broke that strike movement with her new reforms, the unions were on their knees and she took down the British welfare and workers’ rights system to the joy of the business community. As an aside, Britain became very dynamic and the economy boomed but the British people remained where they were. There was very little trickle down effect.

But there are sectors Sarkozy does not yet want to attack. When fishermen threatened action last week, the President went straight to them and promised to compensate them for the tax they pay on fuel. Unfortunately for Sarkozy, the European Union says he cannot do it because the compensation would amount to unfair government subsidies to French fishermen to the detriment of other European fishermen. EU rules are EU rules.

Fishermen are tough. A few years ago, they burned down the XVth century Parliament of Brittany in Rennes. It was a real loss to the heritage of France. Sarkozy does not want either the fishermen or the farmers on his back. They are violent and determined and dear to the hearts of the French.

Another interesting strike is at the financial daily paper Les Echos. They reject the take over by the French luxury company LVMH owned by Bernard Arnault who already owns the other financial daily, La Tribune. The news-room fears a conflict of interest and an end to their editorial independence.

What does Sarkozy want? He says he wants to reduce social benefits to help French companies make more money and employ more people. His motto is “Work more to earn more” and in this vein he just got a 140% pay rise (Sarkozy’s new salary is 240 000 euros a year). Given he has no expenses, this is basically pocket money. This is the same president who refused a special increase in the minimum wage in July. Sarkozy also wants to change labor laws, because he says if it is easier to fire, it will be easier to hire. To try to win over workers, he has eliminated income tax for workers doing overtime and the social taxes employers have to pay on that labor.

I still don’t see how this will increase jobs. As an employer I would sack 40% of staff and let the other 60% work overtime, tax-free, which means I would produce just as much a lot cheaper.

One thing is sure, if France Television joins the strike movement, I will not. If anything needs changing, it is how the French TV and Radio tax (118 euros a year) is wasted in the cacophony of the French audio-visual landscape. It is no exaggeration to say a full 20% in executive positions are useless and just stuck in a closet. Journalists are redundant, often lazy and over privileged (three months paid vacation per year; 5400 euros reduction on their income tax returns whether they have expenses or not, etc.). Another example of the waste is the fact the tax-payer is financing five exterior televisions: RFO for the overseas territories, TV5, Euronews, France 24, CFI for programs, not to mention that France 2 and France 3 can be seen via satellite.

Lets get on our bikes and ride out the strikes. This is going to be a rough storm and very interesting as a reporter to watch.