jeudi, mars 30, 2006

Anti-capitalism, à la francaise

mardi, mars 28, 2006

Exceptional, or exceptionally stupid?

Sometimes it's overwhelming trying to understand the way this country works. I am determined to resist the rather irritating Anglo-Saxon tendency to judge, to remember that I don't understand and simply to observe. It's not that I don't understand the economics, which are fairly clearcut - there aren't many jobs, not much economic growth, employing someone costs money, so employers minimise the risk by taking people on 3 month contracts, if at all. Surely a CPE - which has far fewer risks for the employer, but means the possibility of employment for two long years instead of 3 short months on a CDD - is the answer? Yes, to those of us who have forgotten what it was like to live pre-Thatcher or Reagan, of course, it's obvious. Any job, even one which isn't protected, is better than no job, surely?

The truth is though it isn't obvious to millions of French people. It's too easy to assume that millions of French people are just wrong, and stupid to boot. That's the bit that isn't easy to understand - to take on board that a country can fail to share our world-view. It isn't true to say that the French are anti-capitalist, and it's way too simple to think that all French people assume that the state owes them a living, as is often claimed, but one thing that is true is that they like their way of life. They don't look at America and think that that is the direction that they wish collectively to be heading in. They like long lunch hours and regular holidays in their maisons de famille. It is still absolutely standard in Paris to call say an international law firm between 1 and 2 pm and get a recorded message - the secretary has to have her lunch break, after all. It's easy to laugh at this - what if someone really important calls between 1 and 2pm? - but actually, if you take a minute to get over the chuckling, it's possible to allow for the idea that that's not such a bad thing after all. After all the partners won't be there between 1 and 2pm. What kind of world are we living in today where we don't blink at the idea that the lowly employees should be always at their post, whilst the whizzy high earners are downing cuvée speciale at Pierre Gagnaire all afternoon?

I think at the root of all this protest is the implicit understanding that boldly steamrollering in a new and brash law entitling the employer to fire his young employees is just the beginning. Once this law is passed it's only a matter of time before that secretary won't be able take her lunch break at lunchtime, but will be eating a sandwich at her keyboard or going out if she's lucky between 3 and 4pm . Eventually it will mean no more 6 weeks annual holiday to enjoy their maisons de famille, no more 35 hour week so that both parents are home to see the children before they go to bed every night.

No more French Exception, in other words.

People here know very well that by embracing a true free market economy in the end France will end up just like everywhere else, except probably not as successful. The beautiful French language will never compete with English as a means of global communication. More importantly France has no ally to hook up with to enable the country to compete with the economic and political alliance that Britain and the US have de facto ended up forming. Second best is about all they can hope for. And with the onward march of the Asian economies second best in truth looks most unlikely.

I think most people know that it's inevitable that France's labour laws will be massively reformed before the end of the decade. But who can blame them for putting up a fight? I feel obscurely proud of them for caring. It's a long time since an overwhelming majority in the UK cared this much about anything but the money in their pocket.