Paris: December 1995

Yes, I'm glad I work home and don't have to commute these days. Yes, I've always thought it's essential in our societies to have strong unions to protect workers from the natural and irresistible logic of capitalism that would otherwise reduce them. But no, the state of "social" (as we say, meaning "work") relationships in France is not quite one that should be envied by other countries, because it's not working as it should anymore and puts us in a bad blocked state.
Lionel Lumbroso

Whereas in Germany, to take the exemple of our closest "cousin", unions have for a long time set themselves in a constructive frame of mind, which doesn't proscribe strikes, of course, but only as a last resort, and privileges negociations, a strategy that has gained German unions better results than their French counterparts, such as the 35-hour week against 39 here, French unions have always inscribed themselves in a more "class struggle" context. At times, this has worked, but nowadays, it doesn't much anymore.

Unions here have a political edge. The historically strongest one, CGT has always been extremely closed to the Communist Party. This is ambiguous, as there has always been a temptation, as is the case at the moment, to turn workers movements into political action (ie. struggling against the whole country's policy rather than negociating for such or such specific work issue).

The French have a certain natural tendency to complain. Plus there's a global tendency to mistrust the political establishment that has grown these last decades. Politicians are of course partly responsible for this but this is no reason to stop using one's mind to assert the value of such or such policy.

France's social system and mixed economy (private/public) have definite pluses, but with the world economy and demographic tendencies being what they are, it has been urgent for several years to reform this system to try and keep as much of the pluses as possible at the price of certain advantages.

These reforms should have been started earlier. Some of them have, but not fast enough. Today, the government has wanted to make up for past delays and this precipitation is the main reason for the troubles.

To summarize, 3 important reforms have been announced :

  1. A thorough reform of the National Health Insurance system.

  2. A reform of the retirement system of the public sector to align it with the private sector's.

  3. A plan contract for SNCF, the national railways, to bring it back to profitability in 10 years or so.

The simultaneity of these annoucements, their significance, the lousy way with which the government has presented them has made it a boon for the unions to mobilize workers.

SNCF have been striking for 14 days now. It's true that the consequences of the new plan could be very negative, for instance it could lead to suppressing a third of all railway lines, around 4000 miles of the less profitable ones and leave huge areas railwayless and desertify them. On the other hand the accumulated deficit of SNCF is in the $50 billion range and something has definitely to be done. I don't know the contents of the plan enough to comment anymore on that.

A good number of public services or companies are striking against the alignment of their retirement system on the private sector. It used to be that public servants were paid less than the equivalence in the public sector, and the advantages of being unfirable and of an excellent retirement system (paid partly by the taxpayers) were seen as just counterparts. Nowadays, private sector salaries have plumetted so much that there isn't much difference anymore; public servants still have the advantage of job safety, but their retirement advantages are less and less supportable by the system, especially since we're going to be for several decades in a tendency where the numerous baby-boomers (us!) will progressively retire and the ratio active/retired will go down and down and down.

Without going into the details of these retirement systems (let's say, as a general comment, that this is part of a larger problem with a zillion privileges that have been negociated over the past century in such or such sector, and that weigh a lot on the country's economy nowadays. A lot of these have to go, but it's a highly risky agenda, as we see today.

The third bone of contention is the reform of the Health system. Surprisingly, coming from a center-right administration, the reform plan is rather left-wing inspired. Its main points:

In fact, this is almost the same as one of the main unions' reform plan. The leader of that union, CFDT, (Nicole Notat) has acknowledged that but there is of course debates and arguments among her union as to whether she should have adopted this position.

There is an incredible gap between what the strikers have been made to understand about that plan and what it really is. Their view is that this plan is "taking us 50 years back", that "they are dismantling our social security system". In fact, people have been so stressed these last years that anything is a good bone of contention to express their frustration.

There seems to not be a right and a left anymore. The Socialist Party is torn and its leaders are apparently choosing electoral demagogy (condemning the reform plan when they know it's more or less what is direly needed). A hundred socialist intellectuals have published a manifesto to support the reform plan. The intellectuals in general are trying to aim at the best way to keep our French system alive all the while adapting it to keep it working.

The people and the working forces, on the other hand, just want everything to stay as is, because the way the world is going is rather distressful and stop stop stop enough is enough.

This all is rather dramatic and I am at the same time angry and distressed myself. You wonder if the country's gonna make it.