Sunday, April 19, 2015



This past month France has been experiencing a record-breaking strike at Radio France, the revered public-service radio broadcaster that houses seven separate stations and counts 5000 employees. Radio is still the first source for news in France and as essential at breakfast time as coffee and croissants, so when news was replaced by canned music for weeks on end it was a major irritant. The strike was called in protest against planned job cuts and program reductions. Midway through the tense negotiations, the recently appointed CEO Mathieu Gallet had to make way for a mediator at the insistence of the unions involved. Nevertheless, it took 28 days and a push from the Minister of Culture before four of the five unions finally accepted a return to work. It was the longest strike ever in French public radio and cost €1 million per week.

Mathieu Gallet
As part of the much-needed reforms and cuts in public spending imposed by the European Commission, and armed with a devastating report from French Treasury watchdog La Cour des Comptes, President Hollande went looking for a hatchet man and appointed Mathieu Gallet, former head of the INA (Institut National de l'Audiovisuel). His mission is to bring Radio France more in line with other institutions and reduce its annual deficit of €21 million. Here is what he's up against:

In the past ten years, when other companies suffered the consequences of the global financial crisis, the cosseted cocoon of Radio France was unaffected and took on 1000 new staff members, bringing its total work force to 5000 (388 of them paid union representatives) who count among their accumulated privileges up to 13 weeks of paid vacation. It has two full-blown orchestras: the Orchestre National de France and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, and the renovation of its Maison de la Radio headquarters in Paris, budgeted at €262 million, has cost €575 million. It's an expensive outfit and the State coffers are empty.

Radio France headquarters

Whatever the final agreement will be, it will have been achieved at great cost and turbulence, once again illustrating just how difficult it is to effect change in France, particularly in the public sector which employs 20 percent of the total working population. Yet, the general public usually supports the strikers and shows great solidarity, at least in part generated by a common French characteristic:  fear of change.

The story of the French welfare system is a long one and dates back to the post World War II years when a 30-year period of uninterrupted growth and expansion made the country rich. It could well afford to increase paid vacation time from two weeks in 1946 to five weeks in 1982, and shift the cost of building a family entirely to the state. But the free healthcare and generous family allowances that were meant to counteract the population decline were kept in place once that population rebounded and France became the most fertile country in Europe with a growth rate of 2.01 in 2012 (on a par with Ireland). The same goes for most other welfare benefits, which have become acquired rights and are today seen as entitlements for life, at a cost that today's Treasury can no longer bear. Under pressure from Brussels to bring its budget deficit down to 3 percent of GDP by 2017 (representing a cut of €50 billion euros) it seems inevitable that some of these savings will have to come from France's welfare system.

It will be difficult to find this kind of money, especially since some of the more obvious solutions seem out of the question:

    increase the 35-hour workweek;
    raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (planned for 2017) or beyond;
    reduce paid vacation time;
    allow shops to open on Sundays (currently only 12 Sundays a year);
    allow greater competition.

All the above have been debated and rejected by center-right and socialist governments alike, generally to appease those who warn of an "Americanization" of France and a decline of its vaunted standard of living. So what other solutions are there?

It seems to me that a secular country such as France could do without the religious holidays that go against its proclaimed laïcité (Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Pentecost Monday, Assumption Day August 15, All Saints Day). This could add five working days to the national economy without harming anyone.

And why not bring back the ECOTAX (blog 6/30/14) on heavy vehicles that would have provided €1.2 billion per year income with which to develop alternate transportation systems such as river and rail transport and more trams and pollution-free buses in cities, while providing employment for years to come? This Ecotax was already approved by the French Parliament but subsequently canceled by SEGOLENE ROYAL, Minister of the Environment, in response to protests by truck drivers in Brittany last year. Instead, said Royal, she would get this income from highway companies that have been charging too much toll anyway. The government negotiations with these companies have just ended with a clear advantage to the toll companies who agreed to freeze any toll increase for one year in exchange for an extension of their current contract. So far: Highwaymen 1 - Government 0, while leaving in place a government obligation to pay the Italian company that installed the Ecotax stations in France €850 million for breach of contract. A costly mess when you desperately need money.

Anne Hidalgo (L) and Ségolène Royal

One may question some other decisions by our Minister of the Environment, such as her recent objection to alternate driving days in Paris during another peak of fine-particle pollution that exceeded safety standards. No sooner had Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo decreed alternate driving days when a health hazard was reached than Ségolène Royal blocked the decree because she considered this an infringement on the rights of drivers and the dangerous levels had only existed for 24 hours. Only after 48 hours of continuous severe air pollution would she consider alternate driving days, she announced. Needless to say that clean air and health protection do not rank high for this Minister of the Environment.

Back to finding money:  Would it be an infringement of human rights to demand that driver's licenses be renewed every four years, like most anywhere else? To my knowledge, France is the only western country where a driver's license is issued for life. If the French government required regular renewals, even at a modest fee, this would bring in a flood of money - again, without any harm to anyone.  

Naive, perhaps?  Well, just sayin' …

Meanwhile, we are experiencing another weekend rouge, when the French leave massively for the coast or the mountains during staggered school vacations (this is the third and last 2-week Easter break). Trains and roads are clogged with vacationers, giving an impression that things cannot be all that bad.