Thu, Aug 29, 2013 - Page 9 News List

French leftists are forced to fight against the system they installed

Students, unions and workers in France prefer that their lives not change too much, but the aging population and the economy will soon make change a necessity

By Steven Erlanger  /  NY Times News Service, PARIS

Even in France’s justly famous agricultural sector, the shrinking number of farmers has not been matched by a similar reduction in bureaucrats. Jacques Galaup, a farmer near Gaillac in the southwest, spoke with disdain of the number of hours he had to spend on paperwork — and estimated that there was probably one functionary for every farmer.

Galaup showed off his records on the fewer than 30 cows that he raises. The files are thick and all done by hand; computers have barely made it to most levels of government.

In poll after poll, the French insist that they want renovation and modernization, so long as it does not touch them. That is always the political challenge, and Hollande’s conservative predecessor, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is considered to have failed in his promise to make serious structural changes.

While complaining constantly, for example, about the horrors of the 35-hour workweek, Sarkozy never dumped it, but simply played with the tax consequences of overtime, a change that Hollande immediately revoked. One of Sarkozy’s advisers, Alain Minc, who tried to get him interested in Germany’s social market revisions, once admitted that Sarkozy was simply afraid to confront the unions and the social uproar that real change would provoke.

There is a broad consensus that real social and structural renovation can be carried out only by the left. That can happen only if Hollande, who has a legislative majority, is willing to confront his own party in the name of the future, as the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder did a decade ago with a series of legal modifications that now get much of the credit for Germany’s revival.

Hollande says he believes in “dialogue with social partners,” which has so far produced relative peace, but little substantive change. With centrist union agreement, he has slightly loosened the labor market, making flex time easier and taxing short-term contracts more steeply. Next year he is moving about US$27 billion of social costs from corporations to the regressive value-added tax.

What can seem bold in local terms tends to yield minor results, and these modest efforts have taken place at the height of Hollande’s power, which is inevitably declining.

In his book The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, Matthew Cobb quotes a man named Boris Vilde, executed by the Nazis. His last words were: “I love France. I love this beautiful country. Yes, I know it can be small-minded, selfish, politically rotten and a victim of its old glory, but with all these faults it remains enormously human and will not sacrifice its stature.”

By refusing to grapple with its underlying faults, many here say that is exactly what it is doing.

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