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Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Stop whining, start working: French finance minister


Francis Mer could be relaxing in the Caribbean if he wanted. Instead, France's 64-year-old finance minister gets up routinely at 5:30am, exercises for half an hour on his rowing machine and then works a 14-hour day.

He wants more French people to work like him.

A former steel magnate who is rich enough not to work, Mer is a man on a mission to promote the merits of hard graft in a country where employees enjoy some of the shortest working hours in Europe and are keen to resist the pressures of globalization.

Mer is unfazed by the scale of his challenge and has a clear message for the French: The state is not going to be there for you in the way it used to be.

"For the last 20 years, French culture has been marked by the message `Don't tire yourself out. We'll look after you,'" he told students in the city of Lyon.

"As much as it is desirable to know how to relax, and to enjoy this relaxation, if you think of your personal life and your professional life as a long, quiet journey which consists of waiting for life to end, then life will just pass you by," Mer said.

France's public finances are creaking under the pressure of the increasing cost of people who have retired and Mer's work ethic pitch is aimed at selling reforms being pushed through by the centre-right government.

Since coming to power in June last year, the administration has knocked the edge off France's 35-hour week -- the landmark reform of the previous, Socialist-led government -- by allowing workers to clock up more overtime.

Another reform passed this year requires people to work longer to earn their state pension. A further measure cut a national holiday to raise health care funding for the elderly.

Mer wants to further reduce dependency on the state and boost public revenues by reducing France's unemployment rate and getting more people to work -- an approach endorsed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

France has one of the lowest employment rates in Europe, with just over 60 percent of the active population in work compared to 65 percent in Germany and 73 percent in Britain.

A new government measure aims to get more people to work by encouraging the long-term unemployed to accept low-paid jobs.

Under the legislation, about 1 million long-term unemployed will be offered a part-time work placement with a company or state employer for a maximum of 18 months at the statutory net minimum wage of 545 euros (US$676) a month.

The idea is that this could then lead to another job.

Critics say the government is trying to cut France's jobless rate of nearly 10 percent without tackling the mismatch between the skills companies need and those the long-term unemployed have to offer.

"When people have been out of work for a long time, they need training," said Jacques Rastoul, who deals with labour issues at the left-wing CFDT union.

He said there was a risk the scheme would provide businesses with cheap, temporary labour rather than offering the jobless a real route back into long-term employment.

Many people in France worry that the government's reform agenda will threaten the French way of life by opening the way to a more Anglo-American, capitalist society.

Mer's work ethic marks a change in the economic mind-set in France, where selling change can be a tricky business. The pension reform was passed after nationwide strikes and demonstrations that crippled transport services.

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