Wednesday, September 5, 2007


A new study puts the rate of unionization in France at 7.2 percent of the work force, one of the lowest rates in Europe. The CGT, with 525,000 members is the largest union, followed by CFDT with 450,000 and FO with 300,000. These figures are lower than the numbers claimed by the unions, CFDT boasting of 800,000 members and CGT of 710,000. The relative strengths of the unions may become significant if, as is likely, opinions diverge over impending labor-market reforms.

And by way of illustration, FO has announced that it will not object to "simplified" layoff procedures.

A Teacher Grades the Presidential Letter

Needs improvement.

Place Vendôme

In any government the position of minister of justice is a politically sensitive one, as Alberto Gonzales recently discovered.* In a government that came to power in part on a platform promising citizens greater security and tougher punishment, the political sensitivity may be still greater. Rachida Dati has certainly been among the more active, visible, and popular ministers of the new government in her brief tenure, and she is particularly close to the president. Hence the continuing turmoil in the justice ministry has come in for a good deal of attention and speculation. More members of her staff have resigned. The departed officials have thus far maintained their reserve, at least in public, so it's impossible to say whether the changes reflect normal tussling between minister and staff, something peculiarly authoritarian in Dati's management style, or expressions of conscience and principle. Speculation is rampant. Magistrates are said to be up in arms about her calling on the carpet the vice-prosecutor of Nancy, who refused to ask for the maximum penalty for a recidivist, but how widespread this reaction might be is not clear.

In any case, Elisabeth Guigou, a former Socialist minister of justice, has some intelligent things to say about the Sarkozyst approach to justice. She doesn't like "show laws," she doesn't like legislating in the heat of emotion, she doesn't like the blunderbuss approach to the treatment of sex offenders, which ignores the experience of other countries. She also discusses the state of the PS in measured terms. Worth a look. I wonder why she isn't playing a more prominent role in the renovation of the party.

ADDENDUM: Claude Guéant's son is joining Dati's staff.

Additional commentary here and here.

* Another indication of the reason for the political sensitivity is the announcement today that Claude Chirac, Jacques's daughter, is under investigation.

Cohen on GDF-Suez

Economist Elie Cohen gives an excellent analysis of the GDF-Suez merger: "Economic patriotism, practiced elsewhere but hidden, is here [in France] a matter for boasting and even mediatization."

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

President Sarkozy yesterday addressed a letter (long version) to the schoolteachers of France in which he expressed the hope that la culture générale could be restored to a central place in the curriculum. So presumably students will be asked to spend less time studying the semiotics of advertising and more time on classics such as Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. This proposal is particularly à propos, since Dominique de Villepin has just recommended Molière's play as essential to an understanding of the Sarkozy "court": "This is the country of Molière," he said, "let's not be taken in as to what's really going on. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is a play that must be seen and re-seen." All this by way of constructive criticism, mind you: "I was in a government in which Nicolas Sarkozy was constantly saying that what was needed was more spirited debate. He was right, and I'm the one who's now playing the role of gadfly to a majority that mustn't rest on its laurels." This is all the more necessary, he said, because "there is no longer any opposition."

Bold words for a man who may soon be facing trial in a case in which the president of the Republic (a.k.a. le bourgeois gentilhomme) is among les parties civiles against l'aristocrate à particule de Villepin--an interesting conundrum for constitutional lawyers and intertextual literary theorists.

Labor Market Reform

Economist Olivier Blanchard offers his views on labor market reform. Among the noteworthy suggestions is a proposal to increase unemployment benefits coupled with a shift in the burden of financing of the unemployment system to firms that lay off workers rather than distributing the burden equally among all firms: "faire payer plus si elles licencient plus," a slogan with a rhythm reminiscent of the campaign rhetoric of a certain presidential candidate. Blanchard also recommends a complete overhaul of the system of ongoing professional training to assist in job mobility. He says that France is currently spending 25 billion annually on such training (3 times the amount spent on the RMI) and that most of this money is wasted on training programs ill-adapted to the needs of employers and job-seekers.

He also wants to make firms the final arbiters in layoffs "for economic reasons," although workers would be permitted to appeal to a judge if they feel their dismissal was discriminatory. Ultimately, separation pay is to be determined by seniority in the work force (not in the particular job), and this system of progressive indemnities would replace the current multiplicity of labor contracts.

Since Blanchard has been an advisor to Sarkozy on economic matters and has written, with Jean Tirole, a report on unemployment for the CAE, this article may well anticipate the direction that coming labor-market reform proposals will take. One sympathetic observer's reaction can be read here.