Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Financing the Unions

In the wake of the Gautier-Sauvagnac scandal (the head of the metals industry trade association UIMM is accused of withdrawing large sums of cash from his association's treasury), there has been much talk of possible occult financing of unions. France Démocrate has an extremely interesting post on the subject, along with a link to the Hadas-Lebel report, which is discussed in the text.

As it happens, I met M. Hadas-Lebel yesterday, when he gave an interesting talk on Sarkozy's first months in power at Harvard. I wish I had read this post yesterday so that I could have questioned him more closely about his report.

French Medicine: The Other Strike

Tim King has a very interesting post about the strike of French interns and the very uneven distribution of doctors in France.

The Times Remembers that France Exists

Americans with no particular interest in French politics would have a hard time piecing things together from the coverage provided by our newspaper of record, The New York Times. The Gray Lady often forgets France for weeks on end. Today, however, the country is favored with two articles, no less, though neither does much to situate its reportage in any comprehensible context. Elaine Sciolino's piece on Sarkozy attempts to reduce politics to mood music. She leads with the refusal of a Socialist mayor to hang Sarko's portrait in his town hall. His splenetic characterization of the president as "imperial and egotistical" is supposed to epitomize a gathering resentment in the country against a "flood" of "inititiatives" that "raise questions" about whether "a coherent strategy" lies behind them. This by way of preparing Times readers for the possibility that trouble may erupt in France tomorrow when workers go out on strike. Since images of unruly Frenchmen in the streets are sure to make the TV news, the Times doesn't want its readers to be taken by surprise, and many of them are no doubt still laboring under the illusion that Sarko, whom they take to be an adopted brother of American neoconservatism, has restored France to sanity, economic health, and the comity of nations.

A second article, by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, features the National Center for the History of Immigration. The tone is decidedly tart: with the "slightly ramshackle, melancholy air of a temporary installation," the museum, "sparsely devised with charts, graphs, interactive gadgets and odds and ends of memorabilia meant to humanize what is a fairly dry, lifeless display, ... is a well-meaning dud." Sarkozy's failure to attend the opening is duly noted. The difference between the hyphenated hybrid ideal of American multiculturalism and the unhyphenated assimilationist ideal of French republicanism is briefly evoked, but in a faintly condescending way, remarking an "obvious reluctance to dwell on touchy subjects." Clearly we handle things so much better here, with an immigration museum on Ellis Island to which the children of immigrants flock in large numbers in search of genealogical traces before returning to the mainland to vote in favor of large appropriations for a fence along the border with Mexico. Hence we are entitled to condescend to the French.

On en parlera

Is it now official because Le Nouvel Obs has written about it, even though the Élysée continues to say "no comment?" I leave it to les fins connaisseurs of the elusive French distinction between public and private and the rules of decorum governing what can be said in the one realm about the other. It remains to be seen if the president will drop his objection to the grilling of his Libyan emissary by a parliamentary commission. Mauvaises langues awaiting their opportunity will now be unleashed. Will Patrick Devedjian soon be denouncing another salope for spoiling the harmony of a party united behind its president? Or will the moving hand, having writ, now move on?

Jour G

Tomorrow is Jour G: le jour de grève. What will happen? Millions of people will be inconvenienced, for sure. The unions will show their strength. But will the show of strength crystallize anti-government sentiment as in 1995, or will it evaporate in acquiescence to the inevitable? Polls show some softening of support for the reform of the special regimes: a Figaro/BVA poll indicates 55 percent in favor, whereas a poll published in Humanité finds 54 percent opposed.

Bernard G offers an intelligent defense of the special regimes on his blog. His case is framed from the point of view of management: how to manage a business in which the activities of the bulk of the work force cannot easily be continued beyond a certain age. If suitable jobs do not exist within the firm, workers cannot be reclassified to other posts. To be sure, the government's insistence on the need for "equality" in retirement regulations does fly in the face of the obvious inequalities and complexities of work organization. Even if the government prevails, as I believe it will, some degree of flexibility will have to be negotiated ex post within the putatively egalitarian framework. The abolition of the special regimes will not be the end of retirement reform, and indeed one rationale for abolition is to simplify the task of further reform: once a degree of uniformity is established across the work force--private sector, civil servants, "special" employees of public enterprises--further revision can proceed in less piecemeal fashion, with perhaps a general framework covering all the regimes and suitable modifications for particular subgroups.

In monetary terms, the stakes in the special regime reform are relatively small. The symbolic content seems more important. Two different mentalities are about to come to blows: the union mentality, which sees a privileged retirement benefit as a prize won in battle, to be held if possible against a counter-attacking enemy; and the state mentality, which sees retirement obligations as a stream of future promises to pay whose net present cost exceeds the net present value of the revenue streams intended to support it. The confrontation is not a dialogue of the deaf, but a dialogue of mutually incomprehensible languages.