Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gouverner, c'est choisir; manifester, c'est esquiver

Nicolas Sarkozy is not a popular president at the moment. His diminished personal stature is no doubt part of the motivation of the protesters: sensing weakness, they hope to cripple permanently a president whom they dislike. I'm not particularly fond of the president either, but I think that critics of government have a duty to put themselves in the government's place. In a good deal of the commentary on the present crisis, I find, however, that delight in Sarkozy's discomfiture takes the place of responsible evaluation of the policy as opposed to the person.

Take, for instance, this comment from Thierry Desjardins, always a lucid and well-informed observer:

Mais, d’une part, tout le monde sait que cette réforme est insuffisante et qu’il faudra rouvrir le chantier avant longtemps et, d’autre part et surtout, on ne pas peut dire que la chose ait été menée de main de maître.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu lancer cette réforme (comme celle de la fiscalité, plus ou moins promise pour l’année prochaine) dès le début du quinquennat, avant que Sarkozy ne sombre dans tous les sondages. Mais il est vrai que Sarkozy s’était bêtement engagé, pendant sa campagne, à ne pas toucher aux 60 ans.

Il est d’ailleurs évident qu’il était maladroit de s’attaquer à ce mythe des 60 ans. Il aurait suffi d’augmenter, avec une certaine hypocrisie, le nombre d’années de cotisation nécessaires pour avoir une retraite à taux plein et le tour était joué.

Il est évident qu’il aurait fallu prendre mieux en compte la « pénibilité » (ne pas la confondre avec l’« invalidité »), le cas des carrières longues et des carrières interrompues. On aurait ainsi donné un os à ronger aux syndicats.

Il est évident enfin qu’il aurait fallu virer Eric Woerth aux premiers jours du scandale qui allait le discréditer totalement aussi bien aux yeux de ses interlocuteurs syndicalistes qu’aux yeux des Français et lui interdire de porter cette réforme difficile.
There is in this analysis a mixture of candor, cynicism, and Schadenfreude that I find disturbing, not to say flabbergasting. Unlike many who are in the streets, Desjardins concedes that reform is necessary. He criticizes Sarkozy first for promising not to touch the 60-year retirement age and then for clumsiness in attacking it. He does not allow for the possibility that at the time of the campaign it may have seemed possible to preserve that much of the status quo but that conditions have since changed. Rather, he charges Sarkozy with insufficiency of hypocrisy. It would have been better, says Desjardins, to pretend that the age limit can remain unchanged while adjusting the rules of the retirement system to make its preservation little more than a hollow promise (which is essentially the policy prescription of Martine Aubry). It is perhaps refreshing to hear a politician denounced for telling the truth rather than prevaricating. Desjardins, as a shrewd political observer, seems to wish for a leader whose Machiavellianism he can admire. But this seems just a little unfair to the current president.

He then faults Sarkozy for failing to dicker over the definition of pénibilité, thus "throwing a bone for the unions to gnaw on." And he wishes Sarkozy had begun this reform earlier in his presidency, when his popularity was still high. Perhaps he has forgotten that there was a previous round of retirement reform, ending the special regimes and aligning the public sector system on the private sector. Perhaps he has forgotten that at that time Sarkozy did dicker with the unions and was widely criticized, not unjustly, for offering special deals to certain of them in order to buy off opposition. In any case, the notion that the unions have not been "consulted"--one of the cries of the protesters--is ludicrous. Retirement reform has been a central issue of French politics since 1995, if not before. There has been abundant consultation. But at some point decisions have to be made.

I do not claim that the reform on the table is without flaws, and Desjardins is surely right to state, as Le Monde did in its editorial yesterday, that this reform will not definitively resolve the issue. Indeed, an amendment was introduced in the Senate promising a fresh look at the issue in 2012 and a more thorough overhaul at that time. This may prove to be an empty promise. But when you add up all of Desjardins' charges, what are you left with? The conclusion that a) the retirement system needs reform; b) the increase of the age for minimum benefits to 62 was a necessary measure that might have been better camouflaged but couldn't really be avoided; c) the system still won't be solvent even after retrenchment. Henri Guaino might well want to weave these points into Sarko's speech next week. They actually constitute a rather persuasive defense of the reform, whose chief flaw in Desjardins' eyes is that it didn't go far enough. And, of course, that it will have been promulgated by a president whom he detests.


Kirk said...

Well said.

I have to say, this trope that the unions were not "consulted" is one of the biggest bare-faced lies on the left around this whole issue. Not only were they consulted - and, as you point out, from the very beginning of Sarkozy's term, with the other retirement reforms - but they run the danm pension funds, so they know the numbers as well as anyone.

FrédéricLN said...

Very rich post, congrats.

May I suggest that:

Point C " the system still won't be solvent even after retrenchment. " is probably not one of those Mr Sarkozy would like to put forward.

And "consultation" has a quite specific, and untold, meaning in French politics.

The difference is not between a hidden intention and a public consultation: everything is public at some point (excepted "big money" issues such as weapons or oil contracts, of course).

And the trade unions did write and publish lots of policy papers on the pensions reform.

The difference lies in the intention of the rulers. Do they consider "consultation" as a ritual ceremony, a due process for already taken decisions to be enforced? Or do they hope improvement to come from the virtue of debate - do they believe in democracy as a policy-making process?

There is even a specific word I heard from a executive in the State service : "concerter" as a non-reflexive verb. "De quoi se plaignent-ils ? On a concerté la décision". (Meaning: we were generous enough to organize a meeting where we explained what would be done and listened to objections with patience).

Trade Unions leaders (and other ones) know the game so well - they understand from the beginning in which category each process falls.

The reform of special pensions systems (régimes spéciaux) was in category 1: Mr Sarkozy's aim was to be able to announce "I fulfilled my campaign commitment", whatever the content. The Trade Unions understood the opportunity: the pensions of these "special" employees costs now more that before to the State, according to some (I did not compute myself).

The present reform is different, just because the State is now too poor to play this kind of game. The game could have been open, and the democracy could have worked, if that fact had just been shared from the beginning. The State might just have said, for example: from Jan 1, 2011 on, we can't guarantee the pensions system with new debt; it's up to the Trade Unions and the Employeers Unions (who jointly run the system) to get the balance right.

Why didn't they do so? I can't know. I can just imagine that their own priviledges and big weapons deals (or others) would suddenly appear as the outrages they are.

brent said...

As with Social Security reform in the U.S., common-sense justifications of the French pension reform law are valid only if one overlooks the possibility of paying for existing benefits (or more generous ones, as in Bolivia) through additional funding sources, i.e. reversing the massive transfers of wealth to the wealthy that have characterized the last several decades. That said, manifester is unfairly characterized as esquiver: on the contrary, while street protests are not the best forum for devising alternative pension reform, they declare in the clearest terms what the people are no longer willing to sacrifice so that the rich can get richer.

TexExile said...

The answer to Frédéric's final question is fairly simple: because the unions and the employers' organisations would rather die than tackle the problem. Many in both camps know perfectly well that the present system is unsustainable but the unions would rather have the government impose a solution (even if they oppose it, seeking what concessions they can for their members) than take responsibility themselves. And the employers' bodies are no better. They want the government to take the heat -- they certainly do not want such painful choices to poison their relations with the unions.

In countries that have tried to leave these kinds of major reforms to bilateral bargaining, with the government observing rather than leading, the usual result is NIL -- not because concertation doesn't work but because it tends to work only when the government is ready and able to lead. Absent a credible threat to act unilaterally, or at least to sanction non-cooperation, the government has no way to get the other parties to budge.

They, in turn, have no incentive to assume the responsibility for the painful choices the state wishes to devolve on them, because the electorate (rightly, in my view) recognises that the government is ultimately responsible for the state of the system.

Anyway, the notion that some sort of bargain between employers' bodies and unions represents a societal bargain is a fantasy, albeit one widely believed in some countries. Unions represent their members -- organised, regular workers in those sectors where unionisation rates are high. It is ludicrous to pretend that they represent labour-market outsiders. And employers' organisations represent some part of the population of established, incumbent firms, with the larger ones usually dominating.

If the government is not at the table representing labour-market outsiders, entrant firms, future generations, etc -- in short, all those not represented by current organised incumbent interests -- then no one is.

TexExile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leo said...

thanks for bringing a bit of sanity in the debate.

As for the non-consultation of the Unions, or the fast-path Senate vote used by the Government which the Socialist party decries, a few historical facts are worth remembering:

When Mitterand pulled forward retirement age from 65 to 60 in 82, it was not even reviewed in Parliament. The Mauroy Government passed it with "Ordonnances", a constitutional device invented by De Gaulle...which Mitterand had sternly criticized (Le Coup d'Etat Permanent).

When the 35 hours week was invented by Martine Aubry, it was hardly discussed with Business and was passed without any feature originating from them. You may remember the head of CNPF, Jean Gandois, a pretty moderate guy, resigned in protest.

More recently, the previous round of reforms managed by Fillon in 2003, it gave way to long consultation. I recall Fillon taking Union leaders to numerous foreign field trips. Fillon did also introduce CFDT proposals to soften the blow on folks who had started working at a young age.
We all know the result: CFDT was the only Union to support the changes and it cost them a few hundred thousand members including their almost total disappearance at SNCF.
No doubt that Fillon was loath to embark on a doomed negotiation process in the midst of a looming fiscal crisis with its attendant consequences on the cost of public debt.

Now,that is not good but, it's unfortunately the way it is in France. We ain't no Swedes.

And Brent: Bolivia! No thank you.

FrédéricLN said...

& TexExile : "The answer to Frédéric's final question is fairly simple: because the unions and the employers' organisations would rather die than tackle the problem"

I'm not so sure. Trade Unions would rather die than admit a right-wing government may be true, and Business Alliances would rather die than admit a left-wing government may be true; and for this reason, they are very happy if the government take decision and leaves them with the right to disagree and protest.


That's true only as long as the (State) government is in charge of the issue. If the government says "we do not financially back the system any more, please cope with it", they will, and they will find an agreement on a solvent system.

That's exactly what they did in 2008 on the unemployment insurance. I do not agree with their choices (esp. on the "départ négocié", ie the entitlement to unemployment allowances even if you have not been fired), but I must grant that the new regulation passed "comme une lettre à la poste", no day of strike, no protest by anyone.

TexExile, you write that "Unions represent their members -- organised, regular workers in those sectors where unionisation rates are high. It is ludicrous to pretend that they represent labour-market outsiders."

-> It may be right for those countries where agreements between TUs and employers are applicable only to TU members. It's not the case in France. TUs members do have influence on their Unions agendas - but there are many other influences. For example, the representation of TUs in the bodies they manage (including the pensions system) does not depend on membership, but rather on their shares of voices in contests where every employee can vote for his/her preferred contest. TUs depend much more on public opinion - and on State-regulated funding - than on membership.

Yes Unions can manage decently - as far as they are truly in charge. If they are asked to manage a system where they can hope the State to pay for deficits, why would they mange it decently? They have no incentive for that.

FrédéricLN said...

Please read ... "his/her preferred Union" ... above!