Debate Develops over France's Social System
LIANE HANSEN, host:
After rejecting the proposed European Union constitution in May, France has become polarized. On the one side are those inside the existing system with secure jobs, excellent benefits and a strong commitment to maintaining the status quo. On the other hand are people looking for jobs, the country's business leaders and those who say France can only survive by changing its social model and becoming more internationally competitive. From Paris, Eleanor Beardsley has more.
(Soundbite of street market noises)
Mr. LEON COHEN: (French spoken)
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:
At a weekly street market near the Eiffel Tower, fruit and vegetable seller Leon Cohen(ph) says business is bad. The cost of living is too high and people don't have money to spend anymore, and that's because they don't work enough, he says.
Mr. COHEN: (Through Translator) I earned more money 30 years ago. Our costs have tripled, and because all the people who don't do anything are supported by those of us who work, especially the small businessman like myself.
BEARDSLEY: Cohen, who claims to work 120 hours a week, says he makes less than those working a 35-hour week.
Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)
(Soundbite of cheers)
BEARDSLEY: Many French people celebrated when France voted no to the European constitution in May. They said they'd saved the country from cutthroat Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism and have protected the jobs of workers like Cohen. French congressman Jean Michel Fourgous couldn't disagree more.
Mr. JEAN MICHEL FOURGOUS: (Through Translator) There's a global economic war going on today and France can no longer afford to have sterile debates questioning capitalism and globalization. It's absolutely absurd.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
BEARDSLEY: Fourgous is working with a comedian to produce a video that parodies French work habits. He wants to use it to educate the large number of people who he says don't understand economics. Fourgous says half of France works. It creates jobs and produces wealth. The France of companies like Michelin, Dannon and L'Oreal, and small businessmen like Cohen; the other half is holding the country back.
Mr. FOURGOUS: (French spoken) There are two Frances: commercial France and administrative France, and they don't have the same value systems or understand each other. And the problem is that administrative France, which is a total failure, wants to make laws and run the companies and this can't go on.
(Soundbite of people speaking in French)
BEARDSLEY: Cecile Moulard is president of Meetic, Europe's number-one online dating service. The company, which was founded four years ago, is growing by 20,000 subscribers a month, and employs 100 people. Moulard says France's social system makes it a great place to live, but, some things, like the employment protection laws, sap the country's competitiveness.
Ms. CECILE MOULARD (President, Meetic): I think the biggest problem that we have in hiring is we are so much concerned about making mistakes that it take us, you know, probably two times more than in the US to hire somebody. We have to be so careful, so that means that we don't take any risk in hiring people. And that's my main problem. I'd love to be able to take more risks.
BEARDSLEY: Many economists say with job security and the good life has come rigidity and slower growth, and France doesn't seem able to lower its chronic unemployment. Every government that tries backs down when confronted by protests in the streets.
(Soundbite of protest)
BEARDSLEY: This spring, President Jacques Chirac did manage to repeal the obligatory 35-hour workweek, allowing people to work more if they wish. But he backtracked on the rest of his reform plans in the face of massive public strikes. Surprisingly, France's 10 percent union membership is the lowest in Europe and is even below that of the United States. Congressman Furbuse says French unions have power because the media pays them too much attention and they control vital sectors like energy, transportation and communications.
(Soundbite of rail station)
Unidentified Woman: (French spoken)
BEARDSLEY: Claude Jayon(ph) is a union official who's worked for the French railway for 32 years. He says France wouldn't have efficient and comprehensive rail service if making a profit had been the only priority. Jayon says Europe was built on the Franco-German model of a strong public sector and he doesn't believe public services should be privatized.
Mr. CLAUDE JAYON: (Through Translator) I don't see how the flexibility to fire people and working more hours can create jobs. It just puts more pressure on the worker who sees his job threatened, and thus is plunged into uncertainty about the future. It's nothing but management by stress.
BEARDSLEY: Even so, everybody in France is now talking about flexibility and, to everyone's surprise, the new French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, widely considered part of administrative France, has made a bold move. To stimulate job creation, he passed a law which allows small companies to fire employees more easily. Villepin passed the law by decree, bypassing the French parliament. The business community and those desperate to work are delighted. But the other France is angry, and as soon as they come back from their long August vacation, they have promised to take the fight over the new law to the streets. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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