Margaret and Dick   


October '10: Aux barricades! France goes on strike

I got a hint that trouble was coming when I went to the gas station and found the pump empty.  “Nothing special, the tank truck is just late,” said the attendant.  He was perhaps being hopefully optimistic.  It was the first sign of trouble from the series of one-day general strikes.  A few days later all refineries in France were blockaded by strikers. 

Soon after, we returned to Atlanta from our summer home in Southwest France – and just in time.  The next day, a general strike shut down France’s transportation, post office, schools and universities, and public services.  Why the strikes?  The government is changing the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and age for full benefits from 65 to 67.  Similar rules are already in place for the rest of Europe.  The French Social Security account risks going broke. 

I don’t claim to be an expert on actuarial realities or on French politics, just a fascinated observer of French culture and its quirks.  French citoyens take to the streets when they want to express outrage, that is to say, frequently. 

Acquired benefits quickly become a birthright.  Generous early retirement looked like a great idea in 1983 when the Socialists took power and the economy was booming.  A generation later, it’s an aquis (entitlement) that people are fighting to keep.  With five weeks of paid vacation a year, French workers are among the most pampered in Europe.  That is, if you have a job:  unemployment remains stuck at around 10% for the general population and twice that for those under 25. 

Since people are living longer, more are drawing retirement benefits.  But the economic downturn has decreased revenues going into the retirement account.  More outflow and less income spells trouble, says the government.  Either they’ll have to decide which older folks to eliminate, or they will need to implement a retirement age where Social Security inputs balance outputs.  France is not alone in this situation, of course – it’s common to all developed countries.  But the strikers don’t accept that math:  “The state must provide.”

We were surprised to find high school students very active in the strikes.  The day before we left, I heard sounds of a demonstration and walked over to the lycée to observe.  Students had erected a makeshift barricade of tree branches, garbage cans, and wooden pallets to symbolically block access to the school.  "Aux barricades!" is deep in the French cultural heritage.  Governments have been overthrown through strikes three times since the 1789 revolution.  

People waved flags and shouted slogans.  From a bullhorn came an announcement that the young strikers would soon be bussed to another demonstration.   “And then we’ll have lunch tout tranquillement (peacefully).”  Don’t want to miss lunch, another French entitlement.

I had to smile seeing who was holding the bullhorn’s amplifier:  a gray-bearded guy, wearing 60’s-style wire-rimmed sunglasses, military fatigues, and a red scarf.   He looked unchanged since his first trip to the barricades in the famous student uprising of 1968. 

What do these 18-year-olds know or care about retirement?  The students are concerned that, if the oldsters delay retirement for two years, the students’ first jobs will be delayed by two years.  But surely these grads with the prestigious Bac diplomas are unlikely to be taking over the same jobs of older, less educated folks about to retire?

Here’s how it works.  The average French person in their first job expects to stay in that same company for their entire career and is protected by strict employment regulations.  Result: once a job is filled, it really may not re-open for 30-40 years. 

Young people inherit a “stay safe” attitude from their culture.  A post office or civil service job is highly prized.  Newly employed young folks transform their first house into a dream house for life, and moving to another job in another town is virtually unthinkable.  We see it in the grown children of our friends:  a young cook quit his restaurant job for a safe job at the hospital, another happily went to work as a gardener for the town.  They’ll be safe in those jobs until retirement.  My French former exchange students are still with the same companies they started with many years earlier.

French companies are constrained by an inflexible labor policy.  Once hired, employees are almost never fired.   Companies that hire in a period of expansion cannot contract in a slow period.  Companies are therefore reluctant to expand, so the number of jobs rarely increases. 

In early November, the French national assembly gave full approval to the retirement changes.  Strikers once again blocked France’s largest airports.  Air travelers abandoned their cars on the roadside and hiked in their rollerboards, hoping to catch their flights. 
PHOTO – Walk to airport with roller board

Aux barricades!”  It would be comical if it wasn’t such a frustrating and ineffective way to make change.  And it’s not over yet.

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