Change in France : social rights, revolutions and the pursuit of harmony


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Here is one of the best article about French culture, society and politics I have read in a while : France's 'pursuit of harmony'

I am sure that outsiders and insiders alike will gain in understanding France by reading that article. Let me comment on a few points.

First of all, it is important to understand that French people have held their social, economic and political rights very dear in them ever since the French Revolution. Japanese observers might say that France is a country that lacks harmony, because of the frequent demonstrations against the government. I beg to differ. French people are united in this, and the government accepts it, and indeed would never dare threaten national cohesion. Quoting from the BBC's article in link :
BBC said:
They are fine, festive affairs, these frequent marches and demonstrations, and they bring a kind of gaiety to the streets of Paris.

There is an air of national solidarity about them too.

When the transport workers go on strike even the stranded commuters express sympathy!


he last demonstration I attended as the BBC's Paris correspondent was a march through Paris by the nation's family doctors: the general practitioners.
I fell into conversation with a young GP from Bordeaux.
"We don't lose a day's pay," she said, "it's our right to strike - it would be an outrage if the government stopped our pay for exercising our right."

Then what about the cost of the journey to Paris and her overnight stay?

"The union pays that," she said.

And where does the union get its funding?

"From the government," she adds.

I came to see that what I was reporting on was a government-funded demonstration... against the government.

There is something revealing in this, something revealing about the condition of France.

Revealing indeed. This is the way French democarcy works. The government not only approves, but almost encourages (and sponsors !) demonstrations about hot issues, so as to test the willingness of the people to change or stick to the current situation. The size of the demonstration gives an idea of the percentage of the population in agreement or disagreement with the proposed government policy.

And French people don't give up their acquired rights easily, sometimes overdoing it a bit :
BBC said:
French train drivers still receive something called La Prime De Charbon, the coal bonus, first awarded in the age of steam.

And the drivers of the SNCF national railway system will go to the barricades to defend it decades after they last set foot on a steam train.

For the coal bonus is just one small example of what is known in France as "les avantages acquis", the accrued benefits (or accumulated rights) which the French believe have been fought for over decades, which represent social progress and hallmark the French way of life.

And which must never be given up.

British or American critics of France like to point out that the French economy doesn't grow as fast as theirs.

BBC said:
British friends say to me: "You keep saying the French economy is in deep trouble but look at France! Everything works: great railways, terrific health service, good schools, wonderful restaurants, a 35-hour working week. It can't be that troubled?"

And how could you not agree with that ? The GDP per capita in France may be slightly lower than in Japan, for instance, but the quality of life, everything from housing to health care or social rights, are also considerably higher.

I cannot help but disagree with the BBC correspondant here :
BBC said:
t is true that if you are in work, France treats you very well, but if you are one of the 10% unemployed you live in a very different France altogether.

French social security (unemployment benefist, etc.) is one of the most generous in the world, along with the German and Belgian ones. It is actually one of the few countries where it is possible to live all one's life on the social security, and not be poor (as long as you start with a minimum, or live with your family).

BBC said:
France loves its avantages acquis, but they become expensive and France is living beyond its means.

It has spent more than it has raised in revenue for 29 consecutive years.

Its public debt is twice the size of Britain's and every year, debt servicing (paying the interest alone) is eating more and more of the country's national budget.

If it is true that the French government spends a bit too much, France's public debt is not excessive. As a percentage of GDP, it is almost identical to the USA's or Germany's (around 65%), and nearly 3x lower than Japan's ! Looking at the list of countries by public debt, the UK has an exceptionally low public debt for a developed country, only higher than Norway, Ireland, Australia or New Zealand's. Naturally, entertaining some of the world's highest uneployment benefits and best health care come at a cost... I don't think it is excessive, considering that Japan spends 3x more to achieve less, and the US spends as much without such social security.

Let's carry on.

BBC said:
One frustrated right-wing member of the national assembly told me:

"We French don't do reform, we do revolution. Nothing changes until everything changes. We are on to our fifth republic and the Americans are still on their first."

There is, though, sound reason for this and it seems to me to lie in France's history.

French governments have a horror of confrontation, of dividing the French against themselves.
In a book published last year, the British historian of France, Alistair Horn, quotes General de Gaulle likening French society to the geometrical arrangements of a classical French garden. "The observer takes delight," the general remarked, "in the garden's magnificent harmony."

"And that," the historian adds, "the pursuit of harmony, is what France is all about."

In this regard, France looks very similar to Japan. "Nothing changes until everything changes" (reminders of Meiji and the Us Occupation in Japan ?), and a government that doesn't want to divide its people for the sake of social harmony. On this last point, France and Japan are the antithesis of the American or German systems.

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