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The French undo it again

Staff Reports

Requesting a French plumber to turn up on time is like asking an Italian to eat spaghetti with chopsticks you’ll get the same look of bewildered confusion. Never mind the ever-flushing toilet or the leaking pipes, you will have to wait at home for days until the plumber deigns to answer your pleas for immediate assistance. Pressure him, and he will accuse you of trying to impose “your Anglo-Saxon values.”The French worker suffers from a reluctance to perform hard work, combined with a conviction that French “civilization” is superior to any other. This was clearly reflected in the decisive rejection of the proposed new constitution for Europe. In spite of an energetic government propaganda campaign and personal pleas from President Chirac, the French were unwilling to go along with increased centralization of Europe and the implied weakening of French independence and culture.One of the great fears raised by opposition to the new constitution was the specter of the “Polish Plumber” who would arrive on time, work better than a French plumber, and charge half the price. With the enlargement of the European Union to cover many former Soviet bloc countries has come an influx of cheap labor into France and other rich Western European countries. The French are most unhappy about it. And, looking at their high unemployment rate (over 10.2 per cent), who can blame them for being worried about their future?But they only have themselves to blame. Strong unions have forced through legislation reducing the official work week to 35 hours and they are entitled to a legal minimum of five weeks paid vacation in addition to 11 public holidays. On average, a French worker works 339 hours less per year than an American worker. On average, they retire before the age of 60 with a pension that can be as high as two thirds of their final salary. It is no wonder that other Europeans are now able to produce goods and services far cheaper than can the French and that French factories are closing in the face of competition from imports.Consider the case of my barber. For the seven years that I lived in France, each time he cut my hair he complained that it was unfair that he could not retire until 57. “I started work at 17 whereas others have only worked from the age of 21 or 22. Why should I have to work 40 years?” His lack of enthusiasm for working is reflected in a book Bonjour paresse (Hello Laziness), subtitled About the art and the necessity of doing the strict minimum for your company.The French are not inherently lazy, but have been made so by heavy doses of socialism and punitive tax rates. Tax rates are so high on earned income and welfare benefits are also high. When workers look at their net pay check and compare that with what they can make by doing nothing, the cost of not working is low. But who will pay for these welfare benefits in the future?France is aging rapidly and every year there will be fewer in the active working population supporting an ever increasing percentage of retired. By 2030 the population aged 65 and over will rise to 39.1 per cent. Adding the population aged 0-14, 68 per cent of the population will be supported by the remaining 32 per cent.Already France is one of the more heavily taxed countries and employers are extremely reluctant to create new jobs because of the high social taxes the have to pay (80-90 per cent in addition to the employee’s salary) and the difficulty of downsizing in the event of a downturn. If you think that our own social security system may have problems in 20 to 30 years, just image the French problem that is not nearly so far away.A number of French unions have blamed the eastern expansion of the EU for job losses, believing French workers are losing out to the low wage economies of the new EU member states, such as Poland and the Czech Republic. But the French unions themselves have contributed to the mess. Public sector workers such as firemen, police, teachers and doctors regularly go out on strike. And strikers not only strike against their own employers but often undertake industrial action “in sympathy” with other strikers. Just imagine the reaction in this country if truckers were to bring the highway system to a complete stop by blocking Interstate entrance and exit ramps, with the police standing by doing nothing.The results of the referendum on the Constitution show that most French resent domination by Brussels, and now they have put a spanner in the works of the European Union. I hope that they are prepared to live with the consequences. VT– Peter Leslie is a former CFO of the United Nations Development Program, now living in Vail. His comments on UN issues are on the web site of the Foreign Policy Association and his column appears periodically in The Vail Trail.


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