I was talking to a young Frenchman the other night over dinner. He’s the deputy head of one of Brittany’s best-performing secondary schools, but also – unsurprisingly perhaps – a bit of a leftie. We were assessing the impact of Sunday’s centre-right primary contest between François Fillon and Alain Juppé, which was of course won by Fillon, with his message of Thatcherism à la mode and high-Catholic conservatism.
My French friend was placed in a quandry by Fillon’s triumph. French voters had previously burst the comedy balloon of Nicolas Sarkozy, condemning the former President to to a lifetime of listening to Carla Bruni rehearsing her next breathless album. That was good. But now, with the defeat of Juppé (who must console himself with carrying on as mayor of Bordeaux), the new man of the moment was Fillon, as dry and unforgiving as the bones of a medieval saint.
As a result, Socialist voters were faced with an unappetising choice: Fillon or Marine Le Pen, loud-mouthed leader of the Front National. The Socialists, with the Far Left snapping at their heels, would be dismissed in the first round. Everyone knew that. It didn’t matter whether President Hollande stood as the joke candidate, or one of his party rivals, most obviously Manuel Valls. The party had disqualified itself from remaining in office by virtue of its incompetence, and the only question remaining was, could French workers, fearing Fillon’s promised reforms, restrain themselves from transferring their allegiance from the Soft Left to the Far Right?
My friend surprised me by reaching for one of the great clichés of gallic analysis. He said that Fillon was ready to go for the anglo-saxon economic model, which would never work in France. Les Anglais, he said, were merchant-oriented peoples, obsessed with profit and individual success, whereas the French were social and egalitarian by nature, prepared to work hard, but only if the state in return guaranteed them a comfortable living.
He was referring here to the 35-hour week, generous – and sustained – unemployment benefits, universal health care, early retirement and a bloated, jobs-for-life public sector, without which France would not be France, at least in the view of most of its inhabitants. And I have to say, it is hard to disagree with him.
One of the things you notice when you come to live here, as distinct from visiting as a tourist, is that, somehow or other, despite all logic, the system works. As Simon Nixon, of the Wall Street Journal, observed on Monday:
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“France in 2016 is a far cry from Britain in 1979, when the trash went uncollected, the dead unburied, and the economy was crippled by strikes that limited work to a three-day week. At the time, the U.K. government had to ask for help from the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, the French economy is expected to grow by 1.4% this year; its public services may be inefficient but enjoy high public support; and thanks to European Central Bank bond-buying, France isn’t under market stress. In short, it faces little internal or external pressure for reform.”
He’s not wrong. Travel around Paris and everything looks to be normal. The cafés and bars are filled with noise and laughter; the highly-efficient Metros and buses are stuffed with passengers; the shops and places of entertainment appear to be thriving, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Regular taxi-drivers compete with the freewheelers of Uber; Deliveroo bikers zip along the streets, which are kept clean by a combination of men in green with gigantic hoovers and the traditional bouches de lavage. In short, despite an unemployment rate of 10-5 per cent and plummeting tourist revenues, the Republic is holding up remarkably well. Whoever is organising the bread and circuses deserves a bonus.
My friend says this is because France doesn’t need to grow like China, or India, or Brazil. It’s rich already, with a highly developed infrastructure, and just needs to make a little more money each year to keep the show on the road. He says that in Britain and America, rapid increases in the value of property are a kind of virility symbol, while in France people just want a roof over their head and enough money over to enjoy a beer or glass of wine after work, take in the latest film and spend a month by the sea in August.
It is the old lifestyle trope that the French have been baiting us with for generations. But is it true or is it just the French deceiving themselves?
Fillon claims that he is the man to take his country out of the torpor into which it has fallen. He plans a Thatcherite revolution, centred on four things: tax reform, ending the 35-hour week, raising the retirement age and cutting the public sector workforce by 500,000.
He sees the problem well enough. Unemployment in France is at a level that ought to be alarming. Businesses large and small cannot afford to take on workers because of the ruinous rates of social charges. In supermarkets, DIY stores and banks, checkouts and service windows go largely unmanned. Manufacturing companies with full order books fear to expand their workforces lest a subsequent downturn leaves them with a surplus of unsackable employees, all intending to retire at 57 on a fat pension.
But to see a problem is not to solve it. Fillon will run into the brick wall of the trade unions if he seeks to dismantle the statutary working week. Strikes and demonstrations are guaranteed. As I have pointed out before, les trente-cinq heures have become enshrined in socialist theology as if they had been handed down by the Revolution, rededicated by the Communards and carried aloft by the Soixante-Huitards, instead of coming in as part of a package of reforms in February 2000. For the unions, the curtailed working week, along with retirement at 57 or 58, has become both a human right and a focus of loyalty.
The same is true of benefits. French workers expect to be looked after no matter what. One of my neighbours lost his job earlier this year when the repair shop in which he worked went bankrupt. He is 52 and appears perfectly content with the situation. He and his wife, who gave up working in a creamery four years ago after being diagnosed with diabetes, have maintained their standard of living without obvious difficulty, using benefits roughly equivalent to their previous combined earnings. Next month she goes into hospital to have a knee operation. It will cost her nothing, and while she is recovering she will be visited three times a week by a district nurse. Another neighbour, now dead, was brought his meals twice a day by social services. After he fell and broke a leg, his GP would drop in anytime he was passing to check that he was okay.
Who would want to give that up?
As Simon Nixon wrote, the core problem in French society today is the growing split between insiders and outsiders.
“The French statist model has traditionally prioritized powerful vested interests including public sector-workers, large corporations, members of trade unions and older workers who tend to be beneficiaries of highly protected permanent contracts over the interests of the self-employed, small- and medium-size businesses and younger workers who are often forced to settle for insecure temporary contracts.”
This being so (and it is), the trade unions protect the jobs of those in work while relying on the state to look after the unemployed, the sick and the old at the levels they came to expect during the years of plenty. Big business, at the same time, remains stubbornly profitable, relying on the fact that French engineering and technology is both innovative and competitive and that the workforce, in return for decent wages and a high level of protection, is per capita more productive than its counterparts in either the U.S. or Britain.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it is the maxim. Well, yes, up to a point. The trouble is that the breakdown of the French economy, though slow-moving, is moving just the same. Nothing much changes from one year to the next, but over the decades the treasury is emptying and the system is suffocating.
Fillon promises a jolt of reality. Le Pen, by contrast, promises more – much more – of the same, with the EU as her punchbag and immigrants targeted to feel the pain averted elsewhere. In the crazy times through which the western world is living, I hesitate to say that hers is the voice to which a majority of French workers will listen. Perhaps the upright M. Fillon will successfully appeal to their sense of what is right and fair and reasonable if France is to hold onto to its place at the world’s top table. I just wouldn’t bet on it. For a start, they consider the top table to be the table they dine at each evening while watching the talking heads on television and drinking a glass of wine.