For decades, the French economic and social system has been haunting Anglo-Saxon market fundamentalists. While Americans work late into the evenings, often with only 2 weeks vacations, worrying about inadequate health insurance, education for their children and crumbling infrastructure, the majority of the French seem to enjoy their lives to the fullest. With 6 weeks paid leave they travel the globe. Their state run medical system is free and excellent. Education for talented students is still considered something of a human right instead of an "investment".
The French chat with their friends and colleagues over long lunches, read newspapers and books in cafes; most of them work only 35 hours a week. They live longer than the citizens of the US and Great Britain and their HDI – Human Development Index (normalized measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standard of living, and GDP per capita for countries worldwide) – is higher.
While there is an undeniable movement of educated, mostly business and trade oriented, men and women seeking opportunities across the Channel, an incomparably larger number of British citizens are settling down in France, which is renowned for its high quality of life and pleasant living conditions. To many around the world, France is synonymous not only with elegance, but also with a high quality in scientific, academics, culture and creative standards.
Yet the French system is constantly under fire, at home and abroad. It is often described by its critics as archaic or even obsolete. The left and center want to reform it while the right seems determined to destroy and replace it with the standardized Anglo-Saxon model. French citizens show periodically erratic and confused behavior, showering with votes extremists like Jean-Marie Le Pen a French far-right nationalist politician, founder and president of the Front National (National Front) party. Le Pen has run for the French presidency five times, including in 2002, when in a surprise upset he came second, securing more votes in the first round than the main left candidate, Lionel Jospin.
Were French voters "punishing the establishment" yet again when they elected Nicolas Sarkozy?
It seems that it had already been decided by the corporate world (and therefore by the media that it controls) that the French system is gangrenous, deadly and highly contagious. The French don’t work enough, they are not stimulated to work; they waste precious time on frivolous activities, mostly leisure.
While the mainstream English-language press rarely reviews contemporary French fiction or non-fiction books, there was plenty of fuss around Corinne Maier’s "Hello Laziness" ("Bonjour Laziness – Jumping Off The Corporate Ladder"). As one reader put it, "Maier encourages an anarchistic approach to corporate life, one which professes that the avoidance of responsibility and action is the best revenge against an oppressive bureaucratic structure, and that increased job satisfaction will come with working less." That seemed to be exactly what critics of the French social state were waiting for. Maier and her short best seller were immediately brought to the spotlight; allegedly the book was proving that work ethics and the social state couldn’t share the same bed. Commentaries had an almost identical conclusion: the present French system encourages laziness and makes France uncompetitive.
False. Of course the French tend to work fewer hours than citizens of other industrialized nations. That’s what they fought for and won. According to a Forbes reported survey (03.22.05 "France, Bastion of Productivity") of 25 industrialized countries conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the French do work less than most others. They clocked an average 1,431 hours per year. Even allowing six weeks vacation, this works out to just 31 hours per week, less than even "les heures" would dictate. But Norwegian and Dutch employees worked even less. German workers, who traditionally have been viewed as paragons of industrial effort, put in 1,446 hours, barely more than the French. British (1,673 hours), Americans (1,792 hours) and Koreans (2,390 hours) worked substantially more." But the article continues: "Still, French workers remain among the most productive in the world, ahead of Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat, the AP reports."
France produces first-rate automobiles and airplanes (Airbus is assembled in Toulouse). Its state run energy and transportation sectors are probably the most efficient, high-tech and ecological in the world. France has the fastest trains in the world, connecting almost all major cities. Its urban areas as well as countryside are elegant, served by modern public transportation, with large public spaces, combining centuries-old history and cutting edge technologies. French design, arts and fashion are considered an etalon of quality all over the world. So are the food and wine.
But that doesn’t seem to be enough and it probably isn’t, at least from the corporate point of view and from the angle of the New World Order. France may have some of the mightiest companies in the world, some of the largest banks and some of the richest people on the planet. But it also has an "extremely spoiled" work force; men and women who are stubbornly convinced that their country should serve its citizens, not the corporate culture, convinced that they should work in order to eat and travel and enjoy life, not in order to make a few corporate tycoons outrageously rich.
And these annoying people are determined to fight for their rights, as they did for decades and centuries.
That may be unacceptable in a world where daring to even criticize the present system may be synonymous with extremism, even terrorism.
To a large extent thanks to its free and excellent education system, French citizens are extremely well read and informed. Although the circulation of major newspapers (like everywhere else) is declining, France has still some of the mightiest alternative publications in the world and these in turn have a global impact, like Le Monde Diplomatique. French films may not be as revolutionary and avant-garde as they once were, but many still carry strong social messages. Politics, globalization, the environment and imperialism are some of the topics still discussed at those long and leisurely-spent hours in cafes, restaurants and bars. The French dare to take precious time off and trash the system, instead of making the companies and their CEOs richer and richer. It would be unacceptable from the point of view of New Labor in Britain or the Democratic Party in the US.
And to make things worse, even conservative French Presidents like Jacque Chirac actually opposed several US military actions, including the US-British invasion of Iraq. At least pro-forma and for a time. Not that the French government would ever send troops or the air force to defend some desperate country under US attack (like Laos or Vietnam), but at least it made sufficient noise to help show that the world is not yet fully run by global dictatorship.
French "dissent" is not taken lightly by the ruling powers. France has become a target of ridicule and criticism, similar to that unleashed, for different reasons, against China (PRC).
But to neo-cons and market fundamentalists in Washington and London (and also in places like Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or Riyadh), France’s social system represents a much greater danger than its foreign policy.
Fear of becoming unemployable, fear of being labeled as extremists, fear of being photographed and marked: all that prevents American and British workers from doing what they were doing in earlier decades and centuries: fighting for improvement of their conditions even if it meant trashing their own cities in order to get better pay and benefits, to gain free education for their children and free and decent medical care for their sick. Surveillance techniques employed by the state and private sector, a general lack of political opposition, and the deeply implanted belief that it is impossible to change the system: all this has thrown the workers in Anglo-Saxon countries and elsewhere back to the ages of pre-industrial revolution.
But in France, people are still fighting. They strike. They riot. Sometimes the opposition is fragmented or marginalized (Dominique Vidal, deputy editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, once explained to me how the state went far out of its way to sow the seeds of mistrust between the French poor, workers and foreign migrants: groups that should naturally form one strong alliance).
Despite the setbacks, alliances are periodically forged and some unions are playing more than a decorative role. French people are deeply suspicious of capitalism. They know well that if unchecked, the market system will act like that old computer game Pac Man, eating all there is on its way. Only the state can prevent it from taking full control of the society. Only the state can act in the interest of the people, of the majority. It can hardly be expected from private enterprise, as history has repeatedly proven.
Multi-national companies hate it, but French people simply know too much. They understand too much. They have too much time on their hands to think and to read. They don’t worry enough about their health and education, and about their mortgages. Their children can even go to subsidized kindergartens. Six weeks a year, often longer, French citizens can travel the world, compare and learn how it ticks. And they want more social securities, not fewer. And when monied forces try to take all that away from them, they go to the streets and Paris burns. And other regional capitals burn. "Chaos!" screams mainstream media all over the world.
"Well, better than the chaos of tens of millions of people dying prematurely because of inadequate or non-existent medical insurance, like in the United States," many French would argue. "Better than the chaos of working day and night and feeling too scared to even complain to the face of your boss."
But it is not easy to be different. Mainstream media, as well as foreign media, bombards French voters with assiduous criticism of their country’s social and economic system. The thousand times repeated lie, about how uncompetitive of a system they have inherited, is becoming truth. Unemployment is being mentioned relentlessly; the unemployment that is, at 7.9%, definitely high, but still lower than in Germany (8.1%) and just slightly higher than the EU average of 7.2%. Often given as comparison is the unemployment rate of only 4.9% in the US, but what is not pronounced is that almost no French worker in his or her right mind would accept salaries and "benefits" offered to low-paid American workers, many of who are "fully employed" on paper only.
The French are being told that they are missing the train, that they will not be able to compete with Asia, with the US, the Irish Republic, Britain. There are no solid indicators backing it, but the need for a change is emphasized so frantically and repeatedly, that last year many French voters opted for a radical move and elected an over-ambitious pro marketer and self-proclaimed ally of the United States – Nicolas Sarkozy.
And Nicolas Sarkozy went to work as he promised: determined to dismantle the French social state in the shortest time possible. He is, of course, facing street protests and growing resentment from the French people. But he is on a crusade; he is determined and inspired by multitudes of "reformers" of recent years and decades: from Ms. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to Tony Blair, Helmut Kohl and Berlusconi; by all those "leaders" who took advantage of the disappearance of global pluralism and began turning back the clock of history.
This return to an early stage of capitalism may not go as smoothly in France as it went elsewhere. The country was on the vanguard of social movements and revolutions for decades and centuries. It was a home base of some of the greatest humanists, rebels and social thinkers, from Anatole France to Victor Hugo and Emil Zola and countless others. That’s where La Marseillaise was written, sung and later became the national anthem, where The Internationale – the famous socialist, anarchist, communist, and democratic anthem was born.
France is the country where democracy and striving for equality and social justice didn’t fall from the sky or arrive from abroad: the country fought for them, step by step. And each step had tremendous and often terrible costs, counted in human lives and lakes of spilled blood. Some of the bravest and brightest sons and daughters of France died in the barricades, on the streets and in the prisons. Nicolas Sarkozy has no right and no mandate to dismantle the legacy of centuries long struggle for justice and social rights.
France may be one of the last bastions of social and socialist ideals, along with several countries in Latin America and a few in Europe. It is not a perfect country, far from it. Its colonial past is appalling and its periodic outbursts of intolerance deeply regrettable. But there is no perfect country on this planet and there is definitely more in modern France and its system worth defending and improving than rejecting and discarding.
Unlike Britain (and to some extent Germany), France will not go without a fight. Europe, unlike Venezuela, does not allow referendums where the people can freely vote for the economic system (socialism or capitalism) that they desire. Therefore we don’t know what percentage of people will join on each side. The outcome of the fight is uncertain. But it is fair to predict that unless Sarkozy wants to trigger riots on the scale of the civil war, he will not dare to touch the core of the social system of France.
"Punishing the system" went too far. French voters already made their point. And they saw the face of the alternative. The face is scary. It is time to return to real progress, to build on the foundations of solidarity, fraternity and equality. Otherwise French people may end up, like elsewhere, as servants and slaves of the faceless corporate monster.
As a nightmare, as a computer virus, an inflated Sarkozy is now hanging over Paris, threatening to bring France some hundred years back to the beginning of the 20th Century. He should be quickly deleted from political power, reduced to normal human size.
The French people are definitely not lazy, no matter what the market fundamentalists say. Lazy people can’t make the most comfortable passenger planes, trains that run well over 300km/h, they wouldn’t be able to design architectural masterpieces and write hundreds of great novels, direct wonderful films and make delicious cheeses and noble wines. They can do all this on 35 hours a week average. Why should they do more? There is no shortage of anything in the stores as it is!
Now that we determined that they are not lazy at all, we should ask French people to work feverishly on one particular project that is so important for them and for the rest of humanity: the project to get rid of Sarkozy. Maybe they should try to find a way to send him as a cheerleader to Washington. Or he should be offered to run an outsourcing company in Britain. Anything, just not this, not what he is allowed to do now. If not deleted soon, he may really try delete all of France as we know it.
Andre Vltchek: novelist, playwright and journalist. Co-founder of Mainstay Press (http://mainstaypress.org), publishing house for political fiction. Editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com). He lives and works in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]