The French still regard the open economy with horror. A recent poll suggests that, while two-thirds of the population accepted that reform was necessary, they also wanted to keep the advantages of the present system — a short working week, early retirement for many, and almost invincible job protection. After years of assiduous propaganda, they believe that anything else will lead directly to the horrors of the United States: uninsured people dying of untreated diseases in the streets and, above all, riots.
The case of the state monopoly, EDF (Electricité de France) is instructive, and explains why any reform is so politically difficult. Employees of this vast organization work 32 hours per week; their meals are subsidized to the tune of 50%, their electricity and gas bills by 90%; they can retire at 55; they have the right to holidays at a fifth of their market value, and on average work the equivalent of eight months per year; and when their mother-in-law dies, they can take three days’ paid leave to celebrate. These are not all their privileges, only some; so it is hardly surprising that when the government proposed the privatization of EDF, they went on strike. (The government caved in.) They did so in the name of “the defense of public service” — and the French call the Anglo-Saxons hypocrites!
When a certain critical mass of such subsidy and special privilege for important sectors of the economy is reached, reform becomes impossible without explosion. The government has created an economic monster that it cannot tame, and that is now its master. In any case, periodic explosion has long been the means by which French society has undertaken major political and economic change. In the meantime, repression will become more necessary. For the moment, the banlieues are quiet: That is to say, only 100 cars a night are burned, and life elsewhere continues in its very pleasant way. But there is an underlying anxiety (the French take more tranquillizers than any other nation). No one believes that we have heard the last of les jeunes and of profound economic troubles. The last episode was but a very minor eruption of the social volcano. Every Frenchman believes that the question of a major eruption is not if, but when.
For the full commentary, see:
THEODORE DALRYMPLE. “An Update From France . . . (Remember Those Riots?).” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 11, 2006): A8.