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French Want Change, up to a Point
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When French voters go to the polls this month they say they are looking for change, but the next president is likely to face the same obstacles that have blocked many previous attempts to reform idiosyncratic France.

Business complains about foreign competition, high social charges and taxes, while workers live in fear of losing their jobs. The unemployed fret about losing generous benefits, while high prices and low pay are squeezing household budgets.

This has created widespread anxiety and a feeling among voters that the much-vaunted "French model" is not working.

"France needs to change," said 48-year-old Corinne Micheli, a worker at the state employment office who was among thousands at a recent protest in Paris against a planned shake up of their agency. "People are fed up."

But Micheli highlights the problem the next president will face: pushing through reforms in France can be tough because employees want to protect old privileges.

In the last 20 years numerous governments have tried to reform pensions, labor rules, the education system and other public services, but their efforts often ended in disaster with unions organizing mass protests to bring France to a standstill.

Protests last year that sunk plans to make it easier to hire and fire youngsters showed people power remains a potent force.

"Yes, France needs to change to deal with globalisation, but there are some values that need to stay," said Sonya Aimene, 30, was also at the ANPE job agency demonstration.
"We are for change, but not just for the sake of change."

Rhetoric and resistance

The three election frontrunners, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, Socialist Segolene Royal and centrist Francois Bayrou, are all promising a clean break with the past if they win the April and May election.

From an economic viewpoint, there is much to do in France it had the highest jobless rate in the euro zone in February, one of the weakest growth rates in Europe in 2006 and a record trade deficit.

But while the top candidates all promise to boost employment and growth, Moody's Investors Service believes key problems, such as pension reform, have been ignored during the campaign.

"The country seems torn between the rhetoric of reform and a profound propensity towards social conservatism," Moody's wrote in a research note published yesterday.

"Actual resistance to reform remains very strong, accentuated by a deep ideological fragmentation, which generally makes interventionist proclamations a safe electoral bet," it added, saying most voters were unaware of the true problems.

Sarkozy is probably the most pro-market candidate, but as the campaign has progressed he has insisted that the state will help troubled companies, such as plane maker Airbus not the sort of action many economists have endorsed.

Other proposals, such as insisting unions hold secret ballots during long-running strikes and forcing transport unions to guarantee a minimum service during stoppages, look certain to lead to a head-on confrontation with some labor groups.

Only 8 percent of French workers belong to unions but they have a powerful grip on public services and some important companies, making it easy for them to snarl the country.

Royal has courted unionists who make up an important slice of the Socialist voter base and some analysts say this tie would make it easier for her to push through reforms.

However, her manifesto gives no indication of any reformist zeal and concentrates instead on ambitious new spending plans.

But for some people, the idea that France is a hidebound country clinging to the past is an out-of-date cliche. They dismiss a recent wave of demonstrations by teachers, post office and employment agency workers, as well as stoppages at Marseille port and Airbus, as usual pre-election protests.

The optimists also point out that France remains one of the world's major economies with blue-chip CAC-40 firms showing a 30 percent increase in dividends payouts last year - a sign that French companies are thriving in a changing world.

(China Daily via agencies April 6, 2007)

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