Monday, September 20, 2010

France is Hurting

I was in France for a few weeks over the summer and the level of discontent I saw among most people there struck me. I know the stereotype about French folks complaining and whining all the time – or at least a lot. This is not necessarily inaccurate but today it seems to have reached epic proportions. And what I heard behind the complaining was quite alarming: widespread sheer unhappiness and fear about the future.

I tried to figure out where all this malaise – uniquely French word indeed… - comes from.

1) Increased stress at the workplace: this is an unintended consequence of the shift from the 39- to the 35-hour workweek several years back. The new law reduced the work time but employers were obligated to keep salaries at the same level. This brilliant economic calculation logically resulted in employers not recruiting anyone for a while – even though the 35-workweek was at its core a measure intended to promote job creation… So basically, folks were told, you may work fewer hours but you’ve got to do the same amount of stuff.
And the headaches and increased stress were not limited to employees. Managers find themselves having to deal with their employees’ increasingly complex and ever-shifting schedules. Those who continue to work through the week without stopping at 35 hours get comp time – 2 days a month (24 days a year – 5 weeks!!!) on average. The comp time generally has to be taken the same month it is granted so that people can’t accrue too much vacation time (which is about 5 to 6 weeks already). Thus, any given day at least one team member is likely to be absent and the job still needs to get done…
What is more - as a consequence of having so much free time, organizing that extra comp / vacation time has become a substantial activity for a lot of folks – and certainly a distraction at work… While they are thinking about when it the best time to go to Musée du Louvre to avoid the long lines, they still have work to do… bummer!!

2) Ambivalent position towards reforms: I feel there is a broad understanding that reforms are needed, especially regarding pensions that are a ticking time bomb in France like in other industrialized nations. That being said, there is widespread concern that today’s benefits – whatever they are because they vary from company to company and quite significantly for those who work for the civil service - will be paired down a lot, which would mean for instance that a 55-year-old having worked hard all his/her life would have to wait until 65 instead of 60 to retire with full benefits if the retirement age was to be increased. The frustration and concern are understandable.
What adds to the frustration of most is that there will be double standards in the way reforms will come to pass. Civil servants working for ministries like the Ministry of Education or large state-owned companies like SNCF, the railway system operator, make up an ultra-sensitive group of stakeholders whose salaries have historically been pretty low compared to private sector compensations but in return whose benefits were quite good. The current administration knows from experience that this group is willing to go on strike and paralyze the country – an effective blackmailing strategy. Thus, those who are not in the civil service or do not work for large Fortune 100-type companies (that tend to offer more generous benefits than small and medium enterprises) feel as though they will be the ones who will pay at the end so that others can keep their benefits - or not lose as much as they will.

3) Lack of prospects: for most young people unemployment seems to be the likeliest prospect unless they graduate from the best Grandes Ecoles, the Ivy League-like graduate schools offering their students the best job and career prospects for that age group. Unemployment among youth has been at an all-time high – and poverty among young people (between 18 and 30) has become a nation-wide issue. It was heart-breaking for me to hear from the adolescents I spoke to (they have not even finished high school yet) that they were certain to be unemployed at some point in the next 10 years… Unemployment is a major concern but beside that concern young people don’t seem to believe that they’ll be able to have great careers and exciting jobs – not even that they will be able to make that prospect happen by themselves. What about a cool start-up? Certainly the French education system is generally not very good at fostering kids’ creativity - but it is still scary to think that the concept of being in control of one’s own fate, namely if you work like a dog things are pretty likely to turn out fine at the end, just seems foreign to most.

4) Too much aggressiveness in labor relations: I don’t know if this is because of the added stress that I mentioned above but I’ve been amazed at how aggressive relations between people have become, and in particular in the work place. In most stories I hear about relations at work, especially between manager / boss and employee, a win-win outcome never seems to be in the cards. Either one or the other is going to get screwed. And that happens mainly because folks will tell you that they know for a fact that the person across the table just wants to take advantage of them. Wow…

5) Middle class feeling squeezed: in a trend similar to the US and Britain in the past 15 years – but very uncharacteristic of France’s long period of growth following WWII that put the country solidly among the richest industrialized nations – the gap between the rich and the middle class has widened as the middle class’s real income has remained flat while that of the richest experienced a substantial growth. Like in Britain and the rest of Europe the expansion of professional services firms (consulting and banking) and to a lesser extent the increase in executives’ salaries in Fortune 100-type companies have broadened that gap while ordinary people were supposed to be content getting the inflation as an annual increase on their pay. Central Paris has become as closed to the vast majority of the population as are most downtown areas in New York, London, Boston, etc. With real incomes staying flat and quite a bit of inflation on some food staples like milk, meat, or vegetables in the past several years (overall inflation figures show modest increases but the consumer price index includes such sectors as tech products or cell phones whose prices have tended to go down for the same set of specs) the middle class is definitely feeling the pinch – and they think it is unfair.

6) Lack of leadership: Nicolas Sarkozy’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality does not inspire his countrymen and women. He can be visionary and innovative but also paranoid and controlling - and most people in France, even among his supporters, now see through his dual personality. Ironically, the country that produced Louis the XIVth (14th), Napoleon, and more proudly General de Gaulle is not big on leadership – probably some libertarian resentment toward the boss figure (the French invented the Guillotine after all). But still – whenever French people look toward the top and get confusing signs from a leader whose powers are immense (France’s “Fifth Republic” has fewer checks and balances to counter the President’s power than most other industrialized nations), that does not help them feel good about their future.

I am not sure where the country will go from there. It is indeed very French to worry about the country’s “decline” (from its powerhouse status dating back to the 18th century…) and I’ve heard heated arguments about this supposed decline for years. But this time it is different. French are frustrated, anxious, and often plain mad (as a result, racism is going up these days) and they generally don’t have the Americans’ optimism and resiliency to envision – and more importantly – work hard for a brighter future.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quran Burning – Really?

I was shocked in the past few days that that pastor in FL who wanted to organize a Global Quran Burning Day (!!!!) on September 11th got so much press coverage and such mellow reactions at first. Granted, the US is a country where freedom of expression is sacrosanct – that is how it is possible for Ku Klux Klan advocates or those nostalgic of the Nazi era to demonstrate unopposed by the police. But the KKK / Neo-Nazi folks are exactly in the category where I put that pastor and his crazy and dangerous idea.

This is serious and worrying anti-Moslem sentiment – the worst example of racism. Period.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Inspired and Inspiring Individuals

I was fortunate to travel to Bogota and Rio de Janeiro a couple of months ago and on my way back from Rio, I sat on the plane next to a guy named Alberto with whom I struck a conversation that turned out to be extremely interesting. Alberto who is an architect by background and designs multimedia and pyromusical events has a passion for Tanzania and decided to start his own organization, Bricks for Life, that has already funded the construction of a library in rural Tanzania and is helping local youth acquire valuable professional skills, using architecture as an instrument for learning (i.e. brick-making, masonry, carpentry, eco-orchard, eco-garden, water harvesting projects, solar power/water heating projects, etc.).

It is a sign of our times that people like Alberto - whatever their means - take matters in their own hands and try to solve the problems that they particularly care about. I think we have a generation of Fixers here. They happen to be individualistic and entrepreneurial too. Here goes their thinking, “why defer to others hoping that they will solve a problem that bothers me”? And also, “I can’t see anyone that does this – or does this right, so I may as well do it myself”.

Bill Gates - and to a lesser extent Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll - have been the most prominent figures of that generation of Fixers. Basically they walked away from the old habits of traditional philanthropy, which I would characterize as active / passive (active because traditional philanthropists would donate money but passive because they also generally accepted the context and resulting agenda of the sector that they got involved into), to rather be “active / active” social investors as they prefer to call themselves.

Gates’ work in global health is the best example of this new way of doing things. What he did was simply to change the global health agenda. He did so by committing vast amounts of money to fight tropical diseases like malaria which everyone had deemed urgent to cure for years but yet that remained under-funded.

Gates and his friends are not afraid to impose their own agenda for an entire sector despite being totally new to it. This is the kind of power and influence that history associates to 19th century philanthropists like Carnegie or Rockefeller.

The Giving Pledge initiated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett that prompted 40 billionaires to commit part of their wealth to philanthropic causes drew a lot of attention this summer. It is great that Gates and Buffett are raising the bar and are not shy to look toward their peers and say, how about you guys, what do you do with your money?

But the generation of Fixers to whom Gates, Omidyar, Skoll - and Alberto - belong has something else than money in common, namely their drive to make things better.

You don’t have to have money to be one of those Fixers. I am always amazed when I watch Extreme Makeover Home Edition that features ordinary individuals and families with average (or below average) incomes who often make a tremendous difference in their communities through volunteering or some meagerly paid socially-valuable work. They are certainly not well off - and yet they also took matters in their own hands and decided to make a change.

Changing the agenda of an entire sector like global health or homelessness is probably reserved for those with vast amounts of capital at their disposal because money will move the other actors in that particular field and/or draw new ones.

But evidence shows that you don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to be a Fixer and a Change Maker. I am happy that our era counts with Alberto and others who are taking concrete actions to make this world a better place.

Obama Misunderstood By Most Americans

Time Magazine published an interesting piece about why President Obama has become Mr. Unpopular as they call him. It seems to me that the Democratic Party exemplified by Obama mainly appeals to some “happy few”, namely wealthy / highly educated Americans living in major urban areas.

Obama has probably kept the black vote too – as Clinton did, which is not surprising as we celebrate the 5th anniversary of Katrina and the Bush administration’s major failure in responding to the disaster.

But who else is on board? A significant portion of the working class has historically sided with Democrats because they were supposed to defend those folks’ interests better. But for those experiencing economic hardships it makes no sense to be behind this Administration: they don’t relate to its leader nor have they not benefited from its actions in general.

I don’t hear much about unions these days, so I am not sure where they stand. But I would be surprised if they were elated with this sluggish economic recovery that comes with few job creations. As I wrote in an earlier piece, I fear that this recovery – even when it gets stronger - unlike others in the past will not bring as many new jobs.

Ironically, those who are disenchanted with Obama’s politics do not like big government according to the Time Magazine piece - and yet they are criticizing the Administration for not getting the economy out of its present mess. Most are in favor of tax cuts which seem to be the one and only remedy they can think of for fixing an ailing economy. Maybe that is their vision of the government’s role…

But my point here is about the disconnection between the President and most people who voted for him in 2008. I can almost feel a “social class” disconnect – at least among non-African American voters.

There is a tremendous danger that the Democratic Party becomes the party of the rich, sophisticated, intellectual people while ordinary Americans - and I don’t like using the term “real people” because it tends to be exploited by populists in politics but that is what I mean – will find very little in common between them and what has become the Democratic Party.

Another sign of that “canyon” between the Obama Administration and most Americans is reflected in the people who came to work for the President. There was an amazing wave of enthusiasm in late 08 – early 09 among “the best and the brightest” (or considered as such by our system) to serve for the Obama Administration. Top schools and most prestigious employers in the country were heavily represented among those who got recruited – so many hailing from Ivy League schools or the likes of Stanford and from powerhouse professional service firms, Goldman Sachs in particular.

In a kind of closed loop transplants from those companies, schools or institutions recruited their kin, a crowd of devoted, smart, and hard-working people happy to forego their big Wall Street or Corporate America salaries to work for the Administration.

But how could this homogenous group be representative of America or can we expect that ordinary people will relate to them? “The best and the brightest” will please the wealthy / highly educated / (faux for some) liberal people – who else really?

The current malaise between Obama and most is also caused by the growing angry undercurrent in the country right now. It is certainly due in part to the economic situation and the hardships it has caused to most. But there is much more to this as evidenced by the success of the Tea Party or, more anecdotally, by most comments to the articles that I read on the Boston Globe web site. Every time I browse those comments – recently on an article pointing to the higher price of cigarettes in disadvantaged vs. wealthy neighborhoods – I am struck by how resentful and almost heinous they are. Where does the hate come from? I first saw that anger come to the front locally during the Skip Gates affair last year (when he was arrested by mistake upon entering his home in Cambridge).

Also, the Administration’s actions go against a lot of people’s deeply embedded values or beliefs, for instance their anti-government stance and individualistic nature. Obama won zero point on the health care reform with those who believe that government can’t fix problems (on the contrary…) and who did not care much that a significant portion of the population did not have health care coverage - since they were not affected directly.

I see another sign of that angry undercurrent in the fact that only 1 in 3 American identifies Obama as a Christian - this is anti-Moslem prejudice and it worries me. Finally there may be some “hangover effect” after the exhilaration of having elected the first African-American President in US history. Some voters I am sure are wondering, how did I exactly benefit from being socially progressive – however good it may have felt at the time?

The candidate Obama electrified crowds during his campaign with his message of hope. The reality of the recession has struck hard – hope is an afterthought for many. The current context may just accelerate the dwindling of the Democratic Party to an ever smaller and marginalized – though powerful – group of Americans.