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.

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