This weekend, when management-labor negotiations broke down at a tire factory, employees kidnapped their bosses. Where, you ask, did this happen? In the Central African Republic? Somalia? Burkina Faso? No – in Amiens, France. Turns out it’s become something of a Gallic custom.
It started this way: Goodyear decided last year that it wanted to wash its hands of the plant; when the French government tried to get another U.S. firm, Titan, to take it over, the company head, Maurice Taylor, Jr., checked it out, found the union confrontational and the workers unproductive loafers, and asked: “How stupid do you think we are?” Unable to find a buyer, Goodyear decided to shutter the operation – but in exchange for letting it do so, workers demanded “severance packages of 80,000 euros, or about $110,000, plus €2,500 for each year worked.” When Goodyear balked, the kidnapping commenced.
Welcome to la belle République, A.D. 2014.
But first a flashback to 2007. About an hour and twenty minutes into Sicko, his paean to socialized medicine that was released that year, Michael Moore sits at a table at what looks like a swank Paris bistro with a group of expatriate Americans – young, upscale professional types – who sing the praises of the French health-care system. As they regale him with stories about all the services they get for nothing, or next to nothing, he feigns astonishment. It’s not just the free first-class medical care. The day care, they tell him, is also terrific – and also virtually free. One of the Americans gushes that because she lives in France she can count on her kids receiving “a certain level of care, a certain education. College, I don’t have to worry about” because “you get a college education for free.” The French freebies seem well-nigh unlimited: for heaven’s sake, when you have a baby, the government will even send somebody over to cook and do your laundry for you.
What a country. Everything’s free! Nobody pays! There’s a thirty-five-hour work week, five weeks minimum paid vacation, and employment laws that provide almost total job security for everybody, competent or not. What could go wrong? If any of Moore’s worldly, well-heeled, presumably well educated interlocutors sees any potential problem with this system, there’s certainly no hint of it in the movie. Yes, one of them does hint that the government would cut back on the largesse if it could get away with it. But it can’t get away with it: as she explains, “one of the things that keep everything running here” – one of the things, she means, that keep the gravy flowing – “is that the government is afraid of the people, afraid of protests….In France, that’s what people do.” And why, pray tell, would the government want to rein all this in? That question goes unanswered – indeed, unasked.
Seven years after Moore’s film, the poulets have come home to roost. Indeed, during the last year or so, even publications that one might have expected to join Moore in celebrating the French welfare state’s munificence have run stunningly frank accounts of its dire consequences. In November 2012, The Economist served up a piece entitled “Battling French Decline.” Last January, under the headline “France is in free fall,” CNN reported on the country’s “shocking deterioration in competitiveness,” noting that its workforce boasts “the lowest number of working hours in the developed world” and the highest social expenditures (“42 euros for every 100 euros in total expenses go to social charges, versus 34 euros in Germany, 26 in the UK, and 20 in the US”). Last June, in a piece headlined “Bonjour Tristesse: The Economic and Political Decline of France,” Der Spiegel described the Hexagon as being “in the grip of a crisis”: “The mood hanging over the country is depressed….It feels as if the French model had reached an end stage.” In August, the New York Times asked: “can the Socialist government…pull France out of its slow decline and prevent it from slipping permanently into Europe’s second tier?” And in July, predictably enough, the Times‘s house numbskull, Roger Cohen, put an idiotically positive spin on all the bad news under the headline “France’s Glorious Malaise.” Cohen’s argument, if you can call it that, was that “French malaise, moroseness and melancholy” is “a perennial state” – “a fierce form of realism,” “a bitter wisdom,” a “badge of honor.” Yes, he admitted, France is saddled with an unaffordable welfare state, but, hey, it’s also got “superb medicine, good education, immense beauty, the only wine worth drinking,” and so on. “Better,” he concluded, “to be miserable than a hypocrite, nauseated than naive — and far better to be morose than a fool.” Well, if he knows about anything, it’s about being a fool.
Then came the November-December issue of the National Interest. In a long essay entitled “The Decline and Fall of France,” economist Milton Ezrati stated flatly that “France’s economy…is in profound decline,” and provided the data: “More than one thousand factories have closed in France since 2009….Government in France now constitutes some 57 percent of the entire economy….France’s share of global exports has fallen from 7 percent in 1999 to only 3 percent today….employers in France pay the government the equivalent of almost 64 percent of their payrolls….some 54 percent of the working-age population holds themselves outside the workforce, compared with 42 percent in Germany and 32 percent in the United States.” France, concluded Ezrati, “is beginning to resemble a less developed economy.” (Of course, a major factor in this decline – but one that hardly any of these accounts so much as mentions – is the presence within the French borders of some five to ten million Muslims, a high percentage of whom are social clients.)
Even after all these tales of gloom and doom, however, a piece published last week in the just-relaunched Newsweek counted as a head-turner. Under the headline “The Fall of France,” Janine di Giovanni recalled Louis XIV’s persecution of the Huguenots, “the worker bees of France,” hundreds of thousands of whom fled the realm for safer climes. Today’s France, like the Sun King’s, is suffering a “brain drain”: now that productive Frenchmen – those who actually earn a decent living by the sweat of their brow – are taxed at rates upward of 70 percent, “there has been a frantic bolt for the border by the very people who create economic growth – business leaders, innovators, creative thinkers, and top executives. They are all leaving France to develop their talents elsewhere.” Two years ago, part-time Parisienne Claire Berlinski observed in City Journal that while “France can no longer pay for its comfortable way of life,” Paris still felt “like a city whose troubles are far away.” No more, says di Giovanni: “the past two years have seen a steady, noticeable decline in France. There is a grayness that the heavy hand of socialism casts.” Di Giovanni, herself a British expat living in the City of Light, has been at the receiving end of a lot of the government goody bags that were acclaimed by Michael Moore’s American-expat pals, but she, unlike them, recognizes some of those perks as “pure waste”: for example, after she gave birth, the government – without even asking her if she wanted it – sprung for twice-a-week physical-therapy sessions so she could lose her baby fat. Di Giovanni summed up the whole sad situation by quoting a corporate lawyer: “France is dying a slow death. Socialism is killing it.”
Last fall, a cousin of mine who lives in Paris drew my attention to a story that perfectly demonstrates just how France is doing itself in. Monoprix, a big supermarket chain, wanted to extend its opening hours and do business on Sunday as well. It would’ve been good for the economy – and for the chain’s employees, who backed the idea. But France’s largest union, the extremely powerful General Confederation of Labor (CGT), threatened Monoprix with an 80,000-euro fine for every worker affected. So that was the end of that.
So it goes in France these days. While protecting even the most unproductive employees by making it almost impossible to fire anyone, the government punishes entrepreneurs brutally. “You’d have to be crazy to start a business here now,” my cousin lamented recently. The self-employed are drained dry: “you almost pay more to the state than what you can gross in a year,” he told me. In order to be able to declare and pay taxes on his hard-earned freelance income, he was obliged to cough up a hefty fee – around seven thousand euros the first year, ten thousand the second – for the right to identify himself as a “microenterprise.”
“No one in France,” wrote Berlinski two years ago, “seems to have grasped the connection between the country’s army of ceaselessly striking civil servants and the prospect of economic doom.” Well, some of them plainly grasp it now. But all too many, it appears, are – like those American expats in Sicko – still in heavy denial, enjoying their free ride while clinging to the illusion that it’ll go on forever. Moore, with his socialist magical thinking, was doubtless sure when he made that stupid film that if only Americans kicked up more of a fuss, as the French do, they could live like kings – getting not only free health care, but free everything – while not necessarily doing much of anything to pay their way. Now, however, as Ezrati notes, France, far from being able to cure everyone’s ills without cost, is itself increasingly being described as the “sick man of Europe” (which, Ezrati adds, is “quite a distinction at a moment when Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy share the hospital ward”). As it turns out, Moore was absolutely right to single out France as a splendid example for Americans. He just didn’t realize it was a cautionary example.
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