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June 5, 2005 - Get A Job!

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Our Man in Paris is Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis. His weekly columns appear here and often in a slightly different version the next day on his site from Paris, with photographs.

Received in Los Angeles on Saturday, June 4, 2005 4:30 PM Pacific Time


PARIS: THINGS have been pretty busy during the week at the Elysée Palace, the headquarters of Jacques Chirac.  Before Monsieur Raffarin was permitted to depart the new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was engaged in shuttle diplomacy - no, he was hatching, along with the president, a new government.  At one point radio news said that there would be two prime ministers - a true French 'first' - with Monsieur de Villepin sharing the chore with Nicolas Sarkozy.


The very thought of it brought a ray of sunshine to a dismal week.  Imagine - the man who the president said had to decide whether to be a super-minister of Finance or leader of the president's political party, now comes back to the government as the number-two minister of the interior, while remaining as the party head.


Number one - or is it a question of 'number-one-bis?' will be ex-foreign minister, ex-minister of the interior, the poetry-writing ex-bête noir of the Bush regime, a man who has not been elected - as semi-boss of a man who has, who may also be a semi-boss.  See what I mean?  This should be a good show, especially since these two are not great pals.


The lesson of the referendum's defeat is supposed to hinge on the horrible level of unemployment with the new prime minister being committed to turning it around.


The official figure is 10.2 percent, which translates into 2.48 million French workers seeking jobs.  When Jacques Chirac took office in 1995 the official rate was 11.5 percent.  It went up a bit then dipped, and now it's rising again.  The last time the rate was below three percent was in 1974, 31 years ago.


So it goes without saying that 'reform' is a goal that could benefit a lot of people.  The problem is all our past experience with these 'reforms.'  There has been early retirement, training for the unemployed, creation of public jobs, aid for hiring, reduced social charges, reduction of the work week to 39 hours, then 35 hours, easing of layoffs, more reductions of social charges, aid for apprenticeships -  in all, 24 projects to ease unemployment - proposed equally by conservative and socialist governments.


The French are all for 'reform.'  Over the past 30 years they have lived through a lot of employment 'reforms' and they still find that a couple of million workers are without jobs.  'Reform' is starting to sound like something politicians should try on themselves.  Small wonder that nobody minds saluting 'reform' if it's on top of the flag-pole, just as long as there is a promise of protection from it.


Some issue has been made of the disconnect between what the French want and what 'reality' demands.  The problem with this is that it is not the French who are defining 'reality,' but spokesmen for our globalized planet.


These include east coast Liberals who think the French want to stop the world and get off.  [Editor’s note: See 35-hour week? 35-hour day!, Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, June 3, 2005, republished in the International Herald Tribune (Paris) June 4]  Folks who write opinion columns for newspapers in New York are hardly in a position to judge the effect of dumping cheap t-shirts made in China on textile workers in Lille.  Is it 'reality' that demands that factories close in France so they can be set up in Armenia?  No Armenians will be shopping at any supermarkets in France, so should the supermarkets be moved east too?


It's all very fine to characterize France as having an aging and inflexible work force.  Ask the pundits how willing they are to jump at a chance to write their columns in Bombay for peanuts.  Better yet, ask their publisher.  According to theory, opinion columns outsourced to Bangalore will be better because Indians work harder, and they can do anything, like 'design your next Airbus or Cadillac.'


Then there's the innovative Indian game company, that will narrow the wage gap, eventually.  But first they are hiring.  Last year they got a million applications and turned 990,000 of them down.  The French already know all about this.


Most people in France, if they ever get a job, are going to have to be content with the minimum wage.  This kind of idea is a red flag to conservatives - and liberals! - but the actual figure is seldom mentioned.  In France, in 2004, the minimum wage, the SMIC, was 1,296 euros for 189 hours of work.  The hourly SMIC is 7.81 euros, gross.   When Jacques Chirac became president it was 5.64 euros.


The officially-defined poverty rate for a couple with two kids under 14 was 1264 euros in 2001.  Why the poverty rate lags a couple of years behind in the official statistics is a mystery.  Depending on whether it's a French or EU calculation, poverty affects between 6.1 and 12.4 percent of  French residents.  While the risk of poverty for French over 65 is high, it is 25 percent for UK residents.


The other day Britain gained the right to opt-out of an EU rule imposing a maximum work week of 48 hours.  The government considers this as reflecting popular opinion in favor of 'flexible labour markets and freedom of choice.'  This opt-out rule was to be phased out in 2012 for workers, but countries were expected as ask for extensions.


A British labor spokesmen said that Britain already has the longest working hours in Europe.  Meanwhile other British companies are considering raising the age of retirement from 70 to 75.  The way the law will probably be written, an employee will be able to request staying on, but an employer will be able to refuse.


According to an editorial in the Times, it is crucial to get older workers away from collecting incapacity benefits and back into contributing to pension schemes and, in fact, they probably could contribute more because of reduced commitments.  The Times then cites older workers such as Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan.


With advice like this from friends on both sides of the Atlantic it is hard to see how France can go wrong.  However the Times 'cruelly described' the planned meeting this weekend between Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder as 'lame duck meets dead duck.'


It looks like Gerhard is going to have to face the CDU's Angela Merkel at the ballot boxes, probably in September, but Jacques is safe from voters until 2007 even if he is not quite safe from Nicolas Sarkozy.


When it comes right down to it, after 30 years of sluggish growth and excessive unemployment, who are we to call these two leaders names?   The Times, on its pitiful and damp offshore island, can call them what it wants.  Everything in the UK is alright, Jack!  Everything is even better in America, according to Monsieur Sarkozy.


France would just as soon have them all stay offshore unless they feel like having a swell holiday.



Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Life goes on…

Cafe in Paris - June 4, 2005

See May 22, 2005 - Star Wars on the Champs Elysées and Palm Wars on the Internet concerning Darth Vader and the Imperial stormtroopers who gave shoppers a nasty shock when they took over part of a Paris boulevard at the start of the first ever official Star Wars convention in Europe.  These aren’t them.  Beekeepers.

Paris beekeepers...

No one shocked here.  Do you see anyone shocked?

Paris terrace, 4 June 2005

Symbolisme Aujourd'hui – or is this surrealism?  Whatever.  One suspects these are not natural growths.

Paris park with surreal men in trees,,,,

Photos Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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Paris readers add nine hours....