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Five Hot Issues

photo: cafe rostand

The café Rostand, only metres from the passing Techno Parade.

Three Old, One New, One Forever

Paris:- Monday, 15. September 2003:- This column of what passes for news from here last appeared with a 25. August dateline. The main stories were about the killer heatwave in France and the August blackout in the United States. On the same day, Le Parisien's front page headlined, 'The Return - the Five 'Hot' Issues.'

Four of the 'hot' issues were - are - leftovers from last spring and early summer. These include the disenchantment with the government's policies by teachers, the unhappiness with the 'reform' of the unemployment rules for workers in the entertainment industries, the stagnating economy, and the eternal conflict in Corsica.

For the fall's return - la rentrée - the government has planned to introduce an ambitious 'reform' of the health branch of the state social security. Compared to the other 'hot' issues, this is the 800-kilo gorilla in a bad mood.

Three weeks after the points of contention were identified by that August edition of Le Parisien, they are still news, still resolved. When France goes on holidays it takes a while to quit being on holidays.

The Heatwave

During the summer's 'time out,' another event happened while the government was dozing in the sun. There was a multiple-week heatwave that set weather records across Europe, and about 15,000 older people perished in France. The last of these - the 'unclaimed' ones - were buried recently.

Whose fault this was is still being assigned at random. Doctors in private practise have been thephoto: techno at sorbonne latest designated culprits, for having been on holidays. Everybody else concerned has already been blamed, but most of the government heads directly concerned have ducked responsibility.

Jolly techno-folk having fun near the Sorbonne.

Emergency unit medical professionals - caught short-handed, with too few available beds - are now warning about a possible epidemic of flu expected to strike France this fall. In principle nobody will be on holidays this autumn, and this time the warning is on record.

Education

So far the return to classes has gone smoothly. Perhaps more so than in recent years. But still smoldering are the spring's issues - the question of teachers' retirement plans, the decentralization of non-teaching staff, new rules for the non-teaching guardians, and the non-replacement of the teachers' aides.

'Decentralization' means shoving non-teaching school staff out of the administrative area of the national education, and onto the budgets of regions or departments. Some workers fear that working for less prosperous regions will mean lower salaries, fewer benefits and lesser pensions.

The creation of the teachers' aides was a Socialist government initiative to hire the young - to do all the little jobs with students that are an extra burden for teachers. The program was a success, but was by contract, of a limited duration. The conservative government declined to renew the contracts, and dumped the aides into the unemployment ranks - in favor of some new scheme.

Apparently, according to a leading parent-teacher association, September's rentrée is short by ten thousand teachers and guardians. Teacher's unions have decided not to strike immediately, while waiting for some sign of government appeasement. Educators will also be affected by the government's yet to be announced plans for reform of the public health insurance.

Meanwhile, during the late summer, the government studied the rules carefully and announced that teachers would lose pay for weekends and holidays falling between the days they were on strike last spring.

Cancellation of Summer Festivals

Many entertainers and backstage technicians staged walkouts during the summer, forcing many summer-onlyphoto: techno, lucha libre events to be cancelled. These workers were upset by a decision made by the employers' federation to modify their unemployment regulations. This was also called a 'reform.'

A jolly latino techno-bus on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

There has been no estimation of the economic loss caused by the cancellation of hundreds of festivals all over France, so it is unknown whether the fallout for everybody concerned - except the employers' federation - exceeds the cost of the unemployment system as it was.

The only thing certain is that the workers in the entertainment industry are still unsatisfied, and are ready - according to the CGT-Spectacle - to keep on striking 'until the end of the year.'

Last Monday, during a live broadcast shown on France-2 TV from the Sorbonne with the Minister of Education, Luc Ferry, answering questions from the gathered teachers - the show's transmission was interrupted for 15 minutes, possibly by a commando of entertainment workers.

The minister had just said, "The money, when your government wants to find it, it finds it." Then came the blackout, followed by a few minutes of video from an episode of 'Commissaire Maigret.' When the regular broadcast resumed, the debate's host Olivier Mazerolle, neglected to explain the cause of the incident to the show's 3.5 million viewers.

The summer's festivals are over and the sums they normally generate are lost forever. However, many who work in TV and film production are subject to the same new unemployment rules - some films shot in Paris during the summer were done under unusual conditions, for example.

The Economy

While economic indicators are said to be turning positive in the United States, the opposite is true in France. The last time France expected to be pulled into prosperity by the American 'motor,' it only got there years later when the United States had hit a plateau. Then the United States fell into a slump of its own, which France has quickly imitated.

When the Socialists left office, France was solvent but was probably already headed downhill. The conservative majority decided to carry out its campaign pledge of lowering income taxes, and has just done it again. The total tax saving for an average household has been estimated at 55€. A third of households make too little money to pay income taxes, so their net gain is zero.

Repeated calls for lowering the value-added tax of 19.6 percent - which everybody pays on nearly everything - have been ignored.

Instead, the Prime Minister announced yesterday that he intends to raise the tax on diesel fuel by 2.5 cents. Sixty-threephoto: techno float percent of all new cars sold in France have diesel motors. The new tax will not apply to heavy trucks - because the new tax is meant finance subsidies for freight-train development. The tax is being 'sold' as an anti-pollution measure.

One of the louder but jolly techno floats.

Meanwhile there are layoffs, and businesses are closing down. The most spectacular was the recent announcement by Tati that it was bankrupt. The reasons for this weren't convincing and in the end a commercial court told Tati to keep operating for a few months more. No doubt its name and goodwill are worth a lot.

Another factory generously gave its employees a week off, but when they returned they were dismayed to find that the factory's potato chip-making machinery had been removed. A commercial court ordered the company to restore the machinery.

The fine-print is finally showing up on the retirement 'reform' measures. Employees who started their careers at an early age are discovering that contributions towards their pensions made while they were unemployed or ill, no longer count for the total period of time they worked. An estimated 60,000 workers will have to remain at their jobs and keep contributing towards their pensions, despite the new plan of 'social justice.'

While these merely amount to small change globally, France has managed to run its budget deficit up to four percent, which is a point more than allowed by Brussels' rules for the stability of the EU as a whole. With Germany in the same situation, so far Brussels is only 'preoccupied' even though this is France's third year of being over the limit.

Curiously, countries with smaller economies such as Spain are staying within the EU budget limits. Doing so probably means some sacrifice, so these countries do not appreciate the indulgence accorded to France.

Every week brings its bad news. It is showing up in the polls, that measure the confidence that the French have with the management techniques of the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

At the beginning of this year, according to Libération, the Prime Minister enjoyed a 59 percent rating of confidence. As of this week, his confidence rating has tumbled to 38 percent. This equals the level reached by the last conservative Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, in the fall of 1995.

Concerning unemployment levels, 73 percent of the French do not believe the Prime Minister can do anything positive. As for the upcoming question of 'reforming' the finances of the social security system, 61 percent have no confidence.

Corsica, Forever

According to a report on TV-news, there have been 200 attacks against private and public property in Corsica since the beginning of the year. Insurance companies will no longer provide protection for properties owned by non-Corsicans.

Last Thursday evening about 40 'nationalists' besieged the small post of the Gendarmes at Luri, a minor town in northern Corsica. They were protesting the arrest of seven young persons suspected of attacking the national police post with Molotov cocktails.

On Friday Luri's municiple council decided to ask the six Gendarmes to leave the town. The arrest of the seven youths was judged 'disproportionate.' In the evening there was another demonstration, and three of those detained were released. After cutting the electricity to the police post and tossing some firecrackers into its compound, another two were released.

By this time the hostile citizens numbered about 150. A dozen of them, wearing ski-masks launched more Molotov cocktails into the police compound. A few minutes later a dozen buses full of mobile Gendarmes armed to the teeth arrived on the scene, and the crowd dispersed after a brief stand-off.

The same police post was attacked on the night of 3-4. September, with two private cars belonging to Gendarmes being damaged. On Friday, four suspects still in custody had their detention prolonged by 48 hours.

The prosecutor from Bastia assured the families of those detained that they wouldn't be transferred to Paris, as suspected terrorists. This is usually the case, but it isn't the local prosecutor who decides, but a court in Paris.

Everybody is saying that there is nothing 'political' about this affair, and it has nothing to do with regional elections scheduled for March 2004.

Apparently the residents of Luri were arousedphoto: techno dancers, bus shelter by the muscular methods employed by the Gendarmes to arrest the seven youthful suspects. Also apparently, the whole affair was set off by an earlier traffic incident, which resulted in a suspect being charged with 'insulting behavior and rebellion.'

If you ever need a strong bus-stop shelter, you can find them in Paris.

According to TV-news reports and Le Parisien, none of the arrested suspects are known Corsican nationalists. Le Parisien adds that it isn't rare in Corsica for personal disputes to be covered up by the notion of political attacks.

Since the beginning of the year there have been 16 attacks on Corsica directed against the national police. These, seldom stationed where they originate, often reside with their families in government-supplied quarters near the police post.

As shown on TV-news, the scenes from Luri of wreckage and Molotov cocktails in flames, were as stunning as any from Iraq.

Very few French find it odd that Corsica is mainly policed by national Gendarmes - a unit of the Armed Forces - sent from mainland France, and that the majority of prosecutors on the island are also from the mainland. Those charged with 'terrorism' are always tried in Paris.

The Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, kept his voice low and even when he said, "They won't get away with this." He has said this more than once this year.

Online Weather Warnings

We have eased into a week of 'Indian Summer.' It is going about it about far more sunnily than in past years, instead of giving us September's dreary rains. The alert service of France-Météo's is very short-term. Its level '3' and '4' warnings are changed to colors for TV presentation, with orange indicating 'beware,' but level 4's red is seldom shown in advance

Mainly these warnings will about areas beyond the area of the Ile-de-France. If you are curious or need to know more about France's late summer weather, give the Météo France Web site a hit, for its short-range forecasts.

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