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Back Together Again

cartoon, you can be outsourced

"I'm not kidding! You can be outsourced!"

Have a Better Idea?

Paris:– Monday, 6. June 2005:– In case politicians in France didn't get the message of the 'non' vote for the European Constitution last week, rail unions went ahead with nationwide strike on Thursday, the day after Dutch voters gave the treaty a resounding vote of no confidence.

Totally undeterred, politicians in France scrambled to boost Humpty– Dumpy back up on his wall. Président Jacques Chirac sadly let his faithful prime minister Jean–Pierre Raffarin go, and vastly relieved, go he did, all the way to a well–deserved holiday in the sun on Crete.

Those of us left behind have been treated to the heady spectacle of the formation of a new government. Out with some 'old' dudes who weren't all that exciting and in with some 'new,' who aren't all that unknown. Curious, I had the impression that these people just lost an election.

Perhaps it's another example of how good the French are at rolling with the punches. The centre–leftphoto, moto cops and the centre–right's plot for our future has just gotten a solid 'non' and the next day we have the same game with pretty much the same players – we got the losers back. We, the French, the Dutch, the winners, get nothing. It's like the referendum never happened.

Police waiting for the rollers to form up on Friday.

It was certainly foreseeable. Nobody who was campaigning for a 'non' vote was proposing some kind of alternative, some other way to manage this 998 kilo gorilla called Europe. We wake up the day after voting and like the politicians here, it's still there, untidy, complicated, obscure. Like the Rock of Gibraltar, it isn't going away.

I guess it's okay. It's June and the summer holidays start soon. It's been a rough year. We'll be back in September, refreshed, and we can deal with this then.

Get a Job!

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 the opposite of being 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 ourcartoon, the improbable duo 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 improbable duo.

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 at the top of a 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. 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 or Lyon. 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 thephoto, roller rando launch actual figure is seldom mentioned. In France, in 2004, the minimum wage, the SMIC, was 1,296€ for 189 hours of work. The hourly SMIC is 7.81€, gross. When Jacques Chirac became president it was 5.64€.

And they're off! The Friday night roller rando!

The officially–defined poverty rate for a couple with two kids under 14 was 1264€ 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 millionaires 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.

Meanwhile in France the new government team met with representatives from labor and the bosses to try and cook up a quick deal today. Since union proposals probably take more than a tiny sound–bite, TV–news merely said that the bosses suggested 'reforming' labor laws to make it easier to lay off workers – as a way of easing unemployment.

Better Ideas, from Europeans?

It's not easy thinking up something new even if there are plenty of examples of what seems to be poor choices. Europe is a crowded and old continent that has invented and tried out every form of social organization, and is currently stuck with some of yesterday's solutions.

During the recent referendum voters were given a vague choice, of voting 'yes' for some unknown and possibly faintly 'liberal' conglomo, or voting 'no' and keeping the same old shoddy system that is showing its increasing age and fatigue.

Unlike a billion Chinese, Europeans were given a choice, and they selected 'not this one' rather than some unknown leap into wheeler–dealer no–holds–bared crypto–capitalism where the bottom line is the target and all should be happy to work 62 hours a week just for a foothold on it.

Europeans had that already. After World War II the place was wrecked so everybody pitched in to rebuild it. By the 1970s Europeans were in a position to produce surpluses and get an extra week's annual holidays. But that was the high point of expansion, and stagnation has been the rule since then.

All the same new bridges get built and big new ships are launched, rockets loft satellites into space, TGVs run fast and on time, and the newly repaved roads are full up with new cars. Europe can even afford to clean its dirty old monuments, to make them attractive to visitors who throw a lot of loose cash around.

France's brave adventure with the 35–hour week hasn't been quite as negative as the employers federation would have Wall Street believe. People with time off spend money where and when they couldn't before, and they require extra services, which in turn creates new employment. Reverse this idea – like suppress a holiday! – and see how many get thrown out of work and how much grayer life becomes.

Brits and Americans may believe that 'work is good for you,' especially if you do a lot of it, but Europeans think that play is important. I suppose the disagreement is about proportions. If it's possible to make a surplus enough to afford to be idle, why work like a galley–slave?

Is it because the funky western world has decided that we will all be happier if we are paid no more than galley–slaves? How could our self–interest endorse this? Are beggar's wages the only option leading to full employment?

Look around you. If you are working as hard now as you were in the 1970s, where has the surplus gone? If you are not getting it and all the extra people who have joined the workforce are not getting it, where is it going?

Do you think it's going up the smokestack of health care? Hardly, because this employs a lot morephoto, paris mounties than it used to. Maybe it's being wasted on social charges. No, probably not – poor people don't put welfare money into stock schemes. Okay, maybe the farmers are subsidized too much? What do they get for those tomatoes anyway?

Mounted police pass the club's café every week.

If you look around you'll probably notice that a lot of people starting out in work today are lucky if they earn the minimum wage. Thirty years ago you probably made more and had that little surplus to spread around, but now most folks are just scraping by.

Meanwhile everything is supposed to get cheaper. Granted, this happens, but it is better or worse? Except for the rich and toys made for them, what isn't shoddier today? Take jeans. Lucky that they've become chic, so that society hotties can pay 400€ for a pair. They don't know that better jeans used to be available for $5 everywhere, before China got into the 'designer' act.

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