And If France Says No?

Will France say no to the new European Constitution? It’s the question that all politicians are asking themselves at this time after some poles showing that a majority is ready to say no to the central piece of the European Constitution in a referendum that will take place at the end of May.

This turn of events-a few weeks ago a ‘yes’ was considered a sure thing-was the result of a series of large demonstrations against the government. The unions who called for a national strike did not have a precise set of demands and among the demonstrators a mixture of motives could be heard.

-We say no to the European Constitution, no to the loss of paid holidays. We are manifesting to say no to reform to the thirty-five hour week by the Raffarin Government.

-The thirty-five hour week, is a big gain for our society which has permitted notably not only a sustained employment but in addition it has allowed an increase in employment. And today, with the number out of work that we have in France, it is unacceptable that we ask wage earners to work overtime and to increase… well to change the thirty-five hour week.

A fact well noted; many demonstrators from the private sector were in evidence, for example these employees from Ikea stores:

-The problem is wages. We aren’t paid enough. The time at work is optimised. Which means we are asked to do more and more and there are fewer and fewer personnel.

And equally in the public sector:

-The Post Office could not survive as it is but they, they see profit, profits, increases in productivity and all that, to the disadvantage of the staff. We are here so that the workers aren’t subjected to gains in productivity. That’s it.

Many have made the comparison between the enormous profits registered by certain big businesses and the loss of buying power of the workers. At Renault Trucks for example:

-There are exceptional results but the wage earners have a hard time seeing any of it. In particular, yes there have been different results to announce. They are all wonderful. But for the wage earners it’s not the same thing. We don’t see what has been announced in our pay slips. For us it has been 1% fixed for 2 years. So there it is! When you look at the figures of the ten highest salaries, it’s on average more than 20%, more than 10%. Yes there are 2 different assessments really according to your point of view!

-It should be noted that in 2004 French businesses had never made such gains and the sharing of those profits, well they only went one direction. That is to the shareholders of the mayor groups and the workers didn’t realize anything.

-What they redistributed was the minimum that they were authorized. They gave nothing more than what was required of them!

But the element that brought everyone together is the rejection of the speech of the politicians who point to the source of the problem as the multinationals and thus out of their control. A concrete example? Listen to the speech of a union militant of the chemical company Rhodia. He saw his company taken over by a competitor that now is dismantling everything:

– They have removed everything that is heavy chemical industry, basic chemicals from their business because it earns less profit. But that being said, chemical production is at the same time an activity with a future. We are talking about products that are included in the everyday life of each person and that are useful. Therefore there is a real problem discontinuing production that is useful in life and to everyone in the end, but that are less profitable. I don’t think that we can live by making only pharmaceuticals and things that have a high value-added content. It is also necessary to produce clothing, people need to be able to feed themselves, and today for me, my feeling is that we are in the process of destroying a whole handful of industries.

He looks in vain for help from the public to face all these difficulties:

We didn’t see in France politicians rallying to come to the aid of Rhodia. That is clear. Today, a part of our problem is that we have a debt that is considerable. It is on the order of 2 ½ billion Euros. To survive, we borrow capital at exorbitant interest rates and there is no French bank that will lend to us. There is no European bank either. And capital comes exclusively from the United States. So can you imagine? You are heavily indebted and you renegotiate your debt because you have deadlines that you have to meet. In fact we borrow to pay back the loans due and we borrow at 12.25%. I don’t feel that the European Union has been the slightest help in this business. It’s too bad because the role of Europe, it should also be to concern itself with maintaining a certain number of industries active in order to have employment since in Europe we have a real problem of unemployment to take care of. In order to keep the MEDEF happy-it is necessary to lower the rights of the workers, to reduce the social burdens, it is necessary to reduce the cost of social security, to reduce the cost of retirement, to reduce all costs and then all problems will take care of themselves as if by magic. Myself, I don’t believe that thing work like that. Doing that is putting the cart before the horse. By contrast what is needed on the European level is a level of social protection of high quality for everyone and social rights for all workers in all of the countries of the Union. The diminution of social rights in order to create employment because the so called capitalists will be attracted by low salaries, I take a dim view of all that, what else can I say.

But can businesses conduct a policy of Keynesian growth under their own initiative? The priority of each enterprise is necessarily its’ own health and not the macro-economy. Pascal Montagnon of the MEDEF (Movement of Enterprises of France) and of Renault Trucks:

-I think that there is not one simple answer. Businesses today, some of them run quite well. In general they have a policy of remuneration that is attractive. There are others that suffer. One cannot forget that. There is the trend to relocate which is significant because of our cost of wages which is major and, that we should not deny because we, we are… Myself, I am a member of an international business and thus we are referenced to international salaries, especially to the Eastern Countries, and also to China and I can tell you that today it’s true that when you compare the production we could be doing in such and such a country it’s clear that the cost of labour today has become a subject, I would say that is a source of tension when we meet with our shareholders.

Thus for management it’s a question of making an effort to explain and to communicate:

I think that there isn’t a ready made answer but it is clear that today that from a closeness of management as a group and the group of colleagues by explaining our reasoning, that we will make those policies, I think that we will be able to give the answers to the questions that people are asking.

It is a question also of being attentive to the social changes to better satisfy the expectations of workers:

With respect to young people today, we are dealing with a population that is successful, that is more demanding and that is educated and is much more familiar with the world of business and that have expectations. And those hopes they want to see them fulfilled now, very quickly within the companies and not have to wait through 10 or 15 years of promotion to positions of higher responsibility. It is very clear. Now at the end of a few years, well what they want is to have very quickly those responsibilities.

Individual solutions, explications of reason… there is no shortage of it. But answers to the perception of injustice in the free order and tensions that are born of an international competition more and more intense, those are not in evidence. No doubt it is for that reason that the enough is enough movement was transformed into a movement of protest against the European Union. In spite of the best intentions, the E-U has become a symbol of the ultimate relocation… the relocation of responsibility.

One would be wrong to over generalize. Only a minority is in the street; people watching the protestors pass sometimes make biting remarks:

Does the conservation of social benefits mean that each time, for every reform, you are systematically opposed to the smallest change and march in the street? France is unfortunately paralysed by unions that demonstrate for each reform and I think that this doesn’t help the image of France, the day that the I.O.C. was welcomed in Paris, to organise a demonstration that was going to stop everything, that was going to obstruct public services, to paralyse public services on a day when one was trying to show to the rest of the world, precisely for the Olympic Games, the image of France and of its organization.

What does the silent majority think of it? The answer on the 29th of May, at the referendum on the European Constitution.

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