Monday, 16 June 2014

Vive la Grève, ou la France, mais pas les deux au même

An Actual "Train Wreck," ca 1895

Generally speaking, one of the pleasures of urban life in Paris is the ease with which one can live without an automobile.  I do not own a car, and have driven once in 2014 - a hired car during a weekend trip to Normandy.  As I observed some months ago here, the Parisienne Metro - the RATP - is a marvellous system of trains that make life in a huge, pre-automobile city possible.

The down side to this is that many of course come to depend upon the trains, and when there are perturbations, the impact is large.

So it is now that a couple of the train workers' unions have called for a strike, ostensibly to protest presumed austerity measures that the socialist government are considering in reforms to the rails system.  These strikes are, in fact, pre-emptive, as the Bill is in debate in the Assemblée Nationale.  Put succinctly, it's not passed, but merely debated.

The SNCF (a government group who run the Grandes Lignes trains between the cities) are currently running enormous debts - in the billions of euros in fact.  Without some sort of reform, it's obvious that, metaphorically, the track is out just ahead, and the trains will surely go off the rails, soon, if something isn't done.

The Socialists under François Hollande do not have many options.  They can raise taxes (which are amongst the highest in the world).  They can raise fares significantly (which is more or less the same thing as a tax rise).  They can cut services (always a popular move).  They can cut spending.  

It's worth pointing out that François Hollande, the Président de la République, is the banner-carrier for the Progressive Socialist (PS) party in France, and won his office with massive public-union support.  Margaret Thatcher once said that socialism works very well, until you run out of other people's money.

Socialists being what they are, there is of course the Magic Unicorn approach - that the money will just appear from the pockets of "The Rich."  

As a result, the syndicats des ferroviaires have called for a strike, with calamitous results.  This weekend, approximately four of ten trains were not circulating.  This was compounded mid-week when taxi drivers, angry about the encroachment of services like Uber, called in their own strike, which was made even worse when the drivers not only refused to pick up fares, but then engaged in an operation escargots, wherein their cabs plugged up the routes out of the two major Paris airports (Roissy and Orly), as well as the notorious Boulevard Périphérique - the freeway circling the city.  This action co-incided with the first day of the EULAR (European Union League Against Rheumatism), the major conference on rheumatology for my personal field.  

In short, it was a mess.

But the cherry on top in this case is that this week, French students will be taking their BAC - final exams for France's lycéens - an exit exam similar to the UK A-levels. 

France's top students may not enter university without the exams, and the rail strike is set to have an enormous impact.  There is a lot of anger here surrounding the issue.  Anger and fear.  The local Figaro has announced today the extra-ordinary measure being taken to accommodate the students - those arriving up to an hour late, with documentation to prove that the strike affected their transit, will be granted an additional hour to complete their exams.  

The heat is on the unions who find themselves in the odd position of being the bad guys in virtually all press here - left and right.  The situation was made worse when one of the unions "Tweeted" on Sunday
Jeune, organise toi dès maintenant pour aller à l'examen détendu et décroche ton bac :-)
Youth, prepare yourself now to go and get your exams end relax for your BAC (degree) 
The unions, surprised perhaps by the anger, are now in full damage control, today offering to deploy, in red (of course) vests "helpful" people to guide students to the one in two trains that are running and ensure they have priority over everyone else.  No word on how that is going to help if the train running at 10 is cancelled and the students have to wait until 11.

I am not a huge fan of unions in general, though I understand that they serve a necessary purpose.  Semi- and unskilled workers face a commodity market, and need a way to collectivise when monied powers try to force down wages.  

This makes sense when the unions represent their workers against a powerful, wealthy, private corporation.  In this case, the antagonist is the corporation.  And in a sense, both the union and the corporate bosses, in the end, have it in their base interests that the corporation survive.  The fight in that case is over the profits when the company succeeds.

In the case of public unions, this pressure is removed.  When the CGT go to negotiate, they aren't arguing against John D Rockefeller or Henry Ford.  The 'enemy' of the unions is the taxpayer.  We, the taxpayers, are the bad guys. 

Put simply - it's 'them' against 'us.'

The CGT have tried to hide this, softening their position a bit in a press release.  
Notre cible est bien ce 'débat' parlementaire et non pas tes examens. Nous ne sommes pas responsables de ce calendrier imposé par le gouvernement
Our target is the parliamentary discussion, not your exams.  We are not responsible for the calendar imposed by the government
You see, the bad guy here is "the government."  

I might remind the portes paroles of the CGT - and other public unions for that matter - that in a democracy, "the government" is the citizenry.  

In France, they ought to know, as the unions were the main reason François Hollande was elected to begin with.

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