Austerity, French-style

I’m having a coffee in a bar on the Champs Elysees, one of the most prestigious areas of Paris, just watching the world go by and trying to focus on an article I’m supposed to be editing.

Outside, there is an old gypsy-like woman, resting heavily on a walking stick and asking for money. She’s either a bloody good actor or really is destitute. I’ve been watching her for half an hour.

The most tragic thing is that I have so far not seen one person give her so much as a few cents. I’m mentally willing someone, anyone, to give her something.

I’ve been in Paris a couple of days, interviewing people about pensions, which is a fairly topical subject these days.

The country has been paralysed by strikes for the past week. A few days ago, I had the good fortune to meet a friend of mine from my Brussels days, who I hadn’t seen in ages. I was extremely fortunate, because my scheduled arrival was supposed to be two hous after her flight left. But, because air traffic control was woefully understaffed, her plane wasn’t allowed to leave. So one lady’s frustration was another man’s gain.

But, all over, I am seeing how seriously these strikes have affected the functioning of France. Fortunately, the two things I care about whilst in France – the TGV and the metro are both operating more-or-less satisfactorily. I did suffer one affect from the strikes, however, and that was the cancellation of a key meeting on Thursday. He had to leave work early, apparently, to catch his flight and therefore couldn’t meet me.

What I have been having some trouble understanding is why, when just about all countries of Europe (even the prolific Greeks, thanks to the stealy hand of Brussels), are having to swallow the bitter pill of austerity, no one is making quite the same fuss as the cambert-munching, frog leg-crunching Gaullists.

In an article a week or so ago, the Economist rather pooh-poohed the French protests, saying that the zing had rather gone out of French industrial action in recent years. I beg to differ. They have effectively paralysed the country. The fact that the new legislation is going through anyway says more about the bloody-mindedness of Nicholas Sarkozy and the obvious need for fairly swift action, than it does about the spinelessness of the French people. The unionists still have the clout.

One pension fund manager that I met explained to me, in some length, why the French feel the need to shout so loudly about the proposed changes; to many, raising the retirement age by a mere two years seems a rather trifling thing to get upset about. The unions fought hard for better pension rights 40 years ago, and they feel that any attempt to pare them back is a direct affront to their influence within the country.

I asked whether the reform would affect this particular pension fund.

“It’s a good thing,” I was told. “We’ll match the state pension. So, not only will we have longer to manager our investments, but the liabilities will be less.”

“So that’s why you’re not out there protesting,” I quipped, and we shared a good Anglo-French laugh.

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