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- President of France
This article originally appeared on the Foundation for Economic Education.
Strikes and blockades have spread across France as President Emmanuel Macron spends his time touring Europe with a new EU agenda. The French state-run railway service, SNCF, is currently dealing with massive strikes on both the regional and the high-speed inter-city lines. The unions CGT and SUD-Rail are striking in opposition to any change in the status of SNCF (the public rail service) personnel. It should be noted that government reform is very moderate since current employees of the SNCF hired to that professional status will keep all the benefits and privileges associated with it. The changes are merely affecting new employees.
Massive Public Infrastructure Strikes
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his New Year wishes to the press at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on January 3, 2018.
The labor union activists are equally upset by the liberalization of the rail market which is being initiated by the European Union. Through the "Mobility Pack" coming from Brussels, Paris will be obligated to open regional train travel to competition from next year on. With a highly inefficient public service in this area, the SNCF is right to be worried about the potential price competition on its major lines.
As of now, the service is confronted with the fiscal burden of both massive debts and deficits. Given the monopoly on all transport lines, this is actually a phenomenal "achievement.” It truly takes a government-run system to produce services that operate this poorly. And yet, SNCF employees seem determined not to let the government change a thing. Out of spite, the union plans to run fewer trains than normal until June. However, when the decision to reduce the number of operating trains was made, the union didn’t consider how that might affect their own cause.
After planning a rally in support of these new changes, the union realized that the lack of trains meant fewer people had access to the transportation needed to attend the rally. One union leader commented on this, saying:
For this rally, we thought about everything, except the fact that the trains weren't running.
You couldn't make it up.
The strikes in the public railway sector are paired with equally intrusive strike actions on France's publicly held airline AirFrance. After more than nine days of strikes, the board had suggested a deal to the union: 2 percent of salary increase in 2018, then a 5 percent over a period of three years. The union responded by demanding an immediate 5 percent increase and announced that the strike would continue.
With AirFrance being one of the few airlines that connect the country by air, and with almost all train lines paralyzed, the behavior of the AirFrance union seems deliberately coordinated. This trade union behavior only seems confirmed by the fact that in a number of cities, union activists blocked the inter-city buses run by private companies. The German bus travel provider Flixbus had seen a massive spike in reservations following the strikes, and even ran ads online, saying "during the strike, take Flixbus!"
Being the second-largest strike-friendly country in Europe with 125 days of strikes per 1,000 employees is one thing. Blocking the access of private companies which are merely trying to get people to their workplaces, that is having true resentment for those who work.
Universities Blocked by Their Own Students
While paid employees decide not to show up for work, unpaid people also go on strike. A number of French universities, notably that of the Sorbonne University in Paris, are being occupied by their own students. Radicalized students are blocking the entrance for professors and other students and hold general assemblies in which they "vote" regularly on continuing their protest.
What are they protesting against? They oppose the government's new "Law for the orientation and success of students" (ORE), through which the Macron administration suggests to select students more through their performance in high school. Until now, no qualifications apart from a baccalaureate were needed to get accepted to a university. This, paired with the fact that French students pay virtually no tuition fees and benefit from large student and housing subsidies, has made faculties considerably over-crowded.
At a large student protest in the streets of Toulouse, one interviewed student bemoaned the fact that new reforms could lead universities "to choose the students it prefers" and that students that performed better would have better chances.
The mere notion of merit seems absolutely foreign to French students. Any form of merit-based system is antithetical to their convictions, which have been built over years on three premises:
The government's responsibility is to make people more equal
Government interventionism improves society
There is a social heritage (welfare) that needs to be protected no matter what
Why the Upset? Don't They Already Have Socialism?
The reforms on public rail and in the realm of universities are minimal reforms compared to what France would actually need. The protests are more of a power play by trade unions and student groups, to see how far they can push the Macron administration. And in fact, they notice that they can indeed push very far. Strikes that began in early April are still continuing right now.
But why isn't a society built on this social-egalitarian mantra promoted by what Bernie Sanders calls "democratic socialism" (we still call it socialism in Europe), so discontent with its benefits? French people get all the perks that the Vermont senator asks for, including government-run health care, pension systems, tuition-free universities. And yet, they spend a fifth of their work-time on the streets, bemoaning the overtaking of the "neoliberal order."
Here's the truth: there is no end goal in socialism but to take more and more. No demand is big enough, no social welfare program extensive enough. If you believe that you could satisfy those who argue for any kind of social welfare program by giving it to them, is fundamentally mistaken. On the same side, the result is more devastating for the poorest in society, with larger unemployment, and economic opportunities. Those who fail are unanimously seen as victims of the capitalist system, and those who succeed must have done so through vicious greed and reckless exploitation.
This is why the innovators and creators of the world reside in the United States, and not in France.
So you want to be more like France?
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