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Op-ed: Urgent democratic reforms needed to unblock France

© Boris Horvat, AFP | Members of French trade union the CGT block access to an oil refinery in Fos-sur-Mer on May 23, 2016.

Text by Sylvain ATTAL

Latest update : 2016-05-26

France today projects a sorry picture of a stagnant nation where little has changed since the 1970s, a country in dire need of a policy update.

More than 40 years ago, eminent French sociologist Michel Crozier summarised a diagnosis of what he believed was France’s main malady. “Society does not change by decree,” he noted in his 1971 book, "Society Blocked" (La Société bloquée). Crozier proceeded to roundly denounce the archaic nature of the French administration and the inability of the politicians to reform the country at a time of great upheaval.

In "The Actor and the System" (L’Acteur et le Système, 1977), while examining the strategies of trade unions, he denounced the arrogance of France’s top bureaucrats – most of them educated in the same elite educational institutions, in secure jobs where performance is never evaluated.

That was four decades ago. It’s 2016 now and France is still in turmoil.

On Wednesday, French police fired water cannons to disperse protesters blocking an oil depot in the northeastern French town of Douchy-les-Mines near the Belgian border. Unions have been targeting the oil sector over the past few days and France’s hardline CGT union is set for a strike Thursday at the Nogent-sur-Seine nuclear plant southeast of Paris. With strikes spreading across the country, France has started using its fuel reserves to deal with the petrol shortages sparked by the latest mass collective action. Transportation has also been hit across the country with strikes causing 25 percent cancellations of the high-speed TGV train service, as well as delays and cancellations in regional and commuter train services.

The blockades are part of a wave of social unrest that has seen thousands take to the streets in often violent protests against labour reforms proposed by President François Hollande's deeply unpopular Socialist government. Commonly called the ‘El Khomri law’ – after Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri – the law, at first sight, appears to make good sense. The new legislation is aimed at boosting the French economy – which is no longer driven by manufacturing and consumption of goods "made in France" – by promoting innovation, improving competitiveness and giving companies greater flexibility.

This implies the ability to get rid of obsolete jobs in order to create new, more forward-looking ones in tune with the demands of a global market and changing consumer aspirations. Younger generations, for instance, want to consume less, and are more focused on eco-friendly, "smart" options. The law also seeks to redistribute income in their favour since today, it’s the pensioners who are seeing their share of national income rise. To achieve these goals, the government is attempting to remove obstacles to hiring and replacing the notion of job security with “career path security”.

Going back to the voters

Despite a compromise reached with the CFDT, France’s main reformist union, the government has failed to get even a very lightweight version of this legislation approved in parliament. In recent days, we’ve seen an unprecedented phenomenon of a minority of MPs from the ruling Socialist party trying to pass motions of censure against the government they’re supposed to be supporting.

Of course, Hollande has Article 49-3 – a constitutional clause that allows for reform by decree – in his arsenal. Theoretically, the controversial clause frees the executive from enslavement to parliamentary obstructionism.

But Hollande is not just facing opposition to the labour bill, he is also confronting a fundamental, systemic opposition held by a growing fringe of the parliamentary majority. He has broken promises made on the campaign trail and does not have public opinion on his side. What’s more, he has barely a year more in office. Therefore, he must face the hard fact that to break the current impasse, he needs to go back to the voters.

He can do this in two ways: either the French leader calls for a referendum, thereby putting his job on the line; or he dissolves parliament. This is the spirit of our democratic institutions.

If Hollande decides to do neither it'll be because he knows the results would be fatal in both cases and he’ll then instead be hoping for some sort of miracle before the 2017 presidential election. By failing to put this before the voters, Hollande is placing his own interests above that of France, which is in urgent need of reforms. In this respect, it’s hard to overstate the tragedy of Hollande’s first two years in office, when it’s easier to push through reforms (or in the French case, a little less difficult).

We’re going to be stuck in this climate of confrontation and violence in the weeks, and perhaps months, to come. Between the two sides sticking to their guns (the government with Article 49-3, the police brutally suppressing protesters), and the CGT trying to take the country hostage by attacking public transportation and refineries – and behind them, the anarchists and thugs they no longer control – France is in a mess. This is distressing because France will be lagging behind and the world will not wait for the country to play catch-up.

A man with a plan, but who’s listening?

The “Up All Night” (Nuit Debout) protests, which have been compared to the Occupy movement, are a victim of their own intellectual poverty. While it is running out of steam, it nevertheless succeeded in attracting support – or at the very least, sympathy – because it demonstrates that French youth harbour a deep yearning for a political upheaval. France’s young, educated elites in 2016 no longer accept being directed from above as their parents did 40 years ago.

But although the youth despair of politicians, there are still the odd politicians – a rarity, for sure – who are reflective and have a plan. Unfortunately these politicians are probably not destined for higher office. Take Thierry Mandon, Secretary for Higher Education, for example. He’s not a media star, nor a heavyweight in the government -- and that's a shame.

In an excellent interview with the French weekly Journal du Dimanche, Mandon noted that our political system is completely obsolete. If the country has changed very little in half-a-century, its people have changed profoundly. The number of university graduates has more than doubled from 20 per cent to 44 per cent. That accounts for the overwhelming sense of frustration over high unemployment figures and job insecurity.

Faced with better-informed citizens armed with digital tools and social networks, the political establishment is dated and archaic. A growing body of academics and researchers are not being heeded when it comes to drafting legislation and standards, the process of developing and implementing laws is too long, and the bureaucracy too powerful. The end result? Most of the laws being passed are inapplicable.

Mandon is in favour of passing laws "on trial" so that they can be returned to parliament for an improvement. He’s also in favour of a "spoils system," wherein a newly elected political official can hire high-level officials who share his or her political agenda. This would help trim bloated ministerial offices staffed by an untouchable bureaucracy. Mandon also advocates changing the profile of some of the officials who inevitably hail from the same background and emerge from the same schools. When it comes to the 2017 presidential race, Mandon believes the Left is better placed than the Right, because the public has little faith in what he calls “Zorro Republicans” or centre-right politicians promising to deliver that elusive cure for France’s malaise. He’s probably not wrong.

The problem though is the system is so entrenched. Mandon’s ideas will languish in yet another "report to the President”, who, having done nothing for five years, is badly placed to embody this democratic break.

And so we are condemned to watch, dumbfounded, these images from another century with riot police clashing with hardline union members at oil depots against a backdrop of burned police cars, in a country that seems frozen in the past and worse, seems bereft of the leadership to guide it into the future.

Date created : 2016-05-25