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Civil servant job perks trigger French Socialist row

Frederick Florin, AFP | A banner reads ''civil servant pay, the figures don't add up'' during a protest against austerity measures on May 15, 2014 in Strasbourg, France

What should have been a consensual reform to grant France’s civil servants their first pay rise in years turned into a bitter feud after the country’s free-speaking economy minister challenged their privileged status.


It was an all-too-familiar scene for observers of France’s Socialist government: a maverick minister blasting a symbol of the left, the French president implicitly disavowing him, and a second minister complaining bitterly that her colleague had trespassed on her domain – and stirred upheaval in the process.

The maverick was Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who has infuriated many in the Socialist camp with his business-friendly rhetoric and repeated digs at left-wing symbols, chief among them the 35-hour week. Last week he had a go at another taboo: reforming France’s gargantuan civil service.

In remarks made to the press, Macron claimed the status of France’s more than five million civil servants, which gives them near-total job security, was “no longer adequate”. He added: “I don’t see why some in my ministry should benefit from a guaranteed job for life while the head of a cyber security firm is on a temporary contract.”

Like much of what Macron says these days, the dig at fonctionnaires – as civil servants are known – was a bonanza for the French media, which rushed to open a new front in the ruling Socialists’ internal squabbles. It prompted the president, François Hollande, to deliver yet another veiled rebuke as he decorated a civil servant, whom he praised as a “fonctionnaire committed to his region and his status, as I am too”.

Marylise Lebranchu, the minister in charge of reforming the French state, was more scathing. On Wednesday, she said Macron’s remarks had caused “incomprehension and turmoil” at the worst possible time, coming as she wrapped up year-long negotiations with trade unions on plans to reform civil servants’ salary scales. An irate Lebranchu said she was ready to “swap ministries” if that’s what Macron wanted.

She had good reason to be cross. Citing Macron’s comments, the powerful CGT union rejected Lebranchu’s proposal, meaning the government secured just 49 percent of union votes, when it was seeking at least 50 percent to implement the reform.

Public sector perks

Lebranchu’s proposal involved granting civil servants their first salary increase in years, but in return for longer careers. Civil servants would have to work a minimum of 30 years before reaching their maxim pay, against the current minimum of 18 years.

The French government is under pressure from the European Commission to cut public expenditure further, which currently account for over half of the country’s GDP. Civil service wages and other staff expenses amounted to 278 billion euros last year, the equivalent of 13% of GDP – the highest percentage in Europe after Denmark and Finland.

There has also been criticism of the many perks enjoyed by fonctionnaires, who on average have longer holidays, better pensions, and mildly higher salaries than workers in the private sector – though the figures conceal huge disparities between the top earners and those at the bottom of the scale.

Profile: Emmanuel Macron

Since 2010, successive governments have sought to curb the steady rise in the state’s total payroll, implementing a freeze on wages and opting to replace only one in two retiring civil servants.

Critics of such cuts say this “bloated” public sector is precisely what spared France the worst of the economic crisis, as the state did not fire people across the board. They also point out that the French state provides some of the world’s best public services. The Cour des comptes, which audits the state’s finances, also noted that payroll savings had been offset by a growing reliance on contractual workers, who do not qualify as fonctionnaires but are still paid by the state.

Ideological debate

According to Antoine Bozio, who heads the Paris-based Institute of Public Policy, the debate about France’s public service is “fraught with ideology”. The fonctionnaires “are neither lazy profiteers nor heroes of the Republic”, he told FRANCE 24, describing the country’s civil service as “mostly efficient” but in need of reform.

Civil servants have long been regarded as untouchable in France. They form a large chunk of the electorate and generally provide around two thirds of cabinet ministers. But Bozio says they are less resistant to change than is commonly assumed.

“The system was designed to prevent nepotism and foster meritocracy, but many civil servants today recognize that it needs to change in order to remove rigidities, improve career prospects and build bridges with the private sector,” he said, noting that it had become “difficult for the Finance Ministry to hire an economist”.

The mood has also changed in the wider public, fuelled by unprecedented media scrutiny of state-sector privileges. Opinion polls last week said two thirds of French agreed with Macron on the need to reform the status of civil servants – though Macron later said the press had given a “partial” account of their meeting and “twisted” his views.

‘Status quo not an option’

Faced with the prospect of another damaging U-turn, the government decided on Wednesday to forge ahead with the proposed change to civil servants’ pay scales, regardless of the failure to secure majority support from the unions. “An unprecedented situation requires an exceptional decision”, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told France Inter radio, adding that “the status-quo is not an option”.

Technically, the government’s move is not illegal, as the civil service is allowed certain “exceptions” from rules governing labour relations, such as the requirement that a majority of trade unions approve any agreement. But the decision puts the Socialists on a collision course with the CGT and FO, another powerful union.

“The majority rule is a cornerstone of our democracy and cannot be challenged,” said a CGT spokesperson, warning Valls against enforcing the deal. The government is “burying public-sector labour relations”, added FO, likening the move to a controversial rule that recently allowed the government to bypass parliament and impose a law sponsored by Macron.

But labour relations may go quiet over the next few months. Bozio said the government was “very unlikely” to push for a more sweeping reform of the civil service with a presidential election less than two years away. And recent history suggests the conservative opposition will do no more should it return to power in 2017.

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