I once heard an “Italian” described as a “good-hu- mored Frenchman” which made me smile and nod my head in recognition. The French are, and admit to be- ing, râleurs—what we would call habitual complainers. It is a national character trait and applies to all levels of society. When I first settled here I was much im- pressed by the high standard of living: free education, low-cost high-quality health care for everyone, great public transportation, a 35-hour work week, retire- ment at age 60, long paid vacations, and so on. Coming from the free-market conditions of the United States I kept thinking how lucky these people are; some of the biggest worries of the average American citizen (affordable education and health care) do not even ex- ist here! The French are truly blessed. So why are they complaining?
To understand this phenomenon we may need to backtrack a bit—say, to the end of the Second World War when many of the present-day social benefits were initiated or expanded. With the help of the Marshall Plan France was able to make a quick recovery and create lots of jobs. Like many other developed countries at the time, it began a period of uninterrupted growth that lasted more than 30 years (les Trente Glorieuses— roughly from 1945 to 1975) until the oil crisis began to slow things down. During this time of expansion, which included a baby boom, the government extended many social benefits to its citizens who worked long hours and enjoyed full employment. Among these benefits was the right to paid vacation (which grew from a guaranteed two weeks in 1946 to five weeks in 1982), universal health coverage, generous family allowances, minimum wages, and numerous subsidies. The economy was booming and the country could well afford to be generous.
That is no longer the case and today the budget deficit seems to be the only thing that is still growing. The economy has slowed down, unemployment and deficits are rising, and Mother Providence at whose breast many French people suckle their entire lives is running out of milk. Since the end of World War II France has lost two wars (in Algeria and Indochina), saw industries decline, and the oil crisis as well as the more recent financial crisis have hit the treasury hard. The government can no longer afford its largesse and has begun to cut back on some of the generous benefits. However, today these benefits are considered droits acquis (acquired rights) and letting go of these rights is simply out of the question. The first post-war generation had known a life of increasing social benefits and the next one was born into a system of cradle-to- grave welfare, where what began as rights had grown into entitlements. The cycle had to be broken and the fight was on.
Today, that fight is played out on television and in the streets and continues to draw strong participation not only from labor unions but from professionals and public servants as well (doctors, lawyers, teachers) who march to defend their threatened workplaces and to object to further cutbacks. Amid a lot of noise and dis- ruption attention is drawn to problems that may vary from the diminishing quality of public education to the price of milk, and in the end the dispute will be moved to the negotiating table where more often than not the protesters get at least part of what they were fighting for. It is the French way and people are not shy about loudly voicing their discontent. Children grow up with street demonstrations and strikes, and see their parents marching or supporting the strikers from the sidelines. It is generally believed that the gov- ernment does not listen unless forced to do so by “the street.”
An aside about “voicing their opinion.” Have you ever heard a French debate on radio or on television? Frequently, everybody speaks at the same time and nobody listens. When I turn on my favorite radio news channel in the morning about five minutes early, chances are I catch a cacophony of voices “discussing” some issue where the first clear sentence is the closing one spoken by the monitor who thanks everyone for his contribution. At the end of the afternoon, a talking- head program on television offers the same spectacle: everybody around the table talks at the same time and the loudest voice or the longest breath usually wins. But I digress..
The droits acquis in France were awarded at a time of hardship and post-war penury, when they helped people get back on their feet and when the creation of a consumer society was a good and necessary thing for the citizen and the country as a whole. To the man in the street, these rights were acquired for life, and previous governments have paid the price for trying to take back some of those rights. Invariably, these attempts are met with fierce resistance and often the resisters win.
But with the well running dry and more going out of the nation’s health care pot than coming in, some measures have already been taken to slow down the hemorrhage, such as the one-Euro out-of-pocket contribution to discourage unnecessary doctor’s visits, reduced reimbursement for non-generic prescription drugs, more controls on habitual “sick leave” claimants, etc. But this is a drop in the bucket and more cutbacks do seem inevitable.
There is another French particularity that contributes to the tendency to resist: fear of change. The French are not risk takers; they know what they have and will instinctively resist something new. An inborn suspicion of losing something in the exchange easily results in the rejection of the new and different. I tend to think of this as a trait of older people, those who may not understand a newer world they cannot follow (computers, smartphones, etc.) and one they feel they do not need. But I have seen many highly educated youngsters here (Ph.D. level) taking concours after concours in hopes of entering the respected CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) for a poorly paid job with a lifetime guarantee. Here, job security definitely outweighs the more risky but financially more rewarding areas of business.
With a changing world, however, come perhaps more opportunities but also fewer guarantees, and the French are facing a future of less government assistance. It is scary and they are ill-prepared for it, so they massively resist it as long as they can. Both sides seem to have solid arguments and both will fight for their point of view until some common ground is found and an agreement is reached. The protest marchers will roll up their banners for a while, and the government will try to find the next area to cut without risking a revolution. Peace reigns, briefly, until the next battle.
It has to be said that protesters take to the streets to fight for more than their own purse (or their own “bifteck” as they say locally). For example, touch the Roma people, as president Sarkozy did when he began to expel them from France, and a spontaneous combustion of outrage spills into the streets where another march forms without prompting. Solidarity is part of the picture.
Perhaps the French are not more contrarian than others, but just more determined to hold on to their right to a decent life. Since they were given much they have a lot to lose, and being part of an increasingly competitive world they must realize that some of their droits acquis are under serious pressure. I see a long and noisy battle ahead, but this too will pass. In the meantime, they (and I) will continue to enjoy what is still an extraordinary quality of life in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.