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I once heard an “Italian” described as a “good-humored Frenchman,” which made me smile and nod my head in recognition. The French are, and admit to being, 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 impressed by the high standard of living: free education, low-cost high-quality health care for everyone, great public transportation, a 35-hour work week, retirement 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 exist 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 giving up 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 much noise and disruption 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 it is generally believed that the government will not listen unless forced to do so by “the street.”
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.
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 stem 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.
With a changing world come perhaps more opportunities but 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.
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) continue to enjoy what is still an extraordinary quality of life in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France. Anne-Marie Simons is the author of Taking Root in Provence.