The Daily Demarche
Monday, May 16, 2005
The French: Will They Ever Learn?
Good evening (morning, afternoon) everybody. I’m going to post today on a subject that I am generally loath to touch: France. It is not that I am particularly afraid to discuss this subject, or that I have some kind of hidden sympathy for the French (although Paris is a beautiful city). It is merely that my sense of fair play usually overrules my desire to deconstruct whatever lunacy the French are up to. It is simply too easy, like going after fish in a barrel – with a hand grenade. Posts dissing France practically write themselves. Nonetheless, occasionally something emanating from France catches my attention and feeds my fancy (like this post on multipolarity).

The latest from the country des droits de l’homme is the news that there is great unrest at the plan to remove a holiday from the French calendar in favor of a “Day of Solidarity.” This whole “Day of Solidarity” concept is a novel one: its origins stem from the horrible heat wave that killed roughly 15,000 elderly French citizens in August 2003 while their children decamped to the beaches of Biaritz and the mountains of Chamonix. Unfortunately, the avatar for the European “dream” of expansive social welfare, socialized medicine, and a human face to temper all that raw Anglo-Saxon capitalism was unable to keep its senior citizens from perishing in numbers not seen since the Normandy landings.

The French government, in a well-intentioned move, decided that rather than celebrate the traditional first Monday after Pentecost via a holiday, the French would return to work and employers would pay into a special fund designed to provide healthcare for the aged and infirm. French officials speculate that they would raise roughly $2.5 billion this year from “Solidarity Day.” Unfortunately, this windfall ends up well short of the $7.5 billion per year necessary to fix the French health system.

But that isn’t even the wacky part. What really blows my mind is that an estimated 55% percent of French workers, angered that the government has taken away one of their holidays, will not show up for work. Now, perhaps they have a point. Two other holidays, one on May 1 and another on May 8, happen to fall on weekends, so French workers will have no holidays at all in the first half of May. One can understand how aggrieved they must feel. The cruelness of it all – it is just so... unfair. How could the government expect its people to work in these conditions? So, in a fit of pique, most of France will now turn their back on a day designed as a reminder of the loss of so many of their society’s elder members. You can’t make this stuff up.

This, of course, assumes that having France's employers donate to a special fund for its elderly on one day every year will solve the country’s health care problems. Naturally, this is at best a short term solution. The system will continue to hemorrhage money and fail to provide the health care its citizens require until the government undertakes substantial reform in the health care sector. This would, of course, require some kind of liberalization or privatization. It goes without saying that none is forthcoming any time soon: France’s powerful unions will use any opportunity to lock the country up in strikes and industrial actions. The mere notion of privatization will provoke them into mad frenzy, freezing the country and forcing the government to back down. The sad irony, then, is that the unions, in a selfish spasm of righteous indignation on behalf of their coddled membership, will perpetuate a system that will be unable to prevent a recurrence of such a catastrophe should another heat wave descend upon France. No doubt they will blame global warming (and we all know who is behind that).

In the least, I cannot fault the French government’s intention in trying to show respect for the deceased elderly, even if their efforts are misguided and fall short. One must ask, however, if the country that presents itself to the world as the “humane” alternative to the harshness of Anglo-Saxon capitalism is possessed of more humanity than those greedy, capitalistic Anglo-Saxons. It seems to me that, if a heat wave had taken 15,000 American, British, or Australian lives, there would be, in addition to groundswell of self-righteousness (and concomitant hyperventilating on the blessings of socialized medicine) from the left-leaning members of the commentariat, a true effort to address the systemic failures that led to such a catastrophe, to say nothing of the societal ones. But the French can’t even bring themselves to like the half-assed solution they’ve come up with. Which is something to think about when someone pontificates on how “humane” the French model is.

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dé·marche 1) A course of action; a maneuver. 2) A diplomatic representation or protest 3) A statement or protest addressed by citizens to public authorities.

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