“We are aware that France is one of the richest countries on the planet,” said Fabrice Le Serre, a colleague of Bernard’s in the General Labor Confederation at Sandouville. From the workers’ point of view, he explained, the problem is that welfare programs that have been expanding for 60 years have started to recede.
“We should continue trying to improve things, not move backward,” he protested.
New kinds of trade-offs
Florian Andre, a 50-year-old metal specialist at the Sandouville plant, has always viewed French social protections as a natural extension of the country’s human values. Slight and graying now with middle age, Andre was raised as a ward of the state. With help from generous government programs, he went on to a 30-year career as a skilled worker, blessed with a wife and three daughters and enough in the bank to buy a home in Le Havre once owned by a sea captain.
“With our system, we just don’t allow a widow or a child to end up in the streets,” he said. “Our social system should take responsibility for all stages of life, from the youngest age to the time of death. Of course, it’s a trade-off. Everything has a cost.”
But recently, the government has begun to trade off in a new direction, whittling away at services to save on costs. President Nicolas Sarkozy, a market-oriented conservative, has started to “unknit” the long-standing web of protections, Andre explained, using a term in vogue at his union, the General Labor Confederation.
Most markedly, he said, the government has shifted an increasing percentage of medical costs out of the national health insurance program and into the private complementary insurance that has become part of a new reality — at $68 a month per person in Andre’s case.
Deductions from his monthly check still amount to 23 percent of the total, leaving him with about $2,400 in take-home pay. But the curtailment of reimbursements has added a list of new health-care costs that have to come out of the family budget.
When Andre’s mother-in-law had an operation recently, for instance, the doctor charged $500 more than the national health insurance would reimburse. Andre’s private insurance shouldered only $40 of the difference, leaving the family to come up with $460.
Similarly, when his wife was operated on for a herniated disc, the doctor charged $200 more than the fee allowed by France’s national health insurance. Of that, his complementary insurance ponied up $40, leaving Andre to pay the remaining $160.