The approach is a far cry from the tradition Andre thought was a national treasure never to be relinquished. When he was young, he recalled, not only were medical costs paid without question, but medicine prescribed by the doctor was also eligible for total reimbursement.
“Now,” he smiled, “you have to be almost dead to get a 100 percent reimbursement.”
Privileges have become a ‘ball and chain’
France, emblematic of Europe’s social advances, has considered a generous protection system part of the landscape ever since Charles de Gaulle embraced a program put forward by Communist resistance groups immediately after World War II. With subsequent additions under the Socialist Party’s two turns in power since then, including the 35-hour workweek and more vacation time, the welfare state has since been taken to a level that made this country the envy of many.
When the global crisis hit, the French social protection net — which helps push government expenditures to 54 percent of gross domestic product — cushioned people from the worst effects. But now, as Europe struggles to return to growth, conservatives in and outside the government have said the protections are threatening the health of public finances and holding back the economy.
Godet, the economist, calculated that with a legally mandated five weeks of vacation, national holidays and compensatory time off for working more than 35 hours, French workers and functionaries have accumulated 55 days a year in paid time off. Combined cleverly with “bridges” over workdays that fall between off days, he found, that in effect gives them a week off every month.
As a result, he said, French workers on average show up at the office or factory 620 hours a year, compared with about 700 in Germany and 870 in the United States. Also as a result, an hour of work costs $43 on average in France, compared with $36 in neighboring countries that also use the European currency, the euro, giving those other countries, particularly Germany, the edge in globalized competition.
“The problem we have is that we can’t get people to understand that these privileges are in fact a ball and chain,” Godet said.
Sarkozy’s government, in seeking to persuade the population that change must come, has emphasized the ballooning costs of health care and retirement pensions as the main culprits in a 2010 deficit amounting to more than $200 billion, or 7.7 percent of the gross domestic product. Health insurance alone accounted for $30 billion of the shortfall.
But Sarkozy also revamped the pension system last fall, tightening early-retirement rules and raising the benchmark retirement age from 60 to 62 despite howls from unions and left-wing political leaders. In explaining the shift, he said a rising number of long-lived retirees, combined with a smaller base of active workers to pay into the system, had forced the government to rely increasingly on borrowing to keep the system afloat.
As the global crisis exacerbated deficits, leading to collapses in Greece and Ireland, he said, France found it could no longer run up more debt to keep the pensions coming.
“People began to understand that the whole system could come crumbling down,” Godet said.
Sarkozy’s opposition on the left accused him of betraying the national consensus begun by De Gaulle in 1944, asserting that the debt burden should be lightened instead by forcing the rich to pay more taxes.
“Don’t talk to me about the public deficit,” shouted a woman at an anti-government rally in Concarneau, on the Brittany coast, organized by the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and Citizen Action (ATTAC). “No, there is no public deficit. There is just the possibility for the powers of big money to redistribute, to give money back, and so on.”
The Socialist Party and other leftist groups have interpreted such outrage as a chance for change in the next presidential election, in 2012. “Something is happening,” predicted Youenn Le Flao, who heads Concarneau’s ATTAC branch. But it remains to be seen whether the indignation will translate into votes against Sarkozy when he seeks reelection to a second term.
One indication came when France’s highly politicized labor unions staged a series of general strikes and massive demonstrations in the fall to try to stop the change in retirement age. From the beginning, Sarkozy’s majority in parliament meant passage was assured, infusing the protests with a dispirited tone. Soon after the final vote in October, they sputtered out entirely, and the president’s conservative backers suggested the 35-hour workweek should be the next target.