Reform of the Regions
This is the refrain you hear in the media in France and abroad: France must reform, abandon archaic institutions and become a modern state. First change to be made: get rid of small administrative units, because there are too many of them. There are 36,000 communes (hamlet/village/town/city) each with its elected representatives. Metropolitan France has 96 départements, each with its administration and elected representatives. (Départements were created in 1789.)
In 1982 the government gave extensive powers to 22 regions, now responsible among other things for secondary schools and transport; they commission train services.
This antique system is government on a human scale. The citizen has someone to turn to within physical reach. He is not dependent on haphazard charity if he needs help. He has elected the people who are responsible for his children’s school and for their buses and trains.
This however is archaic, people must toughen up in this day and age and learn to stand on their own two feet. Départements must be got rid of.
This will be a bit difficult to achieve, so a start will be made gently by decreasing the number of regions, since people are not so attached to them. Regions as administrative units are more recent, and they do not correspond to the traditional provinces, except in some cases, particularly Brittany, Alsace and Corsica. So the François Hollande government has presented a law reducing the number of regions to 14. Nobody is happy with the result.
L’Humanité (3.6.14) titled: ‘Democracy is too expensive: let’s reduce the number of elected representatives!’
(In English ‘elected representatives’ is an unwieldy and cumbersome phrase; the French equivalent is a snappy ‘les élus’; La démocratie est trop chère, réduisons le nombre des élus!).
L’Humanité then points out that this is a liberal reform, and that liberalism is truly a revolutionary ideology which aims at obliterating the past, and that therefore the solution when faced with this permanent revolution is to be a conservative. This territorial reform is a liberal reform that aims at systematically undoing the ties that still exist between the citizens and their nearest elected representatives, in the guise of saving money.
L’Humanité is against the reform.
The National Front has a different view: they don’t like regions having power, they see them as states within the state, and so they like bigger regions with correspondingly bigger responsibilities even less. They point out correctly that the reform would increase desertification of the countryside, as capitals of former smaller regions are abandoned and population is concentrated in a smaller number of towns.
The National Front wants no regions at all, only the commune, département and State. Schools should be the responsibility of the département, and railways that of the State.
François Rebsamen, former Senator and Mayor of Dijon, now Minister for Work, Employment and Social Dialogue, had another proposal, formulated before he became minister. He saw that some reform would be useful, when there really was a duplication of services between the three administrative layers. He thought that this could be remedied on an ad hoc basis. There was duplication in heavily built up areas. In those cases, the commune, département and région could communicate and organise services as necessary. The majority of France on the other hand is not heavily built up and profits from having three layers of administration. This is a sensible view. It has the advantage of not being against reform a priori, and at the same time of taking into consideration the needs of the citizens. It is practical and humane.
Reform of the railways.
France still has a national railway! Very quaint. But for how much longer will the SNCF continue as a public service?
Railway workers were on strike over 10 days in June. The strike has been unsuccessful. BBC Radio 4 ‘From our own correspondent’ reported on it (21.6.14) as being ‘over some incomprehensible reform of the SNCF’. That was the extent of the analysis.
The CGT-Railways union led a rolling strike, with another union, Sud-Rail. The CFDT only joined for the first day. The CGT denounced the reform as a reorganization preparing the way for further privatization of the railway. It also denounced the 15% reduction in operating costs, a reduction achieved by outsourcing the SNCF Human Resources, payroll, IT, family, health, social and legal services. The SNCF housing stock would be disposed of. New employees would not benefit from existing job specifications and conditions of service. Hours of work and rest periods would be ‘reorganised’ to the detriment of the employees.
The head of the SNCF, Guillaume Pépy, wants a world class transport and logistics group, with three main bodies and hundreds of subsidiary companies, capable of taking a stake in the railways of other countries. SNCF is already in that position; among examples worldwide, its subsidiary Keolis will be part of the management of TSGN, Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise, the largest railway franchise in England.
On the other hand France has fought hard to stop foreign companies running trains through France with non-French drivers. It is only recently that Deutsche Bahn has been able to drive trains through France to get to the Channel Tunnel and England.
Railway systems are no longer just national. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the national service is not compromised, and it is not achieved at the cost of demolishing the pay and conditions of service of national employees.
That SNCF employees have privileges should be applauded. For once workers have privileges. Privileges of the professions, doctors, lawyers etc are acceptable but privileges of workers are unacceptable, and workers are almost ashamed to defend them. City traders can retire at 40 with the money they have made, and that is OK, but train drivers should be ashamed of retiring at 50 and other rail workers at 55. Should all workers see their conditions of service equalized to that of the least well treated employees?
Need for reform
That is not to say that there should be no reform. The CGT says there should be reform. It wants to reunite the system (split like the UK system between track and rolling stock), and finance the debt through taxation on motorways and lorries, and a public funded state loan.
It refuses however the proposals put forward to increase freight traffic, subsidies to employers for opening branch lines, and to road hauliers to put lorries on trains, as well as opening the system to private freight firms.
If these measures were successful in increasing freight traffic and reducing road transport, they should be adopted, even though they involve private companies. Presumably the CGT is glad that SNCF subsidiaries are making money running trains in England, even though it is in a private provision framework.
Immense enterprises such as the SNCF have to be run by teams of experts; the resources of the trade unions are perhaps not up to the task of formulating a thorough proposal for reform; for that, they would need to work with the management and have their expertise at their disposal .
Nevertheless, as far as the strike is concerned, workers should have secure privileges that make their life a good life and the working class an envied class, and they are right to go on strike to try to protect them.
Another outdated French practice
Another outdated French practice is allowing cows to stand in fields eating grass. This is good for the health of the animals, provides employment in the countryside, and protects the landscape.
But the competition, for example Germany, has factory farming for cows, hors sol as they said in French, meaning ‘off the ground’. This environment plus the industrial feed causes disease and the large scale use of antibiotics, as for chicken and pork factory farming. This method also lowers costs so much that in France pig and chicken battery farmers find it difficult to make a living and rely on government subsidies.
The biggest herds in France at the moment have 350 cows; in 2010 half of all herds had less than 50 cows.
Cows in fields make cow pats that are absorbed in the soil. In factory farms, their waste is an immense quantity that needs to be dealt with; it is proposed that the factories are equipped with gas making plants, as they are in Germany for pig farming in particular. But these plant do not deal with all the waste product, and the problem remains of what to do with the rest.
The French are only beginning to go down that road for cows; indeed they still use the phrase ‘factory farm’ in inverted commas, as if it was a novelty and a suspect one at that.
The test case is ‘the farm of the thousand cows’ (la ferme des mille vaches’), to be run in the north of France; feelings are very strong about it. Militants trying to stop its building have spent time in prison. The government, initially supportive of the thousand cows, now says it is not in favour, but ‘what can it do in the face of competition law?’
The Alstom crisis is over for the time being. Alstom produces electric turbines (30% of steam turbines in the world’s nuclear power stations are Alstom built) and trains (including some of the trains running on the London Underground).
The state will buy 20% of the capital of the transport side (as was done by Sarkozy earlier). No shareholder owns more than 20%.
The electricity producing side will be run 50-50 by Alstom and General Electric.
That means however according to Gilbert Reilhac of Reuters that “Once the GE-Alstom deal closes – which is expected in the first half of 2015 – 65,000 Alstom workers out of 96,000 worldwide will be working for GE, whether in the global gas turbines business it will have fully acquired or in the joint ventures it will have set up with Alstom.” How is the public supposed to understand how this equates to 50-50?
Negotiations have concluded regarding the gigantic fine imposed by the United States on this French bank for allowing Iran, Congo and Cuba to deal in dollars between 2002 and 2009. France Inter reporting on this during its Saturday morning economics programme (On n’arrête pas l’éco) said that the bank had not infringed any regulations, but that US law applies, according to the US, to the whole world, hence the prosecution. Paribas had not broken any EU or UN laws. As part of its punishment Paribas had to admit guilt and apologize, which it did after months of refusing to do so.
The power of US judiciary over the rest of the world does not bode well for the implementation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which is being negotiated at the moment. Thanks to this treaty companies will be able to challenge ‘Non-tariff barriers’ i.e. national regulations, by legal means if they are an impediment to trade. For example, the US would have to renounce its law giving preference to national enterprises for its municipal services, and France would have to give up its ban on US beef (the ban rests on US use of growth hormones in the raising of cattle). But which country has the biggest judicial clout? The strongest judicial power seems to be in the US, and US companies will avail themselves of it to the detriment of Europe.