2018 04 – News From France


Actions against railway reform

A day of action on 22 March gathered 500,000 people throughout France.

65,000 demonstrators marched in Paris according to the CGT (49,000 according to police).  Of those, 25,000 were railway workers, one in five railway workers.  They were called out by 7 of the civil servants unions.

There were marches in most large towns. The next national day of action for public servants will be the 19 of April.

Further to this, the railways will be on strike two days out of five for the next three months (two days strike followed by three days work from 3 April to 28 June). SNCF employees are more unionized than others: 18% belong to unions, as against the national average of 8.7%.

Civil servants (who include teachers and health employees) are protesting against the planned loss of 120,000 posts ‘throughout voluntary redundancies’ and pay freeze. A quarter of teachers were on strike on 22 March.

The main point of the SNCF reform is the change in the status of the institution into a commercial society (still on principle nationalised) that will have a lower legal capacity for borrowing, and a change in the legal status of employees: new entrants will no longer have security of employment and regular pay increases.

The change in status of the institution is baffling.  Railways always require more investments than can be paid back by users, if they are a public service that serves less populated regions, as it has been so far.  The government claims it will not close unprofitable lines as part of the reform, but the reform will allow that to happen ‘naturally’ through lack of funding.

The railway workers are not the first in this process.  State enterprises for gas and electricity, as well as post and telecommunications, have undergone the liberalisation process.  Gas and Electricity employees have managed to retain their civil servant status, but not those of La Poste and Orange.

People understand that all this is happening because the EU demands it.


England gets a bad press

Normally England gets a very good press in France: it does everything right, especially for the handicapped, and its multiculturalism and apologies for slavery etc are admired.  The following article from Le Monde of 10 March breaks the mould, drawing a picture of an England of food banks and falling life expectancy.  Here is a translation:

“Travel to the country where austerity reduces life expectancy. In the United Kingdom, for the first time in a century, life expectancy is declining in some regions. Poverty, lifestyle but also budget cuts explain this phenomenon.”

Paul Edmondson-Jones smiles when he mentions the strange concept developed by some doctors to summarize their patients’ problem: “Shit life syndrome” [in English in the original].  “Yes, I’ve heard about it,” says the public health director at Hartlepool City Hall, a town in north-eastern England. It’s true: these people are sick because they have a shit life, which is getting worse. They have no job, no hope, and find consolation in beer and cigarettes, and they damage their health.”

Hartlepool is the eighteenth poorest city in England. Shipyards, mines and chemical plants closed a long time ago. The last nearby steel mill died in 2015. For generations, poverty and social difficulties have become widespread.

But in recent years, a new phenomenon has been added: people are dying younger. For the first time in a century, life expectancy is decreasing. Until recently, even in places like this the population lived longer, despite being far behind rich areas. It’s over now.

While life expectancy in the United Kingdom as a whole continues to rise, the trend has reversed in dozens of regions of England. In Hartlepool, for men, it dropped more than a year, to age 76, from 2011-2013 to 2014-2016. In the poorest neighbourhoods, it is only 71 years old. For women, the trend is stable at 81 years on average and at 79 for the poorest.

“Here, during school holidays, many children who enjoy free meals in the canteen are not really fed at lunchtime. Often, their only real meal is a take-away at night from the local kebab. Malnutrition leads to obesity, opening a vicious cycle of health problems.

“The problem is that healthy food is much more expensive,” according to Julie Foster, a single mother of a 2-year-old girl who lives in the neighbourhood. You have to be able to go to the supermarket, which requires a car. You have to afford gas for cooking. She herself has a weight problem, after years of eating take-aways in the evenings, returning from her twelve-hour day cleaning.”

At the town hall, Paul Edmondson-Jones sees these stories reflected in his statistics.

“The direct causes of the decline in life expectancy are cancers, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. But behind this lies the way of life: alcohol, cigarettes, obesity …  He insists on one point: healthy life expectancy (without chronic disease) is only 55 years for women, hardly more in men. “Then the population bears the burden of disability. Look downtown, you see wheelchairs everywhere, people on crutches, mental disabilities … “

Michael Marmot, professor of public health at University College London, was one of the first to sound the alarm. “When I saw that life expectancy across the country was barely growing, I thought maybe we had reached a natural peak. But I made comparisons with the rest of Europe, and their life expectancy continues to rise. ”

According to him, the explanation lies at the junction between poverty, the problem of access to care, the way of life, unhealthy housing … But he adds an additional theory:

“Until 2010, life expectancy in the UK was growing at the same rate as elsewhere in Europe. Then we dropped out. This period seems to correspond to the consequences not only of the financial crisis, but also of austerity. “

He recalls that the budget for assistance to the elderly has decreased by 6% since 2010, while demand is increasing, and the health system continues to grow, but four times slower than before the crisis.

“Life expectancy is an indicator, which shows us how our society works. If it does not increase, we are going wrong, “concludes Michael Marmot.

In Hartlepool, austerity is not a theoretical financial concept. The emergency department of the hospital has closed. The waiting list to see a doctor lengthens, sometimes to several weeks. The city’s budget has fallen by a third in real terms since 2010.”

The article ends by describing more signs of a society in trouble, food banks and drug addiction.