2014 10 – News From France


Assorted strikes

Assorted strikes have taken place, not over low pay and for higher wages, but for keeping the status quo in the face of government demands for flexibility.

Taxi drivers were the first, in January. In order to practise, taxi drivers have to purchase a licence. The licence is very expensive in Paris and near stations, cheaper elsewhere. This system limits the number of people who can set themselves up as taxis. The government proposed allowing people without a licence to work as taxis. In response the licenced taxis blocked traffic in January this year. A compromise was reached where those outside this system can work as cabs, but can’t pick up fares in the street.

On 30 September the so-called regulated professions went on strike. There is a list of 37 regulated professions. Access to these professions is limited by the necessity to have a diploma, or the necessity to buy a licence or an existing practice; fees are regulated by a national tariff. Architects, doctors, lawyers, solicitors, physiotherapists, doctors, driving instructors, bailiffs, chemists etc fall in this category.

On 27 September the government produced a 685 page report reforming the status of these professions. It had not been negotiated or discussed prior to publication. Needless to say, nobody yet knows what these pages contain. The body representing the professions singled out one reform, which was presented to the public. At the moment these professionals are self financed, or at any rate financed by members of the profession. Now, anyone would be allowed to invest in the business. Professionals fear being taken over and exploited by large financial interests that would have the possibility to close down unprofitable parts of a business, as has been done in industry. The reform would apply to any of the regulated professions capable of making a profit and attracting investment. Big business is kept out of chemist shops at the moment, unlike in England where big business runs most chemist shops. There is clearly an as yet unexploited source of revenue for big business in France.

87% of chemist shops were closed in France on Tuesday 30 September.

The media presented these strikes as they present all strikes, very unfavourably. How dare anyone strike, and how dare anyone comfortably off strike? The liberal professions, as they are called, defend themselves by saying that they provide a public service accessible to all.

It is not that easy to make the case. You can simply say that the status quo works fine so why change it? To which the public would answer, Well, yes, but it might be cheaper if there were fewer regulations, you never know. There seems to be an irresistible wind of change; in small French towns, the chemist is often the last shop left standing, all the others, except perhaps the baker, have been replaced by the out of town hypermarket. Of course, it’s nice to be able to chat with the chemist when you hand over your prescription and your money; this important chat with the chemist is part of the treatment; you and your ailments are treated seriously; you won’t be able to do that when the chemist is part of Auchamp or Leclerc or Intermarché. But then, cheap is best, even if you are not actually short of money.

The only argument understood, even by the customer himself, is price; it is the simplest argument, it can be expressed in figures. The customer is encouraged to disregard other aspects of the transaction.

The solicitor has a certain seriousness and self-confidence because he finances his own practice, after having purchased it. The service he gives the public will be better because of it. But that is imponderable. If the customer can get the same piece of legal paper for a bit less money, he will be pleased. Probably less satisfied than when he was served by a solemn personage who believed in himself and his function, because that prestige rebounded on the client, but that can’t be weighed and counted.

Clearly these factors are hard to put into words, hence the difficulty in explaining the strike. But then problems at French Telecom were also hard to explain, because it wasn’t money that was the main problem, it was how the staff were treated. Whereas before they were assured to have a place in the firm, and to be able to stay there, feeling appreciated and secure, now they have lost control over their position, they can be given other work to do, even moved to a different town. As a result they feel devalued and treated with contempt; they are disillusioned, they believed in the company, but the company did not value their commitment. But it is difficult to complain, because it is the way things are going, and it is your fault if you can’t adapt to the modern world. Hence the feelings of despair and the suicides at the place of work at French Telecom.


The Air France strike

This was another example of a strike by the privileged in defence of their privileges. And another unpopular strike.

Low cost airlines are unfair competition forcing all airlines to adopt the same practices or lose their customers. There again, customers know they are badly treated, charged excessively for small things, forced to scramble for seats etc. But they enjoy the low prices and put up with the inconvenience. They trust that pilots are not part of the cheapness of the deal and that security and safety are not economised on.

The recent strike shows that pilots are economised on by low cost airlines; they may be paid the same per month, but not by the hour: low cost pilots work longer hours.

This was the reason for the Air France strike. Air France is losing money on its short and medium haul flights; the answer was to develop Transavia France, the low cost company which is part of Air France/ AirFrance KLM.

This meant decreasing the number of planes and pilots deployed in the old expensive firm and increasing their number correspondingly in the new cheap outfit.

Low cost companies that start as low cost can buy planes and employ pilots as they like, sometimes using self-employed pilots. An established company wanting to downgrade, on the other hand, has the problem of how to move planes and pilots from the high end to the low end. That means, in this case, moving planes from AirFrance to Transavia. Pilots are encouraged to move to Transavia. Of course it would be nice to sack the expensive pilots and employ cheaper ones from other parts of the European Union, perhaps on short term contracts, but flexibility has not reached that level yet.

Air France pilots naturally resisted this downgrading. They wanted all pilots within AirFrance/Transavia to have the same contracts; they wanted their career ladder to remain the same, which meant taking priority over existing Transavia pilots. The strike lasted a fortnight and failed. It was damaging to the airline, and unpopular with the ground staff.

It would be interesting to contrast this experience with the German one. The situation was similar, in that the old established national airline was put in a position where it had to develop a low cost alternative within itself, using its planes and pilots differently, the pilots having to agree to this downgrading. Lufthansa now exists alongside its new low cost Germanwings subsidiary. Where did the savings come from, and how were they agreed by the personnel? How does the customer experience compare?

One imaginative way they have found of filling empty seats in planes is the system known as ‘blind booking’; if you just want to go on holiday, just choose a category of place (beach, shopping, culture, gay friendly, etc) and the airline chooses the destination for you. You can rule out particular places, for a small fee. This appeal to risk and imagination raises the morale: cheap is not the only value.

Anyone would want to be operated on by a competent and experienced surgeon; you certainly want the profession accessed strictly by diploma. You are also pleased that the surgeon is well rewarded, and also that he or she is well regarded, respected, and is surrounded by some prestige, that reflects on you as well.

If he or she is also paid for at least in part by the tax you pay, that feels good too. That they should be part of the hospital where you go; that they should be able to have a career and grow old on the job is also satisfying. You don’t want them so overworked that they can only work when they are young.

In the same way, you want the pilot on your plane to be well paid, as a guarantee that they are qualified. You want them to have conditions of service such that they are not washed out at a young age. It is also in your interest that the pilot feels generally secure in his personal position in terms of career and employment, he can grow old in the job, subject to medical checks as they are already, and not afraid of unemployment because he is supposedly self employed, or on lease from a pretend airline.

The media attacked the strikers without restraint; a Europe 1 announcer, speaking for himself but in the name of obvious common sense as he saw it, told listeners that the strikers belonged to the previous century; their action was ridiculous and absurd, just look at the way the pilots demonstrated in front of the Houses of Parliament, as if the state could do anything! They seem to forget that Air France is 100% private!

As a matter of fact, the state owns 16% of Air France shares, and is the largest shareholder . The prime minister Manuel Valls appeared on television to support Air France management against the strikers.

These media attacks on these strikes are in the same vein as the media attack on train drivers, accused of being too well paid, or on any profession —other than finance, pop music or sport —who enjoy any privilege, however puny compared with the above three categories. The media exclaimed in surprise that l’Humanité, the ex communist newspaper, supported the pilots strike. But l’Humanité is being consistent in protesting against all manifestations of excessive liberalism.

L’Humanité does not propose a solution. Yet something has to be done, other than saying you don’t like it or just going on strike, with no hope of success. Since low cost airlines are a threat to all airline employees, as well as to traditional airline companies and their shareholders, there is a common interest to be defended by all connected with the threatened airline. After all, the AirFrance pilots and the Transavia France pilots belong to the same union. It may be the case that Air France won’t recover from the cost of the strike, and all employees will suffer as a result. Proper negotiations should have taken place well before the crisis came. L’Humanité would not have approved of that. It would not recognise a common interest between management and employees. Yet it seems the only attitude that could preserve good conditions of employment.