Leading Article: Should we envy or pity the French?

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The Independent Culture
WILL THE real France stand up, please. The sick man of Europe - stuck in the 1960s, a sclerotic, strike-ridden, trade union-dominated basket case? Or a mellow haven of the good life, with falling unemployment, booming exports, and a brasserie on every street corner?

When the World Cup kicks off this afternoon it will begin a month long orgy of all things French. But it is the surly side of France that will greet the Scottish and Brazilian fans in Paris. Air France pilots, junior hospital doctors and policemen will all be taking part in what seems to be France's second sport - striking. So has anything changed? Underneath the superficial similarity of these apparent throw-backs to Britain in the 1970s, the strikes are subtly different - more like Britain in the 1980s, and the reaction to Thatcherism. Part of the French problem is that strike action is seen as a normal part of negotiating tactics. The usual French strike has one motive - pay. And most public-sector strikes are a one way bet; whatever the result, any lost pay is handed over when the strike is over. But these are different. They are not so much a demand for more pay as a lashing out against plans to introduce more flexibility into employment contracts - a sign that at last French employers, state as well as private, are starting to face up to the need for change. This is not before time; although French unemployment has been falling for the past eight months and is now below 12 per cent, the total is still among the highest in the industrialised world. And youth unemployment is getting worse, with almost a third of all eligible under-24-year-olds out of work.

The Air France strike is an archetype of today's France. The pilots have, like most of the French workforce, effectively prescribed unemployment in the past, demanding high wages that price jobs out of existence. The management is now trying to force them to accept pay cuts. In a sector which is typified by inefficiency and waste, Air France remains one of the worst offenders. The Transport Secretary, Jean-Claude Gayssot - a Communist - has fended off tentative plans to privatise the airline. Within the one dispute we have the French economic story: creeping acceptance of the need to change, bloody minded workers, almost the last redoubt of communism, and - most likely - an eventual muddling through.

But for all this, France remains the fourth largest economy in the world, has productivity levels the envy of Britain, an export-led economy that will stand it in good stead in the transition to EMU, insignificant inflation and interest rates of just over three per cent. Gordon Brown must wish at times that we should have such problems. So why is it that Lionel Jospin is regarded with such barely concealed contempt by the Blairites? First, he gets - and deserves - little credit for the economic improvements. Most of them are the result of the tough measures undertaken by his predecessors to force France into meeting the EMU criteria. He has at best been wise enough not to interfere. At worst, his government has responded to the new demands of a changing world economy by ostrich-like measures - the proposals, for instance, to introduce a 35-hour week and to extend job sharing, which will tackle the symptom of unemployment, not the cause.

More fundamentally, the Blairite inheritance is very different. Tony Blair and the New Labour reformulation of social democracy are inconceivable without the benefit of Lady Thatcher's reforms. Even before Blair, Labour was undergoing a seismic ideological shift in response. Lionel Jospin however comes not, as Blair, from out of the 1980s, but from a 1970s socialism that was never extinguished. With the socialists in power, and an economy large and strong enough to hide the need to change, there was no change. Today there is no hiding place, and France is at last entering the 1980s.