This morning on the BBC’s “Today” programme, that I listen to over breakfast, the veteran interviewer, John Humphrys, was asking a British economist why productivity in the U.K is so much lower than in many other countries. The economist pointed out that hourly productivity in France, for instance, is much higher, "because the French work harder when they are at work, even if they have a shorter working week and take longer holidays." To which Humprhys countered, only half jokingly, "but the French are always on strike, aren’t they?"
Well, as it happens, today they are. Or at least those who work in public services. This being said, public transport seems to be running more or less normally, hospitals will not be much disrupted and only schools and government offices seem to have closed down completely for the day. A number of street marches are planned throughout the country.
At first blush then, true to form. A closer look however, reveals a number of seemingly minor but interesting developments. First of all, the unions, traditionally strong in France’s generously dimensioned public sector, are not united in their protests today, as they so often have been in the past. The leaders of the three main unions will be marching separately in different parts of the country. One union leader has even gone on record as saying that street demonstrations are not perhaps the most effective form of union action. Secondly, as "The Economist’s" Charlemagne pointed out a few weeks ago ("Exorcising French demons"– "The Economist" - September 9th), the rounds of intense discussion between union bosses and ministers during the summer holidays to prepare the labour market reforms that are now being implemented seem to have toned down, at the very least, the climate of confrontation that has so often characterised relations between unions and the government, as well as between labour and management in general. If all sides were now starting to realise that talking to each other far from the media spotlight is, after all, a better way of proceeding than carefully crafted one-liners destined for prime-time news or a show of force on the streets?
It’s early days yet of course, but there are other interesting signs that indeed, the climate may be changing. I was surprised for instance to hear this morning on France Info, the 24hr. news and current affairs station of the state broadcaster Radio France, the views of Laurent Bigorgne an economist at the head of a think-tank called the Institut Montaigne, renowned for its economically liberal views and often a mouthpiece for France’s business elite with a social conscience. It was unusual to hear its director general being interviewed on a radio station that generally bends over backwards not to rock the boat. It was even more unusual to hear him state a few home truths about public service workers that one hardly ever hears on the mainstream media. Why are salaries often lower in the public than in the private sector, the politically correct interviewer asked? The answer, Bigorgne said, although the unions would never admit it, is that a deliberate choice has always been made to favour employment over pay, especially as one way of increasing it, namely salary increases and advancement based on merit, has always been taboo. He went on to say that, in any case, salaries are not the real problem in the public services. They suffer above all from a lack of proper management. Ask any public service worker in the street what they dislike most, he continued, and the chances are they will tell you that they have no clear idea of where their job fits into the general scheme of things and that it makes little difference whether they strive to do a good job or not. They would probably be much happier, he concluded, if they were properly managed.
I don’t think I am the only one who has rarely heard this kind of language before in the mainstream media. It reminds me not only of some of the cobweb-clearing statements by Emmanuel Macron, on whom Bigorgne is said to exert some degree of intellectual influence, during his presidential campaign but also of a conversation I had, long before Macron became a household name, with a leading executive of a large French listed company. He told me that he had started his career in the public sector but quickly became disenchanted when he realised that his ability to get things done was severely constrained by the lack of any real management culture, particularly in human resources.
For the moment, such sentiments are certainly not in the mainstream and little more than straws in the wind, but I suspect they go deeper than current political correctness would suggest. If, however, they were to herald a gradual cultural shift about what the state should do and how best it can do it, they would indeed usher in profound changes to traditional French attitudes towards its public services. French people in general demand high levels of public service, lament their deterioration, in some areas even, their slow decay and applaud the generally high public service ethic of most civil servants. They would never accept, for instance, the kind of root and branch overhaul of the civil service that took place in the U.K under Margaret Thatcher or in countries like Canada, Sweden or Switzerland. If however the view started to prevail, particularly among those most directly concerned, that public services can be considerably improved by greater efficiency and better management and not just by more investment and higher salaries, then France would have embarked on a real path of reform that would surprise even the most die-hard believers in the myth that “the French are always on strike!”