Why it's hard to be a reformer in France: analysts

14th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 14, 2006 (AFP) - The strikes and protests that greet each attempt at reform in France seem to suggest the country is allergic to change — but the clumsy approach of successive governments is partly to blame for the public's hostility, according to analysts.

PARIS, March 14, 2006 (AFP) - The strikes and protests that greet each attempt at reform in France seem to suggest the country is allergic to change — but the clumsy approach of successive governments is partly to blame for the public's hostility, according to analysts.

"Who would be a reformer in France?" asked a recent editorial in The Times newspaper in London — as the country heads into a week of mass protests by students, unions and the left-wing opposition, over a new job contract intended to tackle chronically high youth unemployment.

The escalating showdown over the First Employment Contract (CPE), which aims to encourage employers to hire young people by making it easier to sack them in the first two years, could threaten Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's hopes for next year's presidential election.

"We need to fight the impression that reform is impossible in France: it is possible, but on the condition people are told the truth — we need to take a Churchillian approach," said Jean-Luc Parodi, of the IFOP polling institute.

He criticised Villepin's government for "presenting the CPE as an improvement when in fact it is clearly an austerity measure."

Writing in Le Figaro newspaper, the Canadian historian Timothy B. Smith said the French right had failed to combat public suspicion of market forces entrenched under recent decades of Socialist rule.

"More and more people came to see the world in black and white," perceiving the market as brutally "inhuman", and the state and "wise and good", he argued, accusing politicians of all stripes of pandering to fears of globalisation and "Anglo-Saxon" free market economics.

As a result, he said, the French public "cannot accept the idea that a little less job security could lead to more job creation."

But political analyst Dominique Reynie argued that France was merely suffering from reform fatigue, recalling that the government pushed through a pension reform in 2003, despite two months of strikes and demonstrations.

The CPE was seen as "one reform too many" and was "badly explained: it was presented as a measure aimed at students, when its key targets are really unqualified youths," he said.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Tenzer, of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Reflection on Political Action (CERAP), said Villepin had been wrong to focus specifically on the situation of young people.

"This is highly sensitive because young people and the future are at stake. Politicians always underestimate young people and their fears," said Tenzer.

Tenzer also blamed a lack of political vision, saying France had no "strategy for the next five or 10 years," which he said was due to a shortage of independent think-tanks on the British or American model.

Stéphane Rozes, head of the CSA-opinion polling institute, said French politicians had "made Brussels the scapegoat for all our problems," and that as a result "the country is unable to project itself" into a European future that necessarily involves economic reforms.

In Britain, the upheaval over the CPE draws a "smile of understanding," according to Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

"We expect France to have regular strikes or student uprisings. It is all part of the way France works," he said, although he admitted the protests were seen as "evidence of the rather conservative nature of the French economy."

"It demonstrates that France finds it more difficult than Britain and even than Germany under (Chancellor Angela) Merkel to change its economy in a way that is inevitable given globalised financial and economic pressures."

"France appears to be a country which you can achieve the same things but it takes just longer to do it," he said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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