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Dear Parler Paris Reader,
I heard a story a few nights ago that explains the reason the French are striking against the pension reforms (besides their affinity for striking in general!):
Two brothers were given candies by their parents. One was given two and the other was given one. The one with only one candy complained and questioned why does my brother have two and I have only one? So, the parent took away the second candy from the one who had two, so that he only had one, just like his brother. Now, which of the two do you think was complaining? And neither one of them realized the benefit of having the candy at all, did they?
I love this analogy of the situation, especially from the parents' point of view. The French are spoiled by their liberal social system and don't have a clue how really fortunate they are. They were given benefits, and now they aren't willing to give them up, just like the brother who didn't want to let loose of that second piece of candy. French President Emmanuel Macron is the parent who's trying to balance it all out so that everyone has the same deal, but he's damned if does and damned if he doesn't. Either way, he loses and the kids win out. I think he's right that the current system is so complicated that it discourages hiring and firing, constipating the labor market and contributing to a deficit of up to 17 billion euros if he can't fix it. That's a lot of candy! And it's his job to reduce some of the sugar intake.
Retirees in France can get 75 percent of their earnings, based on the 25 best salary years or on the last six months of their salaries (depending on private sector vs public sector). The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) says the average pension is 58 percent, so 75 percent is an extra piece of candy, for sure. The French retire three years earlier than other Europeans (at age 60) and four years earlier than other wealthy OECD countries. In the current system, there are a number of "special regimes" that allow for the most generous of policies — the transport workers among them, hence the transportation strike.
When Macron was elected, he promised to create a more universal system so that everyone would get the same amount of candy, but now that he's putting his money where his mouth is, they aren't happy. And it doesn't matter that he also promised to gradually implement the system so it's not such a shock, especially to older workers, but still the kids are screaming for their two pieces of candy.
Even though I've lived here more than 25 years, I'm still having a hard time getting my head around the whole idea of having such a cushy life without working for it, but I'm an American with an American work ethic that is more "live to work," than "work to live." I've thought a lot about why that is and how this happened to them, as well as why the reverse happened to us. Part of their unhappiness with the reforms, I believe, comes from their inability to really choose their work; the kind that makes them passionate about what they do. You might argue that they have the same choice as we do, but that's not true. Let me explain.
When children go to school in France, it's expected from the beginning that they will ultimately choose a curriculum that suits them for the rest of their lives. In high school, they decide what "série" (course) they will pursue and that sets the stage for their work career. Once on that track, it's tough to derail. Changes in a person's occupation over the course of time illustrate that the person is unstable and it becomes a black mark on their CV ("curriculum vitae," Latin for "course of life").
This is very different in the U.S. Americans allow children/young adults to reflect openly on what they will do to earn money, encouraging them to pursue the path that makes them happy, do what they are best at doing, that which will earn them a healthy income, and one can change course at the drop of a hat, without any negative repercussions. (At least the system does, even if parents impose their own ideas.) America expects hard work and rewards it, but we Americans also (in my opinion) enjoy our work more than the French do as a result of the freedom we have to do what we want. There is no limit to what can be achieved by someone with bright ideas...at least it's not limited by the government.
The French, because of the strict employment laws, cannot be easily fired (wikipedia.org/wiki/Dismissal), nor easily hired. Macron has tried to change this by reforming the labor laws, but it's not enough. The system still reduces the fluidity of the market and contributes to high unemployment, making the protestors even unhappier. So, having security in a job is very important. Without a work contract in France (a "CDD" or "CDI" — “Contract Duration Indeterminée,” an open-ended or permanent employee contract vs a “Contract Duration Determinée,” a fixed-term contract or temporary employee contract), it's hard to secure a lease on an apartment or a mortgage to buy one. Entrepreneurship is discouraged because of the risks and the viewpoint that those who control the money are the "bad guys," while those who are simply getting paid for doing a job are the "good guys."
Consider this and then it's easy to understand why the streets are filled with protestors afraid of losing their candy. They can't just go out there and do what they want the way they might want to do it in the same way an American can. This is one reason so many entrepreneurial French have moved to other parts of the world to pursue their dreams...and they do have dreams, just like we do! It's just that the system stifles them from the very beginning.
It's obvious I have a negative viewpoint about this system. That's because I saw how it affected my daughter when she was growing up here and why she chose to stay Stateside from college years onward. She could never have achieved what she has if she were living in France. As a young person with entrepreneurial ideas that can be realized with little effort and not a whole lot of money in the U.S., it made no sense for her to return to life in a French box, even if it is a box of candy.
The sugar is addictive, as we know. Those two French brothers have always had their candy and giving it up is the fight they are willing to battle. That's where we're at with the strikes. President Macron will have no choice, but to find compromises to which will the brothers will agree, otherwise the country will be crippled by their rebellion...and the brothers don't care. That addiction is a mighty powerful force that won't be deterred.
The question is: how can the country continue to dole out the candy?
It can't, so the protestors have a choice to make, too. Do they want to win in the short term or do they want to secure a real future by reforming the laws so that everyone, especially their own children, has a more fair opportunity and a healthier life without a lot of sugar?
I fear they only have their eyes glued on the candy in their tight little fists.
P.S. Thanks to the strikes, Ella Dyer, is not able to get to Paris to speak at Après Midi tomorrow, so instead, we'll be showing a recent House Hunters International epeisode and I'll be available so you can "ask me anything!" Hope you can find a way to get there!
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