If you have paid any attention to the current wave of strikes, or even last year’s presidential election, you may have noticed that much of what is being said by the discontented often bares little relation to the ‘controversial’ changes being pushed through by the government.
Students in Strasbourg are currently blockading the city campus because recent changes to the law enable universities to ‘select’ students (via the new website Parcoursup). On an ideological level, they see this as unacceptable because no one should be barred from an education on any basis.
Ideologically speaking, they are absolutely right. But, practically speaking, they couldn’t be more wrong. The basic premise for the change in the law was to enable universities to manage the number of students walking through their doors. Sure they can take anyone – but a lecture theatre only has so much space. It’s all very well saying every school leaver can go study – but if there are only 300 seats in the room what are you going to do? Close the doors, right? And that’s exactly how it works currently – as soon as the course has reached capacity – they stop taking students on. There’s no real method for how this happens – which is why it’s referred to as enrollment by ‘lucky dip.’ Giving the professors and teachers the chance to say what the entrance requirements for a course are is actually a fairer way of managing numbers. Upon application, no university is allowed to say “non” to a Baccalaureate student, only “oui” or “oui, si” (yes, if …you get the grades/you are among the first 50 candidates/you interview well..). By this fact the changes would only bring France into line with what the rest of the world has done for decades. Yet this strike goes on based on the ideological argument – which serves only to distract opinion from the real issue.
Over at SNCF where the ‘loafers’ are working 3 days out of 5 until the end of June (when they go on holiday) are also protesting loudly about ideology. The changes coming in are designed to reduce the company’s debt while preparing it for competition in the sector, so the strikers are shouting loudly against privatisation – and citing the scandalous UK rail network as an example of how things can go spectacularly wrong (shareholders raking in cash from government handouts, while the trains are overcrowded and expensive). Again, it is hard to argue against this perspective – a public service should be held in public hands.
However, privatisation is not what the government is proposing. The closest thing to it is that they are changing the status of new railway workers from ‘civil servants’ to ‘private sector employees.’ Sure, this may be the first step to selling a few shares in the business – but it will take decades to erase the civil service from the books. The real issue is the cost of the civil servants themselves who enjoy possibly the most perk-loaded employment contracts in the western world (though wages aren’t exactly competitive). Early retirement, extra holidays, free rail tickets for family members, annual pay rises, job for life. Because it will take decades to sort this lot out – as the old employment contracts expire – isn’t better to act now rather than wait until the nation is crippled by the cost of hundreds of thousands of rail workers retiring at 52 and staying alive until they’re 100? Yet this strike goes on based on the ideological argument – which again, serves only to distract opinion from the real issue.
The fact that the French focus on ideology, when it comes to political issues, rather than the actual practical challenges, first struck me during the presidential campaign last year. Emmanuel Macron was repeatedly criticised by his opponents for being a banker rather than for anything he was proposing to change. Banker equals neo-liberal ideologist equals greed equals more money for the rich and less for the poor. Economic arguments didn’t come into it. Though, maybe things are about to change, after all – he got elected anyway, has already pushed through labour reform and shows no sign of bowing to pressure from students and rail workers on ideological grounds.