Thursday, September 13, 2007

Aller le Bleu!

Nicolas Sarkozy
The Mercurial Sarkozy
French President Nicholas Sarkozy continues to delight and frustrate me in equal measure.

Less than a week ago he was backing the idea of a 'council of the wise' to decide (i.e. not present options to the people) on the future of the European Union and supporting further state involvement in the financial markets. Typically, he shared the platform when he announced this with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

It's tempting to portray Merkel in the role of being a bad influence on Sarkozy on these matters, especially when it comes to the EU. While generally the growth of the influence of the EU is often portrayed as being a 'French Plot', I've always had the feeling that the French only become truly enthusiastic when they see clear national advantage in a further EU power grab; German governments have usually seemed to be the real force for integration for integration's sake.

The German position may seem more principled, but at least the French approach introduces some pragmatism over what really can be achieved.

It is Sarkozy's actions at the purely national level, acting purely on his own initiative that he is seen at his best, and yesterday brought news of his bravest act to date.

The International Herald Tribune reports:
President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing to ask a small but powerful group of unionized workers to relinquish jealously guarded pension privileges, the opening gambit in a series of controversial labor reforms.

At issue are the "special regimes," the generous pension agreements enjoyed in certain industries and notably by employees of the state-owned rail company SNCF and the energy giants Électricité de France and Gaz de France.

Source: International Herald Tribune

The article highlights the key example of SNCF employees, who may retire at 50, an anachronism that dates from the 1930s where their working conditions did give them a significantly reduced average life expectancy. The reason for the special treatment has gone, so must the special treatment.

It also goes on to explain why this is so important. While quoting experts who explain that the proposed changes wll not solve France's own pensions crisis at a stroke, the same experts also explain that:
...selling further pension changes to the broader public - notably an increase in the retirement age, which is among the lowest in Europe - hinges on eliminating the privileges enjoyed by some state employees.

Source: International Herald Tribune

In there there is a message that should be heeded much closer to home. It is hard for the government to sell the message that we must all save more for our retirement. This is not only because so much of Britain's own pension crisis is of Gordon Brown's own making, but also because we see MPs themselves award themselves pension deals that are now just a distant memory in private sector, and them see them followed by certain servants of the state, such as Judges, bullying their way to the same type of deals.

Pensions and welfare reform are the most common 'Third Rails' of politics in the developed world. If President Sarkozy succeeds in tackling these vested interests he will truly deserve his position in the Legion d'honneur.

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