Newsnight on BBC2 (30/08) ran a report about the French penchant for taking the whole of August off. It was regarded with some incredulity that Paris is practically empty for most of the month. I remember myself being in France in August and being a little surprised that so many shops seemed to be shut at the same time and for more than just a couple of days.

The report spoke to a boss in the rag trade and his trouble at getting business done due to most things having ground to a halt. The boss naturally supported the proposed political reforms being tacitly mooted by Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarcosie the main 2 political centre-right heavyweights in France. Unsurprisingly whilst many bosses support the reforms, the workers are broadly in favour of retaining their tradition of en vaccances for the month of August.

Many French public sector employees work a 35 hour week and can be entitled to anything up to 11 weeks off in total. A France Telecom employee was cited as being understandably happy with the current situation and suspicious of any changes in working regulations. He mentions that French workers despite having one of the shortest working weeks in Europe are also one of the more productive and therefore the holidays are relative and not a threat to the economic situation any more than they would have been over the decades that the situation has been in place.

It is interesting that the slant now seems to be that changes to the French system are both inevitable and desirable the inference being “those lazy French” and their arcane ways etc. etc. 40 years ago one might have expected it to be very different and to see much of the world regarding the French model with a degree of envy. The claim of the French public sector worker that 4 weeks holiday in August allows one a proper holiday is not scrutinised. I was most interested in this statement because it was one I felt considerable solidarity with. In the job I am now in I get public sector holidays which amount to 6 weeks a year rather than the usual norm in Britain which is 4. This meant I was able to take 2 weeks in Cornwall early last year and just as the Frenchmen says the first week is purely about shaking off the shackles, getting rid of the thoughts of what you left behind. Someway into the second week you actually start to relax. The trouble for me was that just when I started to relax I became all too aware of the impending end of the holiday. I would have thought in the modern world it would be even more prevalent that what little leisure time we receive should be cherished and used to good effect.

Many French school leavers think that the welfare system is too benign and allows a culture of ambivalence to work since 2/3 of ones salary will be paid in welfare payments for up to 2 years. People believe this means workers will attempt to cherry-pick or not work at all. Much of this indifferance to work though is very much a product of the type of society we live in. People resent the notion that we are supposed to be drones for the 40 odd years of our working lives. and feel there should be more to life than this. Of course one would not expect the company bosses to feel thus, they are the very people who manny huge capital gains from such an exploiutative system. They are able to relax in comfortable houses and in comfortable cars and offices, not to mention down the golf course. If the French political establishment has their way one of the last remaining progressive pieces of worker’s rights pertaining to holiday will be eroded.

If one casts a comparitive eye over the British model one finds less holiday and less statutory, this has not led to increased production, nor intrinsically more economic growth over a prolonged period. It certainly does not mean that British workers feel they get more from their jobs in fact the reverse is true. One can at this point draw in elements of other countries social legislation such as the pre-Schroeder welfare system of Germany or the parental leave rights from the Scandinavian countries none of which we enjoy in Britain. So does the lack of these conditions and rights make British workers more or less inclined to work? They are certainly cheaper and have far less employment legislation in their favour regarding any disputes and it is small wonder that companies have traditionally used Britain as a useful place to have offices, part of the EU but as a non-signatory to the Social Chapter less “repressive” for the companies. Post-Thatcher Britain has of course weakened Trade Union rights in addition to all this.

There are those ‘liberals’ who would say that a compassionate capitalism that takes into account the worker’s interests like this allowing for holidays and such like would perhaps be a better method of ideological governance, but the nature of the beast is all consuming, to think any different is delusion. Capitalism does not stop at a specific point just because its fluffy and nice, it is a rapacious evolving system that tramples what is in its path.

The concerted attack upon a number of fundamental workers rights has been coming for some time. The tricks used include the threat of shifting jobs to Eastern Europe – this is only a temporary measure for TNCs because there is already evidence that the jobs shifted to Hungary from Germany when German workers proved too costly, are now been moved again to Romania as the comparisons between it and Hungary prove favourable for slave labour.

There is no getting away from the fact that there are only 2 ways of doing things – subsistance survival for workers and a trading off of one countries workers against anothers to drive down salaries, working conditions etc. or the other way which is taxing the rich to pay for the poor and a welfare system. This does illustrate to me why socialists have traditionally looked for a different economic system, being no economist I am not in a position to offer any solutions merely to identify the problem.

There is always another way if one is minded to take it, in the case of the pensions crisis why not use some of the vast £1 billion that 400 of the UKs company directors paid themselves in pensions last year to redress the balance. In the case of worker’s rights the view has to be that increasing rights is progressive not a hindrance to economic profitability. However those outside the capitalist system must enforce this. Governments are not required to be as profitable as companies to their shareholders as we cannot change the board of directors quite as often. This means governments have the option of siding with business or the people they are actually there to represent. THERE IS NO THIRD WAY. You cannot have your cake and eat it the demands of the companies and the shareholdres are a complete anathema to a fair and ethical working environment and there will always be a squeeze. Assaults like that in France on the holiday system are nothing more than the thin end of the wedge.

Song Of The Day ~ Stereolab – Ping Pong*
*the only indie song I know about the causal effect of the global economic cycle!

Original Comments:

Haddock made this comment,
Excellant post. The errosion of workers rights as you know has started in Germany as well, and as you quite rightly said it appears to be the thin edge of the wedge. From my point of view, stress in the work place in the UK seems a lot higher than it used to be, whereas in continental Europe the stress levels seem a lot lower….but I wonder for how long.
-Redbaron responds – Thanks mate, yes I spoke to a German Trade Union official at the ESF last year who told me about the continuing Easterward migration. I think workers rights in Europe are still a step ahead of them here which may account for the disparity in stress but you’re right to caveat it may not be for long.-

comment added :: 19th November 2005, 13:32 GMT+01 ::
Mark Ellott made this comment,
I tried to find more about the attempt to erode the grande vacance but couldn’t. I don’t see the French giving that up too easily.
-Redbaron responds – I think De Villepin and Sarcozy have their eyes on other things at the moment!-

comment added :: 19th November 2005, 20:21 GMT+01 ::

Kristie made this comment,
As an American, I can tell you I, and many of us, envy the vacation other countries have long enjoyed. It’s worth preserving. In a world full of convenience and computers, there is no reason we should all still be working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, let alone the insane 70-hour schedules some do. I’m thinking 3.5 days work, 3.5 days off, and a nice stretch of vacation time would do it. Hell, I find I’m in a much better frame of mind if I can just have a 3-day weekend–enough time to decompress (I’m quick.) The fact of the matter is, it’s about control and about mandating the seat time they pay for. I can do my job in 15 hours a week, with more on rare occasions. But if I ever told them that, they’d just work me harder. I get no benefit from my efficiency. Just The Man does. I think that’s crap, and therefore I’m still efficient, but I don’t announce it. The time I save is my own, however limited by being bounded by my cubicle-cell.
comment added :: 20th November 2005, 18:54 GMT+01

The Fat Boy made this comment,
The riots are acts of terror. These people are destroying France, and right before the holiday season too. If they keep this up, Santa will give them shit.
-Redbaron responds – What is it with you ‘Mericans eh everything that doesn’t agree with your view of the world is terror-related? The riots are acts of desperation by many and violence by a few, symptomatic of the disenfranchised in an authoritarian society.-

comment added :: 22nd November 2005, 11:34 GMT+01 ::