How a flock of French dodos could drag down Europe
It was when Air France told us that our bags were still in Paris, rather than Peking, that I suddenly understood why the French national carrier is, in my opinion – an opinion I am wholly prepared to defend in the libel courts of any European nation – the single worst airline in the world. My understanding of the problem had been slowly forming over the past 24 hours.
It began as I stared at the back of the pockmarked neck of the bus driver at Charles de Gaulle, his iPod wires dangling insolently from his ears, and I watched the passengers beg him to get his panting machine into gear and take them to the departure gate, and I observed his shrugs of dismissal as no one went, and no one came, and the bus stood still and the minutes ticked by.
My insight grew steadily clearer when we reached the gate, and the five shoulder-padded Air France women and three Air France men refused to let us on the Peking aircraft, even though the thing lay berthed before us for at least another 25 minutes, and even though we were late in making the connection from London only because our first Air France flight had been half an hour late in landing in Paris.
And so when the French national airline flew us five hours later to the wrong Chinese city, and then told us on landing that our bags would not arrive until the following day – even then, monsieur – I did not pop with rage. I did not allow myself to swear, even in French.
I laughed, with the weary indulgence of one who comprehends it all too well.
What is the salient fact about the 71,600 employees of Air France? It is that they are all, in one way or another, controlled by the French state because, in spite of the 2003 amalgamation with KLM, the French government is still the largest shareholder in this flock of dodos, and that means that the “workers” are all virtually unsackable. Why should he show the slightest consideration for his customers, this dilatory bus driver, when he knows there is no sanction his employers could use?
It makes no difference to the ground staff whether or not you or I get on the plane, even when we have arrived at the gate five minutes before it is meant to close, because their pensions and their benefits roll in regardless.
They can afford to laugh up their tailored sleeves at a bunch of despairing Anglo-Saxons, because they work to a different rhythm, and they have acquired disastrous habits that poor Dominique de Villepin is now desperately trying to cure.
More than 3,000 people were arrested yesterday in demonstrations against the French premier’s attempt to free up the labour market, the contrat de première embauche. As far as I am concerned, every one of them deserves to spend a night in the Bastille. Every one of the 800,000 demonstrators is supporting a piece of Luddite lunacy that has caused chronic and worsening chaos in France, and is now dragging down the rest of the Eurozone.
As anyone who has dealt with French baggage handlers can testify, the French devote less time to their work, when they work, than any other European country. They manage 39.1 hours per week, compared with 42.2 hours in Britain and 42.6 hours in Poland; and then there are the growing numbers of French who do not work at all.
The number of unemployed – the number of jobless people in France who might make more zealous bag handlers, who might show some gumption and get an innocent passenger on his plane – is now at a six-year high of 10.2 per cent of the work force.
Youth unemployment is at a terrifying 23 per cent and rises to 50 per cent in some suburbs; and yet there is almost no way of getting these people into jobs, because in France there is almost no way of getting the shiftless and idle out of their jobs, especially in the state sector.
In order to fire someone, French companies with more than 600 employees must go through legal procedures lasting 106 days. It costs French companies 2.6 times as much to fire a 35-year- old as it costs an English company; and of course there may be some people out there who are sometimes nervous about losing their jobs, and might wish that they had the kind of protections enjoyed in France.
But that is to miss the central economic reality, an understanding that was at the heart of the British labour market reforms of the 1980s, changes that have been very largely responsible for the 52 consecutive quarters of growth enjoyed by Britain and unemployment currently low by European standards.
The point is that if you make it easier to fire, you also make it easier to hire: and that is the way to get the economy moving. Anyone who cares about the future of the European economy – and it matters deeply to us, the fate of our leading trading partners – should get out to Paris and support de Villepin in a counter-demonstration.
At last someone at the top of French government has rejected the Colbertian lump of labour fallacy, the idea that there will be more work to go round if you restrict the amount that each person does, an economic misconception that has turned potentially productive French workers into lumps of inertia.
The crisis in France is affecting the whole of the EU, meaning that Europe’s growth will lag behind America’s for the 13th year in a row. Why do we hear so little from the British government about the complete failure of Europe to reform? Why, when France and Italy engage in a spat of old-fashioned protection, do we hear almost nothing from Labour except a mild protest, by junior Foreign Office minister Douglas Alexander, in a German newspaper?
Is it possibly because the Labour government is increasingly nervous about the way its own policies have swollen the state payroll, and does not feel able to criticise? Britain is still doing relatively well, but France is a terrible warning of what could happen if the current tendency is protracted.