We all had a good laugh this week when ex-and-would-be-next-president Sarkozy said that « France, throughout eternity, as always been on the side of the oppressed and always on the side of the dictators, always on the side of the one thrown into prison for believing in his ideas ». (1)
Sarkozy is one of the world’s biggest hypocrits and liars but for once he said something true: France is, indeed, always on the side of dictators unless it wants to change the incumbent dictator for a more convenient one. Or for chaos, which is just another form of dictatorship with new opportunities. As in Syria today, as in Libya when they removed Kadhafi and let the country go to hell, as in Egypt when then-defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie wanted to send in French police to help Mubarak quash protesters. The french establishment is only too pleased now to have a new dictator in place – al Sissi – to whom it can sell warplanes and do away with all this Arab Spring bullshit.
On Monday we had the very official bi-annual Presidential Press Conference at the Elysée. François Hollande went through the motions in front of about 300 journalists, some of whom could then ask one question each. The whole thing was quite boring as Hollande said nothing we didn’t know and the questions were mostly polite and irrelevant. The whole government, present in the front rows, just sits and listens in silence to the whole show. There were a few calls, afterwards, to change this and go for something a little less antiquated, but this is just one way the French like to replay their royalist mythology in a republican setting.
François Hollande confirmed three major points:
First, a review of work regulations, to go from a very complex one-size-fits-all legislative body to a more contract-based approach. This is a very divisive decision that strikes at the heart of « frenchness ». France has a very strict, complex, all-encompassing set of workplace regulations with roots in the egalitarian aspects of the Constitutions. Unions are of course very attached to this, whereas businesses see it as an overly complex and scary bureaucratic nightmare which makes hiring, adaptability, and firing so difficult as to be counter-productive.
It is a fact that, for the 15 years during which I had my own little company, I never considered hiring anyone because of the daunting task of meeting regulatory requirements, overhead costs, and the death-call of litigation if I ever made an employee unhappy. The french regulations are suitable for large corporations with the means to confront the 3000-pages rulebook, or very small ones which don’t hire. Anywhere in between you are just a sitting duck for bureaucratic snipers. But going for a contract-based approach risks the « Walmart syndrome » of even more over-worked, underpaid workers with no choice but to accept unacceptable work conditions. The challenge will be to find a generally positive middle-ground.
Secondly, a decision to strike the Islamic State in Syria, with the first reconnaissance flights starting this same week. Up to now the french army was flying some sorties over IS in Iraq together with the US-led coalition, but in Syria it was not acceptable, politically, to appear to help Bachar el-Assad fight off IS. It still isn’t, but it has also become politically unacceptable to leave IS alone. Not that the scale of the interventions will change anything on the ground, but the french will be able to say that they are doing something.
Which brings up the third confirmation, that France would take in 24 000 refugees over the next 2 years. That is a direct result of the outcry following the pictures of Aylan, the syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach as his familly was escaping Kobane and the IS / Kurdish local war. Prior to this, Prime Minister Manuel Valls wasn’t having any of the EU’s proposals to set up refugee quotas for each EU country, but the President overruled him and that is that. Seems someone suddenly remembered this administration was voted in on a socialist platform, and France the birthplace of modern human rights… But things won’t go easily, as the right-wing National Front (with 20 to 30% of the votes) is up in arms against this, as is a good part of the conservative side. Sarkozy just reinvented the war refugee status, arguing that those welcomed now should return home as soon as war is over. I’m not sure if he means going back if and when IS rules over Syria, which is the very thing these people are trying to escape… How ridiculous can you get?
More helpfully, the government has just announced a subsidy of 1000 euros per refugee welcome and housed in the towns and villages of France, and a review of the way emergency shelters are allocated. But there is some way to go to refurbish the catastrophic image that France has made for itself in the eyes of refugees and the humanitarian sphere, at least compared to the high opinion it has of itself. The refugee and homeless care system here comes straight out of a Kafkaian handbook for keeping people in their misery, which lasts as long as they don’t have legal documents and thus are not eligible for the basic survival benefit that most « legals » can claim. Getting a decision giving access, or not, to legal status takes months at best, often a year, more in case of appeal.
In the meantime, people do as they can: stack up in the Calais shantytown if they want to get to the UK, or stay in squats, on the streets, wherevever. Add to that police harassement. In high-density areas shelters are overcrowded, and in other places shelter stays on the « 115 » emergency number are limited to three consecutive nights, meaning that whole families spend their time trying to find their next place of stay. In Germany and Sweden, all arrivals find a shelter immediately. Which explains why most current refugees are heading for Germany and Sweden, even though many would like to go to the UK but have seen what happens in the Calais bottleneck.
Thankfully there is much goodwill still in the French population, and quite a bit of help with finding a place to sleep, food, clothing and legal assistance. Many people here also realise, as the Germans do, that these generally young and educated refugees are much more of an asset than a liability. How the whole thing pans out remains to be seen.
Feel free to review my previous french chronicles here.