An Alissa Rubin
article on France's social system on the front page of the International Herald Tribune a few years ago was pretty far-reaching for a New York Times journalist.
The pervasive presence of government in French life, from workplace
rules to health and education benefits, is now the subject of a great
debate as the nation grapples with whether it can sustain the post-World
War II model of social democracy.
spiraling costs of cradle-to-grave social welfare programs have all but
exhausted the French government’s ability to raise the taxes necessary
to pay for it all, creating growing political problems for President
François Hollande, a Socialist. The nation’s capability to innovate and
compete globally is being called into question, and investors are shying
away from the layers of government regulation and high taxes.
on the streets of this midsize city 325 miles southeast of Paris, the
discussion is not abstract or even overtly political. Conversations here
bring to life how many people, almost unconsciously, tailor their
education, work habits and aspirations to benefits they see as intrinsic
elements of their lives.
cannot take away guns from Americans, and in the same way you cannot
take away social benefits from French people,” said Louis Paris, the
25-year-old son of a couple who live on the Rue Louis Braille, a typical
neighborhood in St.-Étienne, which has deep working-class roots and
historically has leaned Socialist.
“They won’t stand for it,” said Mr. Paris, who is unemployed and has
been searching since leaving college for a full-time job that offers
median household income in the city is $25,000, about half the national
figure for the United States and slightly lower than the average for
France. But that figure does not capture how many things the government
pays for here.
France, most child care and higher education are paid for by the
government, and are universally available, as is health care, three of
the most costly elements in the budgets of most American families.
cost of health care in France is embedded in the taxes imposed on
workers and employers; workers make mandatory contributions worth about
10 percent of their paycheck to cover health insurance and a total of
about 22 percent to pay for all their benefits.
tension between the pressure for budget cuts and the deeply embedded
nature of government programs is playing out in individual lives.
… Just down the street, [Patrick Jouve], the owner of the game store Tapis Vert,
or Green Carpet, believes that the reason the government is in such
dire straits is that there are too many civil servants. Government
spending accounts for about 56 percent of France’s gross domestic
product, in contrast to 44 percent in Germany and 40 percent in the
United States, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics arm.
are too many government functionaries,” Mr. Jouve said as he
demonstrated magic tricks to a customer. Referring to the city officials
who come to measure the dimensions of his storefront painting, he said,
“They make up jobs for themselves.”
state has put in place a system,” said Salvatore Garaffa-Botta, a
butcher and the deputy secretary of the largest union in St.-Étienne,
. “But we are also slaves to this system.”