In 2000, the Socialist government in France under the then prime minister, Lionel Jospin, introduced a compulsory 35-hour week. The idea was to encourage firms to employ more people. Four hours off a 39-hour week among 10 people meant one additional person could be employed full time – or so the theory went. In practice, existing employees lost overtime pay and companies lost enthusiasm for employing anyone else.
A new initiative being set up by the present Socialist government follows a similar logic. Orchestral musicians, the top professionals, will be prevented from giving lessons in the conservatoires because, it is deemed, they have no right to a second official job. The egalitarian socialist ethos wants to spread everything out. The problem is that the best budding musicians will be taught by those on the lower rungs who perhaps lack the critical experience of playing at the highest level.
There is a whole other article to be written about whether this is an attack on elitism and whether that is a good thing. But in the current economic context, such policies are symptomatic of the attitude of the Socialist government to regulate against economic liberalism, creating numerous negative consequences.
For example, the current government has decided to legislate and increase taxes. One in particular, the ‘professional’ tax, is set to go up fivefold in 2014. Such policies have the effect of driving economic activity underground, away from the prying eyes of the authorities, and leaving workers in a precarious position.
The effect on the hotel and restaurant trades is pernicious. Workers there are on standby panic stations, with no room for error. Workers are told to work 60 hours a week serving, hoovering, washing up and dealing with clients. The difference between the 35 hours officially worked and the 60 hours actually worked is paid on the black. Contracts are so calculated that if employees put a foot wrong they are fired.
In this legally dubious situation, everyone is so tense that dialogue breaks down. Workers cannot put forward an argument in defence of their positions. Tensions are eating into the fabric of everyday human interaction. Basic rationality breaks down. I am not a great fan of common sense, but sometimes when I hear these stories I feel obliged to come to its defence. One hotel manager told me she was fired because the hotel’s director thought she told clients they had to wait in line when in fact what she really said was ‘Can I have your number so I can call you back?’.
Amid such tension, words, expressions and argument dissolve in a sea of stress and suspicion. I am reminded here of an essay by George Steiner, ‘The Hollow Miracle’, where he argues against the soul being dissected out of language. He writes: ‘[Language] will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit, which we call grace.’
In a country which professes to protect the rights of workers, this is a very ambiguous situation. In a floundering economy without leadership, where everyone is out for themselves, the language of reason and empathy becomes degraded.
Julian Lagnado is a writer living in France.