Whenever the French government tries, however tentatively, reluctantly, or feebly, to reform the vast state sector that is fast bankrupting the country, it immediately meets with strikes and demonstrations that cause it to retreat in disarray.
The strikers and demonstrators are defending their often grotesque privileges, such as heavily subsidized vacations, restaurants, electricity, and train rides; short working hours (the employees of the suburban trains of Paris work 28 hours per week, for example); early retirement at 85 percent of final salary; and the right to up to five years of sick time on full pay. But they couch the reasons for their strikes and demonstrations in a different language: that of defending the public service against the depredations of economic liberalism. Economic hypocrisy is to the French what sexual hypocrisy is to the Anglo-Saxons.
And the French public suffers as a result, not only by paying the highest taxes in the western world, but in other ways, too. Alone of all the 27 countries involved in the United States visa-waiver program, France has not been able to comply with the scheme’s requirement for biometric passports. As a result, 500,000 French citizens who want to travel to the United States now must apply in person to the embassy in Paris for visas, a time-consuming and cumbersome process. Working flat out, the consular service can deliver only 8,000 per month.
Why have the French alone been unable to comply with the requirements of the scheme? Is it because the French government objects to it on some elevated philosophical plane? No. Is it because no facilities exist in France capable of producing such passports? Again, no. In fact, a French company has produced all the passports for Belgium, as well as for several other countries.
The explanation lies elsewhere. The French government has granted the Imprimerie Nationale, one of those subsidy-gobbling entities that France abounds in, the legal monopoly to print all official and state documents. Unfortunately, the Imprimerie is not equipped to produce biometric passports, unlike the private company that printed them for Belgium and elsewhere. Yet if it cannot produce the passports itself, it can at least mount a legal challenge to the government’s attempts to use instead the services of private companies—and that is exactly what it has done. After all, the government passed the law giving the Imprimerie its monopoly, so, legally speaking, it is clear who is in the right. As a consequence, half a million French citizens have found themselves seriously inconvenienced, and no doubt humiliated in the bargain.
It is a sign of the sclerosis of French society that no one draws any general conclusions from this episode. No doubt this silence results from the fact that everyone has his state-granted privileges that he fears to lose (journalists, for example, pay lower rates of tax than ordinary mortals). The one thing that unites the French is resistance to change, not because the present is so happy and glorious, but because few understand the causes of past progress, and most look to the future with fear.