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By Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of PSI
The picture has been seen around the world: it shows the Col de l’Echelle Pass in the Alps, where migrants cross the border between France and Italy, blocked by plastic building site fencing. A few hours beforehand, a handful of activists brought together under the label “Génération Identitaire” (Identity Generation) were busy putting up these fences to “make sure no illegal immigrant could enter France”.
In Paris, the same authorities who glibly denounced “a third-rate publicity stunt” had just presented the French parliament with an “asylum and immigration” bill confirming the reduction in rights for foreigners. Its text, supposed to combine “humanity and firmness”, was in fact based on security rhetoric, transforming foreigners, migrants and refugees into the scapegoats for the economic crisis and unemployment.
If we believe the government, other groups are also responsible for the anemic growth and the jobs being lost to other countries: publicly run industries, which are necessarily obsolete; trade unionists, the ultimate sectarians; and civil servants, who are synonymous with privilege. Their statutes are officially considered by the French presidency as “inappropriate”. On top of this, the recent reform of the employment code makes the individual contract the reference to be extended to all employees in the private and public sectors.
To escape the vicious circle and embrace “modernity” we must sell off the State’s main assets: the national lottery, the airport infrastructures and, tomorrow, dams, rail freight and more. And if all these assets ensure regular receipts for the public finances, it is just too bad. In the short term, getting rid of them makes it possible to pay into an investment fund to revitalize a nation now being presented as a “start-up”.
This thinking has led the government to open the railways to competition, the prelude to the privatization of the national rail service SNCF. This reform lacks legitimacy, as it was not in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential policy manifesto. But to get it through, what better than to capitalize on the despondency of the population, whose everyday life is being brutally degraded by repeated walk-outs in the transport sector. Not to even mention the holiday weekends in May, which are being anticipated with more anxiety than enthusiasm.
The weariness of the population is understandable. It is more difficult for them to defend civil servants against government attacks, having seen the quality of public services plummet during the last two decades. In the name of “new public management” – in fact the adoption of private business logic in public services – many trains outside rush hours have been cancelled and replaced by buses, it is now practically impossible to buy a ticket at the last minute without booking, and delays and increasingly frequent as cost-cutting has made reductions in technical services staff inevitable.
This opening up of SNCF to competition is a first stage towards bringing down other public services, such as energy. The announcement of 2,500 job losses in power distribution at Enedis, a subsidiary of EDG, is the latest example of the attacks suffered by public services.
It is also difficult for citizens to mobilize for a hospital whose poor service they deplore or for old people’s homes that warn every week about the impossibility of being able to cope with new residents. And students or their parents becoming enthusiastic about a school or a university would be frowned on considering the crisis they are going through. Everywhere, staff – the vast majority of them women – try their best to keep the services going in such insecure conditions that they wonder whether it is worth defending this “public service” which is now a mere shadow of its former self.
However, at Public Services International, an international trade union federation devoted to promoting quality public services everywhere in the world, we are aware that the battle now being fought in France goes much further than the traditional face-off between government and trade unions. Its consequences will extend beyond the country’s borders. What is at stake is not just protecting public companies in services deteriorating due to the current private sector management policies, but loudly demanding the refoundation of quality public service in the public interest. The idea that “opening up to competition” allows us to have quality service costing less is false, as shown by the private management of water in France, dominated by two oligopolies. Its failure is so clear that more than 100 towns and cities, including Paris, have decided to “remunicipalize” this market.
It is not just a matter of going on the defensive against the “modernization” advocated by the French presidency, but also of remembering that access to work, education, health, a decent pension, quality infrastructures, personal mobility, equality between women and men and culture, all in conditions respecting the environment, have nothing to do with services run by private or public bodies. Instead they are rights in a democratic society. The disastrous story of the privatization of the railways in the United Kingdom provides quite enough evidence that the private sector is incapable of taking the public interest into account. Public services cannot be handed over to the diktat of the market, social dumping and competition.
This article appears in the journal Mediapart - blog notes