The French: work a 35-hour week, go on strike all the time and enjoy what is supposed to be the best public health service in the world. They sit around in cafes discussing philosophy and their fond memories of May '68. They may just have elected their first socialist President for the first time in nearly 20 years, but French politics is so left wing that even their right wing is so left of centre that the average American would have to twist their head 180 degrees to see it, so it doesn't really count. Correct?
Well, sort of. But, as European political chat centres on what effect Hollande's growth pact will have on Merkel's Germanic austerity measures and we all wonder how on earth he will possibly find the money to finance all these retirements at 60, I thought it would be interesting to write about the other side of the coin. About how, the longer I live in France, the more I see that it is not as lefty as we often think it is.
Take the health service. Yes, they treat you fast, they treat you well and they hand out prescriptions like sweeties. I'm grateful for that (apart from the prescriptions part, which is incredibly wasteful and does a great job of lining the pockets of Big Pharma, but more on that another time). But the state only pays for two-thirds of it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a country and an era where almost every health service treatment is entirely free. That, to me, is the socialist ideal.
Also, the French system allows medical practicioners to work on a semi-private basis, where the state will refund its share of the basic price, but the clinics and hospitals can charge more than that, and the rest falls to the patient or the insurers. Meaning that the cost of the insurance goes up. So we pay for that. In generally richer areas, it can be hard to find specialists who are not private, effectively making life more difficult for the people who live there and can't afford or don't want to pay for the extras.
Secondly, the education system. French public schools are generally fairly egalitarian, and anyone with a Bac can go to university for a few hundred euros a year, with benefits for housing and such things provided. But the best facilities and career prospects are not to be found in the public universities, but in the Grandes Ecoles, where fees can be up to around 15000 euros per year. Not having attended one of these can put a glass ceiling over your head for the rest of your life. There are bursaries available for poorer students and I don't know enough about these to say that they do or do not make the Grandes Ecoles genuinely open to all who are intellectually capable of undertaking the courses, but it's certainly a system that in the UK would be unlikely to have stemmed from a truly socialist government.
Finally, France may have a great history of standing up for its workers and defending their rights, but culturally it is definitely a conservative country. Despite the above comments, the French left fits my conception of what is traditionally socialist, but it isn't really liberal or particularly open to change. Walk into a French primary school and you will see desks lined up in rows and children copying lines from the board in their best copperplate handwriting, then memorising the text for homework and saying it aloud in the special voice that is reserved for that activity. Seating them in groups would be considered progressive, never mind thinking about student choice or pupil-centred learning.
And French people like it that way. One of Hollande's flagship policies is keeping the retirement age low for workers in certain sectors (basically because they have hard jobs and are likely to die younger). I can't help thinking that if that was me, I'd rather someone found an innovative way to keep me alive for longer than simply let me enjoy my last couple of years more before I went to an early grave. But voters like policies which are familiar, not creative, so this one works at election time.
The intention of this post is not to criticise France, or even its politics. There are many great things about French socialism, and also about the socialist attitudes that are so ingrained that they aren't challenged even by the right. Nor am I claiming to be an expert on any of the above (except the schools: I know quite a lot about French schools) and I would be happy to change my opinion on any of it. I just find it interesting to make these observations about how concepts that we assume are transferable from one country to the next can actually mean dramatically different things. And I think it's important, if people are to make intelligent decisions about what they want from politics, to stop and reflect on actual facts and our actual experiences instead of making judgements based on those assumptions.