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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La rigueur pèse sur les fonctionnaires

by Lucy Bateman

French Civil Servants have the Austerity Blues

Translated Tuesday 18 September 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

The Budget. The governing majority is bickering over words to distract attention from the extent of job cuts in the public sector.

While they bicker, jobs continue to be slashed in the public sector. For three days, various members of the governing majority have been trying to agree on the proper way to describe the massive job cuts in the civil service — a record 22,700 jobs are to be cut in 2008.

Finance minister Christine Lagarde launched the controversy Sunday evening when she admitted that the civil service was being hit with “an austerity plan.” Nicolas Sarkozy’s general secretary, Claude Guéant, immediately rectified things, explaining that he preferred to speak of “a plan to boost the civil service,” as if the two expressions were synonymous. The following morning, Prime Minister François Fillon straightened his Finance Minister out by asserting that there was “no austerity plan” but “a continual effort to reduce government spending,” which would seem to be the same thing. On Monday, civil service minister Eric Woerth decoded Christine Lagarde’s words, explaining that when she said “austerity,” she meant “good management.” Finally, on LCI television Woerth declared yesterday that civil servants formed “a mass” that was “too big” and which was “a financial burden,” before rectifying his own words.

These gesticulations come at a time when no one denies the fact that the civil service has been subject to an austerity plan since 2000. The goal for 2008 — not to replace one out of three retiring civil servants — is, however, less than what Nicolas Sarkozy promised while campaigning for the French presidency. The national education system will lose between 10,000 and 15,000 employees, especially in secondary education. The ministries of defense and of finance will also be hard hit . In 2007, 12,000 retirees will not be replaced.

At the end of August, Prime Minister François Fillon repeated Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise when he explained to civil servants that there would be “fewer of them, but they would be better paid.” The problem is that wages are also being held down: trade unions estimate that civil servants have lost 6% of their purchasing power since 2000, the year of the last wage agreement.

It must be pointed out that the government needs to find the wherewithal to keep the promises in the “tax package” that was adopted in late July, that will cost the government 10 to 11 billion euros.

In brief, none of this will improve the ambience at the labor conferences set for October, which are to discuss purchasing power, the jobs in the civil service, labor-management dialogue and career plans. Jean-Marc Canon, the general secretary of the CGT civil service union, who, together with CGT general secretary Bernard Thibault, is to meet the civil service minister, Eric Woerth, observed: “The government tells us to approach these questions in an undogmatic way, but they want to talk about the work of the civil service at the same time that they cut jobs, and they want to talk about purchasing power without negotiating a wage increase. This is unacceptable.”

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