French public spending policy in crisis

France faces a crisis in every area of public spending: pensions; welfare; education; health. Governments have been trying to address these problems since Édouard Balladur's conservative administration in 1993.

There is a well known saying in French government circles: when you want to drain the swamp, you don't ask the frogs. French government policy is de haut en bas, or, in the case of Chirac, de hauteur en bas.

Lionel Jospin's socialist government attempted reforms of public sector finances in 1997, but gave up in the face of national strikes and street protests organised by the trade unions. Jospin's startling subsequent defeat in the general election, when he came third to Jean-Marie le Pen's National Front, is blamed by most commentators on the suicidal split in the left opened up by opposition to his public sector reforms.

According to Chirac and his former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the answer is wholesale reform of France's public sector, coupled with modernisation in the shape of new efficient electronic infrastructures to cut waste and increase cooperation between government departments.

As part of this move to an efficient modern infrastructure, the government has inaugurated ADELE (ADminstration ELEctronique). This is intended as a public sector network of networks, tying together disparate central government departments with local authorities and other public agencies.

The government has also targeted individual areas of public finance, starting last year with pensions. This brought a ferocious response from trade unions and public sector staff. Although the overall objective was to curb the growing deficit in French pensions funds, Raffarin's government joined this to an attempt to improve public sector productivity. The government also introduced reforms of the education sector into the same package. The result was to maximise the strength of resistance to the reforms. France's public sector was hit by a wave of strikes which included the national health service.

This has set the pattern for the government's subsequent reform attempts, and help explain why the national health IT programme has become so bogged down in acrimony. Major policy objectives are confused with a number of lesser, often irrelevant, tactical issues. Several sectors are targeted unnecessarily at the same time. Transition periods are truncated, and strategic reforms, designed for implementation over years, are given subclauses that entail immediate jobs, pay and benefits cuts.


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