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Aurelie Boullet exposed the decadence and indolence of the French public sector. It didn't go over well. (Patrick Bernard/AFP/Getty Images)
Aurelie Boullet exposed the decadence and indolence of the French public sector. It didn't go over well. (Patrick Bernard/AFP/Getty Images)

Broken Europe

C'est la vie in French public sector - but the fight is on Add to ...

When Aurélie Boullet landed a full-time job two years ago as a mid-ranking fonctionnaire, or bureaucrat, in France's regional government system, it was the fulfilment of the French dream, the culmination of six years of postsecondary education in government administration in one of the few countries where a permanent public-sector job is still considered the pinnacle of employment.

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But the 30-year-old graduate soon found herself horrified by the realities of work in the French state. Installed in the Aquitaine Regional Council in southwest France, she was quickly told that her actual work amounted to between five and 12 hours a month, writing bland summaries of existing reports and helping councillors book first-class travel to destinations in Asia that had little or no relation to their business.

The French have a phrase for this cushioned world of public-sector employment: " le train de vie de l'Etat," or the lifestyle of the state. President Nicolas Sarkozy, lagging behind other European leaders in facing up to his country's debt crisis, has decided to confront it mainly by launching a commando mission to derail this first-class train.

Ms. Boullet paints a shocking picture of inefficiency and entitlement. One morning, she was brought into her supervisor's office and told that she had produced a report in the wrong typeface. She was given a full week, without any other tasks, to solve this problem. The job took her about 25 seconds.

Most of her time at that job was to be filled with breaks, work-avoidance dodges, entire afternoons on Facebook and months of vacation. None of the 30 staff in her office seemed to have any real job; some were friends of councillors who were hired on lucrative contracts with the title chef de mission and no actual function. Across the government, she discovered, this was how life progressed.

"It's true, I could have had a very nice life in there with good pay and an excellent pension and no work at all, but I was getting destroyed by my job, because I had nothing to do," she said in an interview days after she was fired by her council for exposing its inefficiencies.

Mr. Sarkozy's salvoes against the public service, however symbolic, hit where it hurts. One minister was forced to repay €12,000 of public money he had spent on Cohiba cigars; he argued that he had smoked €4,000 worth on official government business. Other ministers were forced to stop using chartered jets for visits home or flying first-class to unnecessary destinations.

Christine Lagarde, the Finance Minister and one of the authors of the money-saving proposals, was humiliated when Mr. Sarkozy's office asked her to reduce her staff of highly paid personal assistants from 28 to perhaps half a dozen. She refused, saying her department was one of the few that produced revenue.

In order to avoid seeming to spare himself these lifestyle cuts, last week Mr. Sarkozy cancelled the Bastille Day party at the Élysée Palace, his official Paris residence, to save €780,000.

This may be a symbolic battle, but it means a lot in a country where 56 per cent of the work force is employed by government (the highest rate outside Sweden), where the largest and most revered corporations are fully owned or tightly controlled by the government.

France's private sector has a huge and highly profitable footprint in Europe. The country's cars, supermarkets, nuclear reactors and department stores are dominant sights from Tallinn to Lisbon.

France is very comfortable with the dominance of the public sector in its economy, but is unable to balance the books. At the same time, unemployment has leaped to 9.9 per cent, with millions of people excluded from the work force due to its restrictive entry requirements.

That has caused tax revenues to plummet. The government now takes in only €268-billion in income to cover €384-billion in expenses, leaving France with a deficit of 8 per cent of GDP, a full 5 per cent above the European Union limit. (That ranks France in the middle of the deficit roster; no major current member of the EU would qualify for membership if applying today.)

Because of this, stories of waste and inefficiency like Ms. Boullet's are warmly received by the conservative government. Her workplace diary, published under the nom de plume Zoé Shepard with the ironic title Absolument Dé-bor-dée (Absolutely Snowed Under), became a sensation. This led her to be fired, and to become a champion of workplace efficiency.

"We are wasting money without any social gain - we can't go on and on like this," Ms. Boullet said. "We have to put a stop to this expensive system or it will destroy us."

But the word "austerity" remains unmentionable among French politicians - it reeks of the Anglo-American liberalism whose very mention kills votes - so Mr. Sarkozy is proceeding slowly and symbolically even as his European neighbours hack away.

Two weeks ago, faced with a pension system that is unaffordable, a French parliamentary committee passed a plan to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60, a change that will not take place until 2018.

This followed plans to eliminate 100,000 public-sector jobs by not replacing workers who retire, for a saving of €3-billion. Mr. Sarkozy has hinted at far deeper cuts to public-sector expenditure to be implemented this autumn; economists say that far more will be required. Prime Minister François Fillon has reportedly told his cabinet that €45-billion will be slashed in the next three years, but details have not been announced.

Nevertheless, many observers feel that jobs like Ms. Boullet's will persist because they are deeply ingrained in France's political system - though not its economy.

"Why does France employ 500,000 more fonctionnaires than Germany, when its population is 20 per cent less?" asked Bruno Cavalier, chief economist at Paris's Oddo Securities. "The answer is in the domain of politics. … To extricate ourselves from the dictatorship of the short term, we must ask what spending is really, truly necessary."

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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