Government plans civil service job cuts

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In October 2002, it was confirmed that the French government will cut over 1,700 posts in the civil service in 2003, mainly in education, finance and public works. The staffing cuts are linked to decentralisation and reform of the state on the one hand and, on the other, to the opportunity resulting from the large numbers of French civil servants currently taking retirement. The move has led to various strikes, notably in the national education sector.

Since August 2002, France's conservative government (FR0208103F), led by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has gradually unveiled a proposal to cut 1,740 civil service jobs and the plan was confirmed on the occasion of the parliamentary vote on the 2003 state budget on 17 October 2002. The context for this move, which has thrust the issue of civil service staffing levels to the forefront of French politics, has at least three aspects.

First, prospects for economic recovery are fading. In the light of President Jacques Chirac’s election pledges, major savings will be required to meet 2003 budget targets and to live up to the commitment made by France to the European Union to table a near-balanced budget by late 2004. Consequently, one of the government’s stated goals has been to cut the budget deficit. One of the ways it intends to achieve this is by cuts in public employment. As parliament began consideration of the 2003 finance bill, the budget minister, Alain Lambert, stressed that 'control of public expenditure is reflected in a firm resolve to put an end to the systematic expansion of public employment'.

Second, the pace of civil servant retirement will increase four-fold over the coming three years. In all, close to 50% of current central and local government civil servants are expected to retire by 2016. This provides an exceptional opportunity for the government to reassess the role of the civil service. A review of the missions of the state and their implementation will have to precede any cuts in the budget for public employment; otherwise, trade union discontent might well block any change.

Third, some degree of transparency has recently been introduced into the way that the number of French civil servants is calculated. Budget 'fudges', obscuring real needs, have hitherto hampered frank dialogue with trade unions. The Public Employment Observatory (Observatoire de l’emploi public), set up in 2000 with the specific task of calculating actual staffing levels (FR0010192N), has now published a report on this issue. According to national accounting practices, under which public employment means those employed in public administrations funded by taxes and other mandatory contributions, staffing levels in the three civil service sectors (central government, local government and hospitals) stood at 5.6 million (including employment scheme jobs) in late 1999. This figure represents 26.3% of the entire workforce in continental France and its overseas départements. A more legalistic approach, counting both those who enjoy civil service status and those, whether civil servants or not, who are attached to administrations or bodies with civil service status, puts the number of civil servants at 5.2 million. The Observatory has also added a new factor for consideration in the current context of decentralisation and reform of the state. It notes that between 1990 and 1999, staff increases in local government far outstripped those recorded at the national level, with employment rising by 13% and 7% respectively.

Staffing cuts linked to improvements in public service

The government has opted for a first wave of civil service staffing cuts in 2003. A total of 1,740 jobs are to be shed in the national education sector and in the Ministries of Finance and Public Works. This workforce reduction policy, which marks a departure from the previous government’s policy on public service employment, is to be extended over the next few years. Not all sectors of the civil service will be affected in the same way. Indeed, staffing levels at the Ministries of the Interior and Justice will increase.

The Secretary of State for Reform of the State, Henri Plagnol, was quick to assert that the debate over the future of the civil service should not focus on staffing levels but rather on ways of 'making the public service attractive once again'. He stated that 'the issue is not to decide whether to increase or decrease the number of civil servants, but rather how to redeploy human resources in such a way as to ensure that decentralisation does indeed lead to better public service.'

No debate on the issue had taken place prior to the vote officially approving the job cuts on 17 October. Nevertheless, on 24 October, the Civil Service Minister, Jean-Paul Delevoye announced that in the future, annual consultations on the ministerial and inter-ministerial approach to public employment for the following five to 10 years would take place in the lead-up to the budget. Civil service trade unions will take part in this process. Consultations will be designed to identify forthcoming budget issues and to tailor civil service staffing levels to real needs. The Civil Service Minister has also launched several rounds of meetings with civil service trade unions on the four major issues of recruitment, training, career mobility and forward skill and job planning.

Trade union reaction

Parliamentary approval of the job cuts, which had been mooted on several occasions since July 2002, led trade unions to react both generally and more specifically with regard to the particular areas targeted for workforce reductions.

Six civil service trade unions joined forces to demand that the government implement 'significant provisions' on the issues of wages, jobs and decentralisation if it wished to avoid 'major disputes' in the civil service. The six unions were the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the General Confederation of Labour-Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force ouvrière, CGT-FO), the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the Unitary Union Federation (Fédération syndicale unitaire, FSU), the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the National Federation of Independent Unions (Union nationale des syndicats autonomes, UNSA). Bernard Lhubert, the general secretary of the CGT-affiliated civil service trade union, pointed out that 'joint trade union statements are very rare in the civil service', and that he was very pleased to see unions sending this type of strong political message, which 'will enable them to exert greater influence on government policies'.

The trade unions have issued strike calls for those sectors affected by the job cuts. In the opinion of the seven trade unions represented at the General Taxation Division (Direction générale des Impôts), the budget 'seems to point to the abandonment of public service missions, a decline in the quality of services provided to taxpayers and users and worsening working conditions', while at the same time, taxation officers are facing problems on a daily basis mainly stemming from 'the new 35-hour working week implemented without new jobs'. CGT, CGT-FO and CFDT called civil servants at the General Consumer Issues, Competition and Anti-Fraud Division (Direction générale de la consommation, de la concurrence et de la répression des fraudes), out on strike on 5 October 2002.

The most significant industrial action has occurred in the national education sector. On 17 October, the main education and research trade unions - FSU, UNSA, the CFDT-affiliated education federation (Syndicats généraux de l'Education nationale, SGEN) , the CGT-affiliated education and research federation (Fédération de l'éducation, de la recherche et de la culture, FERC) and the Independent National Education Federation (Fédération Autonome de l'Education Nationale, FAEN) - called on the majority of national education civil servants employed in a variety of sectors, ranging from kindergartens to universities, to strike and demonstrate in protest at the government’s budget policies. CGT-FO and education unions affiliated to Solidarity, Unity, Democracy (Solidaire, Unitaire, Démocratique, SUD), as well as the National Union of Students of France (Union nationale des étudiants de France, UNEF) and the Federation of Parents of Public Education Students (Fédération des parents d’élèves de l’enseignement public), also took part in the action.

All these bodies are very critical of government plans to shed 5,600 security posts in schools, scrap the current youth employment scheme (FR0210103N) (20,000 teaching assistant positions based on the scheme are to disappear as early as 2003) and cut research budgets. They have also spoken out against the way the public sector decentralisation initiative is to be implemented and the perceived emphasis laid on 'repressive' measures. Approximately 60% - 43% and 70% according to the government and trade unions respectively - of national education civil servants heeded the strike call and some 50,000 took part in demonstrations held throughout France.

Commentary

The scale of reaction to the workforce reductions among national education civil servants is not likely to change the major budget policies for 2003. However, for a right-wing government, which garners a significant proportion of its traditional support from voters not particularly favourably disposed to civil servants, the industrial action in the national education sector will most likely have an impact on several fronts. The first relates to jobs in the sector - the depth of opposition aroused by its youth employment policy worries the government. Second, the action has increased the government's desire to take the heat out of debate on the issue of staffing levels in the public service, and the Minister of Education now plans to give trade unions greater input. In addition, the Minister is aware that the onus is on him to demonstrate that the goal of decentralisation is not in fact to cut staff, to offload financial responsibilities onto local government or even to dismantle the public education system itself. Nevertheless, some regions are very impatient to take over responsibility for human resources management. Lastly, the Minister plans – prior to any potential staff cuts - to hold consultations aimed at identifying those areas in need.

It may therefore be wondered whether the industrial action in the national education sector, which is the first civil service action to occur under the new government, might serve as a 'testing ground' for other ministries or encourage the government to expand the process of identifying needs and even to consult more widely with trade unions prior to developing plans to cut public employment (see Négociations sur les transformations de l’emploi dans les services publics[Negotiating employment changes in the public services] C Vincent and U Rehfeldt (eds), IRES conference 2001-2, summary report, IRES, July 2002). (Odile Join-Lambert, IRES).

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