State Issues

Time for some French lessons

This is the time when toute la France heads off on its monthlong summer holiday. No, it's not everybody. Somebody has to drive the trains, keep the nuclear power plants running, staff the seaside hotels and patrol the autoroutes.

But they'll all get their turn -- an average 37 days of vacation per worker per year, compared with an average of 13 days in the United States, which is the lowest in the industrialized world. (Those hard-working Japanese take 25 days). French law guarantees every worker 30 days.

Paid sick leave is standard. Americans are guaranteed nothing.

All this is particularly relevant now because the French and their arrangements are back in fashion. "Freedom fries" are off the menu.

But if you read the national pundits or go see Michael Moore's latest movie, you know that French health care is in; so are French trains, French children's services, French social welfare, French education and French technology.

By now it ought to be no secret that every modern society on Earth provides better health care to its citizens at less cost than we do.

Only collective insanity would design our inefficient crazy-quilt system.

Where else would a national leader be able to say, as President Bush did the other day, that increasing funding for children's health care would make us too dependent on government, and is unnecessary anyway because the kids can always seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms? But it may be news to Californians that French roads -- not just the pricey toll-supported autoroutes, but most of the regular toll-free national highways as well -- are smoother and easier to drive than our crowded, cracking freeways and crumbling bridges.

California roads were once supposed to be models to the world, but are now rated among the worst even compared with the rest of this country. Come back from a couple of weeks driving in France and your shocks quickly remind you that you're back on Interstate 5 or Highway 99.

And then there are the transit systems -- subways, buses, comfortable high-speed railways that run between major cities at 180 mph, not just in France, but over much of Western Europe. Paris, where the driving is impossible but the transit is great, now also offers thousands of rent-a-bikes anyone can pick up and drop around town.

And, of course, those trains, and much of the rest of France, run on nuclear power, which doesn't generate greenhouse gases.

No, not everything in Europe is hunky-dory. The public-sector unions in France and Italy, especially in transportation, can bring a whole country to a standstill, and sometimes do.

By now even the French recognize that if they're to compete economically, the workweek, long limited by law to 35 hours, will have to be lengthened, and a lot of other rigid job protections need to be changed. The election of the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy was a sign of that recognition. Now all they have to do is find the will.

Like the United States, the European Union subsidizes its farmers, particularly French farmers, at shameful levels. Likewise, they have serious problems with immigrants, many of them Muslims from North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan -- and a real threat from terrorists, homegrown and foreign. The French infringe on the civil liberties of minorities in ways that wouldn't be tolerated here.

But despite those problems, the euro keeps rising -- it's now worth $1.40 (the British pound goes for more than $2) -- and the dollar keeps sinking. Among this month's vacationing Frenchmen will be thousands roaming the shopping malls of northern Virginia and other American suburbs exchanging high-value euros for cheap dollars and the stuff, much of it from China, that those dollars can buy.

Talk about reversals. For Americans who've visited Europe off-and-on for the past half-century, the changes are stunning. We used to go overseas for cheap vacations and cheap goods with high-value dollars. We used to laugh at their technology -- clunky telephone networks, prewar plumbing, rattletrap Citroen 2CVs with bodies that looked like cardboard.

Now the performance and fuel efficiency of foreign cars put ours to shame. Gas priced at $6 to $7 a gallon does wonders, not only for car design, but for transit.

And as economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman pointed out: "As recently as 2001, the percentage of the population with high-speed broadband access in Japan and Germany was only half that in the United States. In France it was less than a quarter. By the end of 2006, all three countries had more broadband subscribers per 100 people than we did."

The difference? Judicious regulation that fosters competition. "As a result, French consumers get to choose from a variety of service providers who offer reasonably priced Internet access that's much faster than anything I can get, and comes with free voice calls, TV and Wi-Fi."

No, let's not all move to France, but maybe we could use some French lessons.

E-mail Peter Schrag at pschrag@sacbee.com.

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