Reformer finds a way to sell bitter medicine

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Modern French presidents have all been elected on the back of a pledge to restore the nation’s economic health through painless reforms. And the reforms have always failed.

François Fillon, on the other hand, is promising tough measures that will leave vast swathes of the population worse off in the short run while they await better times in the future.

He says that the medicine is necessary if France is to end decades of high unemployment and slow growth.

By his own admission his manifesto is more “difficult” than those of his rivals in the opposition Républicains primary.

Nevertheless, centre-right voters turned out to support his proposals to reduce public spending by €100 billion over five years. His challenge now will be to persuade the rest of France that it needs the sort of short, sharp, shock that Margaret Thatcher administered to Britain 37 years ago.

A confrontation with the country’s powerful public sector unions seems inevitable if he is elected. It could make the British miners’ strike of the 1980s look like a children’s tea party, and union leaders are already preparing for the showdown.

Mr Fillon is attacking two cherished but crumbling pillars of postwar France: its generous healthcare system and its sprawling civil service. The country has 5.64 million public sector workers, more than any other in Europe, and they enjoy what, for many Britons, must seem like dream conditions: a 35-hour week (indeed 32 hours for many), and almost total job security.

Mr Fillon says that this situation is unsustainable — the public sector is eating up 56 per cent of the national wealth — and has pledged to cut 500,000 public sector jobs over his term of office. In addition, he has stunned commentators by telling public sector employees that they will have to stay at work for 39 hours every week, a period so long that it has been denounced in some quarters as modern slavery.

Alain Juppé, his challenger in the final of the primary, said that this was unfair. Jean-Claude Mailly, leader of the left-wing Force Ouvrière union, held out the prospect of protests if Mr Fillon was elected. “We can’t let that go through,” he said, urging his members to buy comfortable new shoes so that they would be ready to take to the streets.

Even more explosive perhaps is Mr Fillon’s plan to curb the healthcare system, which costs about €250 billion a year. The French consume three billion packets of medicines every year — one each every week, on average — and the vast majority are funded by the welfare system. Under the reforms proposed by Mr Fillon, the security system would only reimburse medicines prescribed for serious illnesses, such as cancer. Families would have to take out additional private healthcare insurance to cover the cost of everyday medicines for ailments such as coughs and colds.

Marisol Touraine, the health and social affairs minister, says that the average family would end up paying an extra €3,200. Although the figure is contested by Mr Fillon, there is no doubt that costs would rise as reliance on the welfare state shrank.

Nor is Mr Fillon seeking to woo the middle classes with tax cuts. He is proposing some — such as an extension of family tax credit to help the birthrate and the abolition of wealth tax — but only families earning more than about €75,000 a year would benefit.

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