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Reflections on 2009

As usually happens at the end of the year, we are not only looking forward optimistically to the year ahead, but also looking back over the past one to try and learn any lessons which may be useful for the future.

As far as the social economy in France is concerned, let’s just say that it has been difficult, but that it could have been a lot worse! 420000 more people are out of work than 12 months ago… but at one time, they were predicting 600000. Trade unions were very active, especially during the first half of the year, and actually managed to agree with each other on priorities…. but have been fairly quiet since the summer. There has a spate of suicides at work, specificially at France Telecom, but things have calmed over the past few months, and the unfortunate events will at least have had the merit of making public opinion and the government sensitive to the psychological risks of the workplace, and the objectives is for all of the major companies (1000+) to have workplace agreements in place on this subject by February.

In terms of output, again, not brilliant, but it could have been worse. GNP was down 2,3%, in line with the use, but far better than the major European neighbours. And some sectors have done well. For example, registrations of new cars were up by over 10% compared with the previous years, and total registrations up by 40%, due mainly to government incentives (and even the announcement that these incentives would be lower in 2010 had the effect of increasing sales by 40% in November and December). However, with the majority of sales being made on the smaller versions of cars manufactured overseas, there has not been a corresponding increase in activity for French manufacturers, and subcontracting business has dropped by a total of 20%.

France is also looking back to 10 years ago, when the 35-hour working week was introduced (it was previously 39). At the time, its introduction kicked off a major debate, which has continued to this day. The average working year has indeed dropped, from 1637 hours in 1998 to 1542 in 2008. But look at the other developed nations. Over the same period, the working year has dropped in the US from 1847 to 1792, Japan from 1842 to 1772, and Germany from 1503 to 1432. Even the poor Italians, World Soccer Champions but also World Working Champions, have dropped from 1880 to 1802, with no fuss at all. Why is everything so complicated in France.

So what can we learn from 2009 that may be useful for 2010?

Firstly, don’t necessarily believe the predictions, whether they be optimistic or pessimistic. Play it by ear, remain flexible and alert, and in all cases, keep the chin up.

Secondly, the influence of government policy is here to stay. The “poor but could have been worse” results would have been far worse without government intervention, in France as in many other countries. So instead of criticising so often (as they tend to do in France), we could all be putting our efforts into making policy work. These are fairly intelligent people, aren’t they?

Thirdly, we should all accept that change is inevitable and acceptable. Reading the newspaper accounts of 2009, it is amazing just how many things have changed in just twelve short months. We all have a role of change agents, working both for ourselves and our immediate entourage.

And finally, although it was a bad year, things are beginning to look up. We need to consolidate on the learnings to come out of the past twelve months : the importance of the individual in the workplace, the fact that we are globally better off than ten years ago and should appreciate it, and the risks in outsourcing to low-cost countries to obtain short-term gains.

I wish all readers a happy and successful 2010.

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