A Bigger Gap to Mind

An SNCF train at Gare du Nord.
Photo: Flickr.com/bindonlane

Two weeks ago, a video of a confrontation between a manager at Orange and a train attendant made headlines in France. The French are growing tired of a government unable to deal with a slow economy. In Paris, they are also growing tired of each other.

Using Paris’ Metro between 5 pm and 7 pm means you will be shoved by one of its 4 million daily riders. In France, the rhythm of life in October, after a summer of rising taxes and unemployment, is quickening. People in the capital have less patience than ever, especially with the country’s notoriously inefficient public services.

You just have to take a train to see it.

A video taken last week of a manager at Orange, a telecommunications firm, insulting a public worker at a train station, reveals this national frustration. The video, nearly 3 minutes long, now has over 78,000 views.

The man verbally assaulted the worker on a platform in the Yvelines département, near Paris. During a conversation on his mobile phone, an employee of the SNCF, France’s national train company, asks him to lower his voice. The man then says a series of insults. They included, “I make €70,000, you make minimum wage, so shut your mouth,” and “I pay €10,000 a year in taxes, if I didn’t, you would be out of a job.”

Orange identified the employee, but the company’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer for human resources, Bruno Mettling, said no disciplinary action would be taken against him. The man, who is experiencing “personal difficulties,” according to Mettling, has since apologized to the SNCF employee.

The incident reveals a national frustration with public workers in a country where nearly a quarter of the population are on the government payroll.

French public workers are known for being “lazy and inefficient” while receiving generous benefits from the state, such as healthcare coverage and earlier retirement than those working in the private sector.

Alexandra has worked for the SNCF for 15 years. On the platform at Paris’ Gare du Nord, she says “It’s always been like this, people get frustrated and they take it out on you.” She explains that she pays taxes as well, and could have said the same thing to the Orange manager.

Amroze Adjuward studies finance at ESSEC, a leading European business school in Paris. He says public workers are known for making “the minimum effort” at work. But he maintains that the benefits they receive, as part of the welfare state, are necessary. He thinks they have helped keep France from sliding into full recession like Greece or Spain.

After graduation, he almost looks forward to paying taxes. “I got my education in France and it had a cost I did not pay. I would like to help others have the same chance.” Most high-level managers in France do not feel the same way since the National Assembly passed President Francois Hollande’s 75% tax on incomes of  €1 million or higher.

Philippe has worked for the French government for over 20 years as an IT specialist. “Everyone is stressed out right now. But we shouldn’t make too much of it. The man in the video just lost it, that’s it.” He explains that this problem has existed in France for years, and it will not change anytime soon.

In Germany, the saying goes, “the train is always on time.” At Gare du Nord, the train’s arrival is not as certain. Passengers still have to line up one after the other to buy tickets. And in Paris, people lose their tempers much faster.

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