Europe

Sarkozy ex-aide takes the axe to Radio France largesse

Radio France
Image caption Radio France has been hit by strikes

For three weeks the morning ritual for millions of people in France has been rudely interrupted by a strike at one of the country's great public sector institutions: Radio France.

Instead of the familiar 0700 jingle-and-bulletin that got us moving kettlewards, listeners to the news channel France-Info have had to endure 21 days of recorded messages and music.

Non-striking journalists periodically manage to put together short sequences on the station, but it is a pale shadow of the real thing.

Masses of listeners are defecting to private channels such as RMC and Europe 1.

And there is the same empty airtime on the six other channels that operate from Maison de la Radio in Paris (France Inter, France Bleu, France Culture, France Musique, FIP and Le Mouv').

No-one can remember a strike at Radio France lasting this long, because no strike ever has.

There is a reason for that.

For decades Radio France has enjoyed the status of a cosseted state asset.

No reform

Constantly lauded - its mission of public service placing it above reproach - the corporation never felt the stern hand of reform.

But now the country's coffers are empty.

There is no more buying off the protest with a sneaky handout from the culture ministry.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mathieu Gallet has upset the unions

Today the years of accumulated waste and inefficiencies cry out for an overhaul.

A report a couple of weeks ago from the French treasury watchdog, the Cour des Comptes, showed the scale of the problem.

From 2004 to 2013, expenditure at Radio France went up 27.5% - with no increase in audience.

Salary costs went up by 47% because at a time of growing pressure on jobs everywhere else Radio France took on 20% more staff.

Because of the layers of accumulated privileges (often negotiated with unions after previous strikes), the 5,000 workers enjoy up to 68 working days off a year - more than 13 weeks.

There are 388 staff members who are paid union representatives - a whopping 8% of the workforce.

Renovation of Radio France's landmark Seine-side headquarters was supposed to cost 262m euros (£191m, $285m). Instead it is costing 575m euros.

Right-winger

Changing all this requires a mix of vision, toughness and dialogue, but the man whose job it is might have been purpose-picked to antagonise the unions.

Radio France's new president Mathieu Gallet is handsome, young, energetic - and right-wing.

One of his previous jobs was in the culture ministry under President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Mr Gallet has warned that the corporation's annual deficit of 21m euros is unsustainable.

He wants a voluntary redundancy plan to shed 300 or so jobs.

He says that Radio France's two orchestras are one too many; that the separate news rooms at France Inter, France Info and France Culture need to be integrated; and that the network of local stations at France Bleu should commission shared material.

But all this has merely infuriated the unions at Radio France.

The hardliners there mainly represent technicians, although many journalists have also stopped work.

Inevitability of reform

The strikers have made it quite clear that they want Mr Gallet to go.

And usefully they have discovered that even as he was advising drastic cuts at the corporation, he spent 100,000 euros doing up his personal office there.

It is the sort of gaffe that could easily have brought him down.

But so far Mr Gallet continues with the backing of the Socialist government, which presumably sees as well as he does the inevitability of reform.

For those of us who depended on France-Info's round-the-clock news output, it is an infuriating time.

Though the station has a discernible left-wing bias - the ratio of union leaders to company bosses interviewed must be about five to one - it is in general thorough and professional.

It is also, by comparison with private stations, mercifully light on adverts (though, for all its vaunted public sector ethos, Radio France does permit some).

The danger is that we news junkies will start looking elsewhere, and discovering the competition.

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