[Viewpoint]Following Europe’s lead

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[Viewpoint]Following Europe’s lead

At the beginning of this month, I went to a theme park near Paris with my children. It was quite crowded because it was a holiday. At lunchtime, we went to a restaurant in the park. There were long queues of people waiting at all the restaurants and the snack shops.

We had no choice but to wait in line. I originally thought it would take around 10 minutes, but the line didn’t move. After waiting for 40 minutes, we finally got our hot dogs.

There was only one employee at the snack shop and he was doing everything: taking the orders, making the hot dogs, serving the drinks, running the cash registration and answering the phone. I asked him, “How can you do all this by yourself?”

“Today is a holiday,” he replied. “Most of our staff are taking a day off.”

I then realized that around half of the snack shops in the park were closed. There were fewer employees working on that day than usual, even though it was a holiday and there was a rush of visitors to the park.

I then recalled my visit to Sciences Po, a university of politics and one of the best grandes ecoles, or elite schools of France. When I entered a club room, a motto on the wall, apparently written by students, caught my eye. It read: “Work less and enjoy life more.” It was a parody of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s slogan: “Work more to make more money.” The students, who will grow up to be high-ranking officials both in the government and in politics, will be the leaders of France in 20 years.

In Germany, postal workers staged a limited strike last month. When deliveries at nine branches stopped, it created great confusion. The workers were demanding the current 39-hour workweek be reduced to 38 hours and 30 minutes. They even threatened a general strike for the first time in 14 years, so they could work just six minutes less a day.

I was on a business trip to Finland in the beginning of May. Businesses, schools and stores all started to close at 3 p.m. I had a hard time covering news because I could not find people still at work. Finland has special working conditions because they have short daylight hours in winter, but I was puzzled to learn that they work under the same conditions in the summer, when the day is longer.

Living in Europe, I often find myself wondering, “How can they live so well, while taking so many days off and spending so much on food?”

Some people say Europe is no longer competitive, and that its era is over. But is that so?

When the value of the euro suddenly rose last year, economic experts predicted that France would suffer most. France earns close to 140 trillion won ($134 billion) a year from sales of luxury designer products and income from tourism. The prediction was that if the value of the euro appreciated, the sales of already expensive luxury items would drop, and the flow of tourists would slow.

However, the sales of Hermes, which is expensive even among luxury brands, rose 13.4 percent in the first quarter of this year over the same period last year. I visited the main store in Paris to see how they were doing. A sales clerk boasted, “There are so many customers ordering a crocodile leather bag that costs over 300 million won [$291,000], that they have to wait three to four months for their order.” Business forecasts suggest that sales of Louis Vuitton will go up more than 10 percent this year.

Economic experts who predicted a hard time for the European economy had to change their opinion. They now say, “The power of brands is unexplainable with classical economic theories.” Over 80 million tourists visited France last year, a record high. Even more are expected this year. One euro is worth more than $1.60, yet there are crowds of American tourists taking pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower these days.

German automakers, such as Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, should be having a hard time because of the high euro and soaring oil prices, but they are still doing well. Volkswagen sales rose 11 percent in Europe last month. A Finn I met during my visit explained, “The forests of Finland, which cover over 70 percent of our land, feed the Finnish people.” The wood and pulp industries make up one-fifth of total trade volume. Nokia, the Finnish cell phone maker, started out with money left over from selling paper.

Now let’s take a look at Korea. If $1, which used to be 1,000 won, suddenly dropped to 700 won in a year, how could our economy, which depends heavily on exports, survive? We must consider whether we have our own brands ?? like Hermes, the Eiffel Tower, Volkswagen or BMW, which took Europe centuries to build up ?? or whether we have abundant resources. This is the reason why we cannot slight them, and must work harder.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Jeon Jin-bae
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