Since 1860, when Napoleon III appropriated this ancient Roman spa at the foot of the Alps for his empire, the National Baths of Aix-les-Bains have been a symbol of France's cushy health-care system.
These days, however, Aix-les-Bains is in hot water. Vowing to trim the fat in France's bloated public sector, President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced 23,000 civil-service job cuts. That includes half the spa's 165 state-employed physiotherapists.
165 physiotherapists in one place, government employees.
France has the same number of passport-control officers it had 15 years ago, even though border controls for travelers within most of the European Union have been abolished, Mr. Sarkozy scoffed in a recent speech. There are 721 French diplomats in the former colony of Senegal, which has a population of about 12.5 million, and only 271 in India. "How is that normal?" the French president asked in another speech.
He might not be telling the whole story, but he is spot-on with this: 721 diplomats in Senegal? 1 for every 17,000 people. Aich!
Teachers and parents took to the streets several times in recent months to protest a plan to cut 11,000 teaching jobs this year. The government says there are fewer children to teach today in France than there were a decade ago. Opponents say students will be deprived of important subjects such as Greek and Latin.
Greek and Latin today?
At Aix-les-Bains, all the physiotherapists are paid to work full time all year, even though the resort fills up mainly in summer. In an attempt to keep them busy throughout the year, the spa redeploys many to the reception desk or the cloakroom. The decline in business has been so bad for the therapists' morale, says Ms. Claret, that 27 are currently on sick leave, most of them for depression.
If there aren't enough customers, does redeploying physiotherapists to the cloakroom make any sense? Never mind the sick leaves.
Protesting the planned job cuts at Aix-les-Bains has become a matter of national pride. In the late 19th century, the spa was a fashionable haunt for the European aristocracy, including Napoleon III's wife Eugénie and Britain's Queen Victoria.
The Thermes Nationaux became a French household name in 1947 when "La Sécurité Sociale," France's national health-care-insurance system, agreed to foot the bill for spa treatments if patients had doctors' prescriptions.An empress and an English queen; national pride?
Over the years, visitors have also abused the system, essentially getting France's national health insurance to foot the bill for all-expense-paid spa vacations. "For many people, it's like a free holiday," says Ms. Surmont, who says all her mud wraps and massages were properly prescribed by a doctor to soothe her ailing back. "Some patients go shopping in the afternoon. They're hardly in pain."
Yet because the civil-servant status of the physiotherapists protects them from being immediately dismissed, the spa has asked that 47 resign voluntarily by a Dec. 31 deadline. The snag: Physiotherapists have virtually no chance of finding similar jobs elsewhere, because their state diploma is valid only at the Aix-les-Bains spa.
Not a very valuable, or marketable, degree.