"It's the revolution!" one of my
good friends said when I phoned him from the Paris airport yesterday
Students around the country are
continuing their "strike" to protest proposed new legislation that
would allow employers to fire young people under the age of 26 during
the first two years they are on the job.
In Aix-en-Provence, hundreds of
young people trekked from their trendy provencal campus to the main
autoroute on the outskirts of town and shut down traffic this
On Tuesday, an estimated two
million people took to the streets in dozens of cities across France.
The metro was down, the trains were down, schools were closed - even
air traffic was dicey once air traffic controllers joined the
But good news: restaurants and
cafes were all open, since that's where any respectable striking
student or worker must go to spend his welfare euros and discourse
endlessly on the "revolution."
With the planned arrival yesterday
of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Paris, the air traffic
controllers had the good grace to return to work - at least, for
awhile, and at least at Charles de Gaulle airport. (Orly is still
touch and go, I am told).
Most Americans are probably shaking
their heads in amused wonder. Of course companies should be able to
fire employees (unless you're the government, in which case failure
is almost always rewarded with a promotion, not a pink slip).
Employment ebbs and flows with the
market. When business is good, you hire. When business is bad, you
cut back. (And when health care costs go through the roof, you file
But that's not the French way. Ever
wonder why France continues to have 10
percent¬Ýunemployment, despites billions of euros spent
on a grab-bag of youth employment initiatives, minority employment
initiatives, professional training programs and job incentive
Among the young, unemployment runs well over 25 percent. And if you're a young Muslim immigrant, it's close to 50 percent.
Elementary, mon cher Albert.
It's the benefits.
French companies don't hire -
period - because they can't fire.
Welcome to the modern-day worker's
paradise, with a 35-hour work week and six weeks paid vacations - in
16th century chateaux, if you please. (Many of those chateaux are
owned and managed by the Communist Party-controlled labor unions on
behalf of their members).
Take comfort, Laura Bush! Bernadette Chirac's man, Jacques (the one who lied to W. before the Iraq war, remember?), has become the least popular president in the history of France.
Asked if they would vote for him
should he stand for re-election next year (as he has threatened to
do), just one percent of those polls said yes. One percent!
Even Leonid Brezhnev did better
My favorite newspaper in France has
long been Le Canard Enchainé, a wickedly satiric weekly
with the best investigative reporters in France and an untranslatable
name. ("Canard" - duck - is slang for newspaper. "Enchainé"
means bound by chains, but also persistent.)
In this week's issue, they rip
Prime Minister Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin to shreds. In a
hilarious review of his repeated claims in favor of social "dialogue"
(as in, "I will be audacious! and imaginative! in pursuing social
dialogue"), they conclude that he failed to consult anyone before
introducing his ill-fated reform.
Americans will remember de Villepin
as the wound-up ballet dancer pretending to be foreign minister,
preening and strutting at the United Nations during the debate over
Saddam Hussein's weapons programs.
But you don't have to be American
to hate de Villepin.
The center-Left daily
Libération boasted a full-page
cartoon¬Ýyesterday morning of Chirac as puppet-master,
with his precious Dominique turning to slime in his hands and
dripping through his fingers. The headline: "Melt down."
Chirac biographer and confidant
Franz-Olivier Giesbert, in a newly published book, opens both barrels
on the pompous de Villepin. "He is so egotistical he doesn't realize
that to his visitors he just appears like an anachronism," Giesbert
And Wednesday, stressed to the
maximum, the French premier made a Freudian slip during the question
period in parliament that left his opponents in stitches and his own
party-members scratching their heads. The French Supreme Court was
scheduled to render its verdict on Thursday as to the
constitutionality of the new law. Villepin cautioned supporters and
opponents alike to "await the decision" of the court. But it came out
"await the resignation" of the court. Guess what's on his mind?.
So what's it all about? The
center-Right daily Le Parisien made a pop-survey of a dozen
young people, some who had joined the protests, others who hadn't.
What they found was fear, more than anger: fear that society was
leaving them behind, fear that the horizon was closing in on them,
that the government solutions of subsidized temporary work would
leave them permanently without a career.
A widely-read student blog site is
compiling a list of things "we don't want to hear." [If you read
French, go to www.jeneveuxplus.net.]
They included: "We don't want to hear economics professors who tell
us that technical degrees are worthless; that France is finished
socially and economically. Tell me that it's difficult but that we're
going to make it."
"It's a depressing system," said
17-year-old Ilona. If you come from a family "without money and
without influence, you have four times fewer opportunities to realize
The Financial Times may have
had the last word on the political future of de Villepin, who had
b'een primping himself to become Chirac's successor in next years
"Mr Villepin is not a tragic figure
who is sacrificing his political career for the greater good. He's
simply a politician who has torpedoed one of the greatest reforms of
contemporary French politics," the august British daily
Mr. Villepin's ill-conceived and
poorly-executed reform was a first stab at changing the logic of
French society. But instead of bringing the people along with him, he
rammed the legislation down the throat of parliament in an up-or-down
no confidance vote, and stiffed every sector of France's vibrant
civil society for good measure.
The real issue is opportunity.
France long ago ceased to be an opportunity society and became an
There is no job growth because
welfare state rules put so many restrictions on employers that they
refuse to hire. (In France, the penalty for "economic firing" -
called "downsizing" or "restructuring" in the United States - is a
cash indemnity equal to two year's salary.)
At the same time, young French men and women are not creating their own businesses, because small businesses are subject to similar firing restrictions. Add to that crippling social welfare taxes (well over 40 percent), and this makes the cost of creating new jobs and expanding growth prohibitively high.
Governments on the Left and the Right have tried to mitigate these structural deficiencies over the years by fiddling at the margins.
What France needs - and what no
French politician has the guts to say out loud - is to scrap the
entire system and start over. They need politicians with the vision
and skills capable of triggering a national debate, not an
Failing that, France will become an
elegant theme park for wealthy tourists, where the biggest growth
industry will be the police.
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