French Meltdown

ByKenneth R.Timmerman
|March 31, 2006


"It's the revolution!" one of mygood friends said when I phoned him from the Paris airport yesterdaymorning.

Students around the country arecontinuing their "strike" to protest proposed new legislation thatwould allow employers to fire young people under the age of 26 duringthe first two years they are on the job.

In Aix-en-Provence, hundreds ofyoung people trekked from their trendy provencal campus to the mainautoroute on the outskirts of town and shut down traffic thismorning.

On Tuesday, an estimated twomillion people took to the streets in dozens of cities across France.The metro was down, the trains were down, schools were closed - evenair traffic was dicey once air traffic controllers joined thestrike.

But good news: restaurants andcafes were all open, since that's where any respectable strikingstudent or worker must go to spend his welfare euros and discourseendlessly on the "revolution."

With the planned arrival yesterdayof Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Paris, the air trafficcontrollers had the good grace to return to work - at least, forawhile, and at least at Charles de Gaulle airport. (Orly is stilltouch and go, I am told).

Most Americans are probably shakingtheir heads in amused wonder. Of course companies should be able tofire employees (unless you're the government, in which case failureis almost always rewarded with a promotion, not a pink slip).

Employment ebbs and flows with themarket. When business is good, you hire. When business is bad, youcut back. (And when health care costs go through the roof, you filefor bankrupcy).

But that's not the French way. Everwonder why France continues to have 10percent¬Ýunemployment, despites billions of euros spenton a grab-bag of youth employment initiatives, minority employmentinitiatives, professional training programs and job incentiveprograms?
Among the young, unemployment runs well over 25 percent. And ifyou're a young Muslim immigrant, it's close to 50 percent.
What gives?

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'sparadise, with a 35-hour work week and six weeks paid vacations - in16th century chateaux, if you please. (Many of those chateaux areowned and managed by the Communist Party-controlled labor unions onbehalf of their members).
Take comfort, Laura Bush! Bernadette Chirac's man, Jacques (the onewho lied to W. before the Iraq war, remember?), has become the leastpopular president in the history of France.

Asked if they would vote for himshould he stand for re-election next year (as he has threatened todo), just one percent of those polls said yes. One percent!

Even Leonid Brezhnev did betterthan that.

My favorite newspaper in France haslong been Le Canard Enchainé, a wickedly satiric weeklywith the best investigative reporters in France and an untranslatablename. ("Canard" - duck - is slang for newspaper. "Enchainé"means bound by chains, but also persistent.)

In this week's issue, they ripPrime Minister Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin to shreds. In ahilarious review of his repeated claims in favor of social "dialogue"(as in, "I will be audacious! and imaginative! in pursuing socialdialogue"), they conclude that he failed to consult anyone beforeintroducing his ill-fated reform.

Americans will remember de Villepinas the wound-up ballet dancer pretending to be foreign minister,preening and strutting at the United Nations during the debate overSaddam Hussein's weapons programs.

But you don't have to be Americanto hate de Villepin.

The center-Left dailyLibération boasted a full-pagecartoon¬Ýyesterday morning of Chirac as puppet-master,with his precious Dominique turning to slime in his hands anddripping through his fingers. The headline: "Melt down."

Chirac biographer and confidantFranz-Olivier Giesbert, in a newly published book, opens both barrelson the pompous de Villepin. "He is so egotistical he doesn't realizethat to his visitors he just appears like an anachronism," Giesbertwrites.

And Wednesday, stressed to themaximum, the French premier made a Freudian slip during the questionperiod in parliament that left his opponents in stitches and his ownparty-members scratching their heads. The French Supreme Court wasscheduled to render its verdict on Thursday as to theconstitutionality of the new law. Villepin cautioned supporters andopponents 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? Thecenter-Right daily Le Parisien made a pop-survey of a dozenyoung people, some who had joined the protests, others who hadn't.What they found was fear, more than anger: fear that society wasleaving them behind, fear that the horizon was closing in on them,that the government solutions of subsidized temporary work wouldleave them permanently without a career.

A widely-read student blog site iscompiling a list of things "we don't want to hear." [If you readFrench, go to]They included: "We don't want to hear economics professors who tellus that technical degrees are worthless; that France is finishedsocially and economically. Tell me that it's difficult but that we'regoing to make it."

"It's a depressing system," said17-year-old Ilona. If you come from a family "without money andwithout influence, you have four times fewer opportunities to realizeyour dreams."

The Financial Times may havehad the last word on the political future of de Villepin, who hadb'een primping himself to become Chirac's successor in next yearspresidential elections.

"Mr Villepin is not a tragic figurewho is sacrificing his political career for the greater good. He'ssimply a politician who has torpedoed one of the greatest reforms ofcontemporary French politics," the august British dailyconcluded.

Mr. Villepin's ill-conceived andpoorly-executed reform was a first stab at changing the logic ofFrench society. But instead of bringing the people along with him, herammed the legislation down the throat of parliament in an up-or-downno confidance vote, and stiffed every sector of France's vibrantcivil society for good measure.

The real issue is opportunity.France long ago ceased to be an opportunity society and became anentitlement society.

There is no job growth becausewelfare state rules put so many restrictions on employers that theyrefuse to hire. (In France, the penalty for "economic firing" -called "downsizing" or "restructuring" in the United States - is acash indemnity equal to two year's salary.)

At the same time, young French menand women are not creating their own businesses, because smallbusinesses are subject to similar firing restrictions. Add to thatcrippling social welfare taxes (well over 40 percent), and this makesthe cost of creating new jobs and expanding growth prohibitivelyhigh.

Governments on the Left and the Right have tried to mitigate thesestructural deficiencies over the years by fiddling at the margins.

What France needs - and what noFrench politician has the guts to say out loud - is to scrap theentire system and start over. They need politicians with the visionand skills capable of triggering a national debate, not anaristocratic fiat.

Failing that, France will become anelegant theme park for wealthy tourists, where the biggest growthindustry will be the police.

ClickHere to