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Fri. April 19, 2024
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International Affairs Forum

Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

France's Spring Break Perpetuel


Proving that any French politician should know better than to try to reform that country's economy, France has just scrapped its modest youth labor reform. Sluggish, inflexible and costly that economy may be, exemplified in Europe's highest youth unemployment. But astounding efficiency (those few hours the French work, about a third less than in the US, they work well!) keeps the system alive just enough to allow all those who have jobs to pretend they can go on like that forever. It also lets those who are out of a job feel it is life's great unfairness, not a fundamentally inappropriate economic structure, that keeps them from reaping the rewards of honest labor.

But if a French politician recklessly feels that he (or she) should align the country with modern economic reality, he certainly should know better than to target those elements in society that have little better to do than protest. Never, never aim legislative reforms at the retired or the young, particularly when the weather is warming up. Especially not students, who are, after all, more than willing to spend weeks protesting for their vision of a future, even at the cost of deconstructing their actual future. All this recently played out in cities throughout France. Kids with too much time on their hands but too little understanding of social or economic realities, exercise the fine art of (not just French) politicking, bombast, and empty-headed grandstanding. No doubt, future politicians' careers were forged amidst these clashes of police and protesters; the more they protested, the greater the chance they might get invited for orange juice at the prime minister's place. Or meet former Minister of Culture Jack Lang, who mingled among the protesters, claiming to have been against this "outrageous proposal" from the first minute.

That "outrageous proposal" (Contract première embauche - CPE) was basically the introduction of a two-year "probation period" for any employee under 26. This was extended from the standard three months in the Contrat à durée indéterminée (CDI), during which the employer can dismiss the newly hired without the usual hassles. A similar law, the Contrat nouvelles embauches (CNE), aimed at small firms, was put in place last summer and covers 400,000 workers. Now a law that facilitates firing a worker more easily is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking for ways to increase employment. But the difficulties in dismissing French workers, once hired, make employers extremely cautious: better not to create a job than be stuck with excess payroll. No employer will take a chance on applicants that show any potential for trouble or unreliability (translation: foreigners). The proposed law aims to create jobs by encouraging firms to take a chance on young, inexperienced workers, in effect reducing what is in fact a high financial penalty for taking that risk. It's a big penalty too: successful US startup companies in the 1990's grew their staff an average 161 percent in two years, versus only 13 percent in France.

But to the French mind -- and Sorbonne-trained student minds in particular -- this is clearly unacceptable. The idea of getting a job with an actual risk of getting fired is an outrage. Better no job than accept this depraved influx of "American hire & fire mentality". This has a certain perverse irony. There is in fact no better insurance against being fired than never being hired in the first place. And to spend your first two years in the job-market not knowing that that job will in fact be the one you keep for the rest of your life is probably too much to ask from anyone who still expects a career like their grandparents and parents. No wonder a guaranteed civil service post is the overwhelming "ambition" of most French youth.

It is difficult not to be frustrated, cynical and derisive about these protests. Somewhere between disdain and amusement, one watches affluent students, mostly unaffected by the proposed law, protest the underprivileged youth out of their job opportunities. All in earnest disgust and supported by unions and every Socialist politician who jumps at any opportunity involving strike and protest. Regular occurrences, these mini-revolutions against change - and tragically comic. Expert at farce, France today would be funnier, more amusing, if the result of these protests were not to perpetuate a system that is in fact unjust. Propel the privileged, keep the social fringe at a bottom. Under the banner of egalitarianism and fraternity, they fight for a status quo that does nothing but widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Future generations, no smarter but faced with fewer options, will have to live off the thin gruel prepared for them by the present generation. Bon Appétit.

Jens F. Laurson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations' International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.

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