French Take to the Streets to Preserve Their Economic Fantasy

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006 1:03 pm by Neal
Street demonstrations against a French law giving employers more flexibility when hiring workers got a little out of hand in Paris yesterday. (Photo Credit: By Pascal Le Segretain — Getty Images Photo)

French Take to the Streets to Preserve Their Economic Fantasy is the title of Steven Pearlstein’s article in today’s Washington Post on the French student riots over a proposed law that would give companies two years to evaluate the work of new, young hires before these employees become eligible for a type of “tenure” under French law that makes terminating their employment difficult and expensive. Pearlstein reports

To those of you brainwashed by Anglo-American market capitalism, this might appear like the sort of labor market flexibility they babble on about at meetings like this week’s European summit — the kind that might actually entice a French company to create a new job.

But when viewed through the dark prism of the French imagination, these aren’t real jobs — they’re “garbage jobs” and “slave contracts” meant to undermine the birthright of all Frenchmen to be shielded from all economic risk. Give in on this, and who knows what could go next? The 35-hour workweek? The six weeks of paid vacation? State-mandated profit sharing? Retirement at age 60?

What’s so galling about the French is that, in the name of equality and solidarity, they are well on their way to creating not only one of the least vibrant economies in the industrialized world, but also one of the least equitable.

The “insiders” of this economy consist of a shrinking pool of older, middle-class workers who enjoy the full panoply of worker protections. Most of them are in the public sector or heavily regulated private industries, with the rest in a dwindling number of competitive private firms.

And then there are the “outsiders.” This growing pool includes the unemployed young men of the mostly immigrant suburbs who went on a rampage last year, throwing rocks and burning cars. But it also includes the children of “insiders,” who tend to hang around the university until they are 24 or 25, then drift between unpaid internships, temp jobs and welfare for another five years before finally getting “inside.”

Pearlstein explains how the “insiders”, the “talk left, act right” political elite and “pigheaded socialism” has thoroughly confused the young “outsiders” as to what is in their best interests and how free-market capitalism is the solution to their employment problems. Unfortunately, decades of government welfare and hypocritical leaders implementing inconsistent “reforms” have all but destroyed the self-reliant attitude needed for a successful, free-market, competitive economy.

But having declared, in effect, that markets cannot be trusted to generate socially and politically acceptable outcomes, the same government is now shocked to find that it doesn’t have much credibility when it asks workers to trust markets when it comes to the terms of their employment.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Forbes magazine’s latest list of global billionaires includes only 14 from France, without a single new entry this year. Germany, a country not twice its size, has four times as many, while Britain, which is about the same size, has 24.

Indeed, when you ask French university students who is the Bill Gates of France, they look at you blankly. It’s not simply that they can’t name one. The bigger problem is that they can’t imagine why it matters, or why that has anything to do with why they can’t find a good job.

I’m surprised it is still legally permissible to become a billionaire in France. Definitely a good read.

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