The French have taken to the barricades again. Led by militant students (including high schoolers), protests, sit-ins, and other disruptions have either fully or partially shut down 64 of France’s 84 universities, according to the education ministry. The entrances to the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris have been blockaded more than a week. On Saturday, March 18, 80,000 demonstrators (300,000 according to the organizers) marched in Paris’s Left Bank, and riots erupted in 160 cities across the nation bringing another 530,000 into the streets (1.5 million according to the organizers). By week’s end, France’s two most powerful unions, the Confederation General du Travail and the Force Ouvriere threatened a general strike, a move designed to paralyze the country and bring down the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
For many, the events recall the Spring of 1968 when what started as a student protest at the “Red” University of Nanterre in western Paris edged towards full-scale political revolution with worker support, nearly toppling the government of Charles de Gaulle. But the comparison is hardly convincing. The insurgents of 1968 protested against a bourgeois social order and went about systematically breaking one social taboo after another on their march to utopia. They demanded a virtual veto in university governing bodies, new rights and protections against arbitrary rules, and dormitory policies more accommodating to youthful sexual adventures.
Those occupying French universities today are not interested in new rights and privileges. They want instead to preserve the privileges and protections granted to earlier generations — in this case, a guarantee of a lifetime job. They want an escape from what they call precarite (insecurity) that most business or professional people routinely experience in the course of a career — except in France.
The principal grievance is the contrat premiere embauche (first employment contract), devised by the de Villepin government to make a dent in France’s unemployment rate, which has hovered around 10 percent for two decades, but has reached 23 percent among young French workers and nearly 50 percent in the most economically distressed and mostly immigrant suburbs where riots erupted last fall. A sensible, but cautious reform, the first employment contract seeks to open job opportunities for the disadvantaged by making it easier to hire — and also to fire — workers under the age of 26 by offering them a two-year employment contract that the employer can terminate without providing a reason. The law would exempt employers who hire young workers from France’s elaborate system of worker protections that makes dismissal of a worker for virtually any reason impossible and impedes labor mobility as workers cling to jobs that could be filled by younger and better qualified men and women. So for two years, a young worker (we’ll call her Chantal) would work as an “at will” employee, the normal employment status of most workers in free market economies.
Assuming satisfactory performance during these two years, Chantal could look forward to all the generous protections already provided by the French patrimonial state and live the rest of her life free from precarite. Should she be dismissed, she would be eligible for worker training programs carrying a small salary.
If the young demonstrators in the streets succeed in forcing the withdrawal of the first employment contract, Chantal may never get that opportunity. Like many unemployed, second-generation immigrants consigned to the dreary, Stalinesque apartment buildings surrounding Paris and other major cities, Chantal knows something about precarite. She would like nothing better than an entry-level job at the GAP or McDonald’s, two stores which were however trashed last week by middle class student thugs, no doubt as part of an effort to create jobs and end precarite. As one young Muslim man from the Paris suburb of Mureaux explained to the French newspaper Le Parisien, “If I have to choose between the new contract and unemployment, it won’t take very long.” For the student mobs, however, the lifetime job has become an “acquired right.” Those who are in most desperate need of employment and who would jump at the chance to have what the students derisively call a “McJob” just won’t acquire it.
Job security is, of course, a wonderful thing — provided that it can be delivered to the vast majority of people and provided that it does not come at the expense of the very people who do not enjoy that privilege. This is the trade-off that is consistently ignored by French politicians and intellectuals, most of whom are supporting the students in the name of “solidarity.” When the upheavals and the torching of cars and police stations swept through France’s urban suburbs last fall, it was those very politicians and intellectuals who were first to deplore the injustices of the French “social model” which, they claimed, failed to “integrate” unemployed, second-generation immigrants. How quickly they forget.
The French social model generally succeeds in securing the majority of French people against the risks of modern life — losing one’s job, suffering financially from a serious illness or workplace accident, or falling into poverty in old age. If you are 35, educated, and reasonably well paid, France is a super place to live — perhaps the best place in the world. Even as 2 million of your fellow citizens are out of work, if you hold a salaried job, you will receive six weeks or more of vacation with no pay reduction thanks to the 35-hour workweek law. Your children will go, or will have gone to, an excellent state-funded daycare center. You may benefit from special tax breaks if you have a large family, and your healthcare coverage is excellent and at times lavish. You can seek a “cure” at the Spa at the expense of Social Security. But the majority’s comfort rests increasingly on the shoulders of a less fortunate and rather large minority, excluded from the “social contract.” This is the reason for the persistence of popular support for the high-taxing, high-spending French state. Many people who are comfortable willfully ignore the fact that their benefits come at the expense of the most needy. Contrary to popular myth, the French welfare state is not redistributive.
If there is a lesson in this for Americans, it is that once the welfare state transforms itself into a source of middle class entitlements, it will be impossible to reverse.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister de Villepin has staked his political career on enacting the first employment contract into law and getting that first job for Chantal and those like her. He is gambling that the typical French political cycle of modest reform, followed by street protests, followed by ignominious retreat can be broken. If not, new job opportunities for France’s minorities and others will just have to wait — until the suburbs blow up again.