by Alexander Moseley by Alexander Moseley
Over the past week, French students have gone on strike against government proposals to liberalise (relatively speaking) the labour laws.
I cannot help smirking when students go on strike; after all, most of them do not work as hard as they would have us believe and those on the left are particularly prone to lapses in industrious in their belief that the rest of society somehow owes them the privileged life of the intelligentsia. Nonetheless, students, unionists, and even pensioners have been parading against proposals to change French labour laws — and, while public protest is a healthy French occupation, we find out, unsurprisingly, that their vehemence and political indignation has been riled because the French government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, backed by the President Jacques Chirac, is keen to remove some of their economic privileges.
French labour laws are very strict and taxing on employment, so unsurprisingly, there has been high youth unemployment throughout the past two decades — it presently stands at 20% nationally and up to 40% in the areas that were badly affected by suburban rioting last November. Any labour legislation, whether it is a minimum wage, a union-mandated protectionist program, or the imposition of maximum hours, maternity pay, or specific quality licences all act to reduce the opportunities for those who are not economically worth the extra costs foisted upon companies. The youth who have been able to get work have been those economically worth it to employees, but they enjoy artificially enhanced wages and working conditions at the expense of those unable to compete fairly. As the principles of economics adequately explain, allegedly u2018pro-labour' laws actively discriminate against people from less able backgrounds trying to find work, leaving only those of a trustworthy background or social pedigree acceptable to rationing employers able to attain employment. Rather than supporting the French ideal of hard-working paysans, the laws actively and ironically, given French intellectual leanings, privilege the bourgeoisie.
A simple question suffices: if you were about to hire an individual and have a choice of two people of similar qualifications, but one happened to be the son of a family friend, which would you choose? The more able and industrious, you may answer sincerely — but if the law then stipulates that you cannot fire the new employee for gross incompetence or unsuitability, then you are more likely to say you would hire the known son: at least you may put some filial pressure on the lad if he misbehaves. Now, consider choices between young people with reputable backgrounds des classes moyennes and qualifications, and those of a background des classes ouvrières and fewer or no qualifications, perhaps of an ethnic or a marginalized social background: the latter chaps gars are going to find it hard to get work. And patently they do. Forty percent unemployment is a social tragedy and the blame lies solely with the union-backed labour laws that make discrimination of all prejudicial hues inevitable. Unqualified or relatively unemployable school leavers will be overlooked until they gain experience — but the laws restrict employers offering them a job; even though some of the more entrepreneurial are keen to tap into the energy and cultural dissonance and vivacity of African male youth, it is a portent and salient fact that female Muslims and African women are more likely to find work than similarly aged males, as the women are generally speaking more conservative and hence economically less of a risk to employers. This has produced a social fragility that truly glorifies government intervention in the work place. French rappers beat out their disenchantment and economic ostracism, and impoverished French youth stuck in horrendous tower blocks in deprived neighbourhoods beat their frustrations out on each other and the totem rich. (Recently, a young Jew, Ilan Halimi, was kidnapped and murdered by a gang apparently for being u2018moneyed,' prompting Villepin to admit that anti-Semitism was running frightfully high in France.)
In last November's riots, 8,973 cars were torched and 2,888 arrests were made in twenty days of rioting. President Chirac had to impose a State of Emergency to restore order. The cause of the riots was apparently racial tensions, triggered by the death of two black youths running from the police, but they were certainly exacerbated by the inability of large portions of France's suburban immigrants to integrate into the market. The riots spread across France as the long-aggravated poor of France's marginal peoples broke out. Islamic male youth, whose allegiances are being pulled from all directions and who, understandably, are perennially caught attempting to define their own role in a foreign culture are actively discriminated against by the u2018pro-labour' laws, leaving them poor and marginalized, angry, and hence easy prey for the demagogues and petty gang leaders keen to whip up their frustrations into violence against people and property. But why are they so marginalized? The web's comment boards speak volumes in reflecting a profound ignorance of economics — racism and intolerance are blamed by the left, immigration by the right. But none except Villepin and Chirac and their advisers seem to consider the effect of strict labour laws: the very notion is apparently an absurdity to most.
Economic principles are something the French intellectuals of the Twentieth Century traditionally disdained: France has actively pursued a syndicalist dream of factories owned by the workers while forging ahead with mounting restrictions and legislation demanded by the unions; its entrepreneurial talent and successful companies have inevitably borne the cost of social and welfare programs which patently disable French industries on the world market: only a few holding their own despite the clobbering they receive from government, the EU, and the unions. Yet France's unions (les syndicats) are viewed sympathetically even by those disrupted by their action; strikes are deemed a right — but dangerously a right without responsibility. When unions gain legislated immunity from the damages that they cause, then of course they will tend to cause mayhem and destruction, as the French unions regularly do (as any holiday maker travelling to France in the summer, the season of strikes, will testify). French political culture remains genuinely sympathetic in a way that is bewildering even to an Englishman steeped in the history of Chartists, Unions, and the Labour Movement, and such sympathy can go a long way in maintaining the unions' privileges.
However, the costs of privilege are rising to the levels not of the era of the 1968 Marxist infused petite rébellion but to the levels of the French Revolution of 1789. Last year's riots were an inexcusable and immoral blot on European civilization that threatened to grow out of control into general chaos. In 1789 the French leaders were under the impression of being immune to economic laws, with a dirigiste monarchical government imposing reams of regulations upon French industry and taxing the poor heavily while leaving the privileged courtiers and rich tax-free. Then it was a cocktail for disaster as the poor certainly did fulfil Marx's quip of becoming poorer while the rich got richer, leaving their frustration to boil over into one of the bloodiest revolutions and civil wars in European history. Today, the interventionist French state is much larger and more powerful than ever — perhaps it has the capacity to impose sufficient order through force, for upon that force conservative French hopes rest. But force can only temporarily deal with the cultural malaise of the suburbs, for the plight and frustrations of the new misérables will not recede unless they are truly given the opportunity to enter freely French labour markets: hence Villepin's desire to liberalise employment contracts somewhat.
The new law, the CPE (le Contrat Première Embauche — First Hiring Contract) will allow an employer to terminate the employment of anyone under 26 without reason — sans motif; secondly, if a young person is employed for over six months, then the company will also be exempt from having to pay social insurance contributions for three years, giving companies an incentive to hold onto those able to prove themselves worthwhile. The former policy heads the grievances and present political coverage, whereas the tempting tax-free status accorded the industrious rarely gets a mention.
Government, we can remind ourselves, should not be setting any form of labour legislation, but the French editorials and the public's commentators are far removed from understanding such a radical idea as allowing two people to sort their own contract out as they see fit. Ideally, a contract is between two people — an u2018employer' who offers money in exchange for work, and an u2018employee' who offers work in exchange for money. The terms are technical concepts designed to assist our learning of production and consumption decisions, but to the Marxist-influenced French union leaders, they are terms synonymous with political classes and class struggle imbued with the presumption that the employers will berate and exploit the employees, and that unions and governments should protect the vulnerable. That they do not does not put the privileged off from defending their privileges as rights. Incidentally, even in the harsh and critical novels of Emile Zola so sympathetic to the labouring classes, we can detect the distorting influences of the French government that sustained their impoverishment and fired their frustrations. But the French opinion makers refuse to blame their cherished République or to consider that their policies may have something to do with the social disasters and tragedies still fomenting at their feet.
History does not repeat, but certainly lessons ought to be learned from the political and economic mistakes of the past. The French, from the editorials and coverage that I have perused, make tentative connections to 1968, because the images of revolting French students are similar; accordingly image-bound, they do not seek nor even seem to entertain any notion that deeper issues are at stake. Explain that u2018pro-labour' laws are laws privileging the middle-classes, and the reply is that youth unemployment is so high, and job security so tenuous because of globalisation and American capitalism, that such laws are need to protect the youth and their prospects. But which youth? Certainly not the poor of the banlieues! No, the labour laws protect the privileged classes of middle-class, bourgeois France, just the kind of class the French intellectuals (of the bourgeois class) tend to pathologically hate.
Job security can only come from serving the market; markets are forever changing whether we like the fact or not. The writers and politicians of France cannot afford to stay dumb and blind to the laws of economics: it's a nation still drenched in privileged status that its more thoughtful intellectual revolutionaries of 1789 would have found profoundly disturbing. For example, its farmers are notoriously inefficient, but for some hangover from physiocratic economics, no one wants to touch their privileges, lest they torch the local mairie. Not a bad thing, the anarchist may reply, but no good would come of it — the farmers would retain their privileges. Now the middle class students and the economically illiterate followers, bolstered by hypocritical unions and rabid left-wing intellectuals, are keen to call for a general strike and the more criminal elements to set Paris on fire — to destroy wealth and capital, so the employees' privileges may remain sacred.
One can only hope that the government has the strength to push this minor liberalising piece of legislation through — it is a step in the right direction and in ten years time French students will have calmed their Marxism down as they work part-time to support their university life, and the unemployed youth of the banlieues will be entering the workforce smoothly; the youth of all backgrounds will have taken on the mantle of adult responsibilities corresponding to a free and civilised nation, and they will riot no more.