France is dying. We are witnessing its agony, while the patient refuses to take the medicine that can cure him. French university students have been rioting for over more than a week against a new labour bill recently passed by a large majority in parliament: the First Employment Contract (CPE, Contract Premier Embauche). In a country where the street is more powerful than parliament it is highly unlikely that the CPE will ever be enforced. Moreover, it looks like the CPE is going to be Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s Waterloo.
Villepin proposed the CPE to provide jobs for young workers, a group with staggering unemployment rates. Job creation in France is severely hampered by “social” legislation which makes it virtually impossible for employers to lay off employees unless the latter are paid high damages. The CPE enables French employers to lower the cost of job creation by allowing them to hire workers under the age of 26 for a conditional two-year period during which they can be fired without compensation. Parliament had good arguments for approving the CPE. Last August a similar bill was introduced to allow small companies, with fewer than 20 employees, to fire new employees during a trial period without the normal prohibitive procedures that make it impossible for companies to hire and fire in response to market demands. In barely five months these small companies created 335,000 new jobs. According to the Parisian research institute Ifop one third of these new jobs were the direct result of the new bill.
Unemployment in France is about 10%, but unemployment among 18 to 25 year olds hovers around 25% and is as high as 40% for the unskilled youths in the predominantly immigrant neighbourhoods – the banlieus – surrounding the large cities. Last November’s violent rioting of immigrant youths in the suburbs prompted Villepin to introduce the CPE. Though these riots were ethnic rather than social, social dissatisfaction certainly exacerbated the situation. The politically correct view adhered to by the French political elite, whom Villepin represents, is that the November “intifida” was a social conflict caused by high unemployment. Hence, it was only natural that the Prime Minister wanted to tackle the problem of youth unemployment with a sensible youth labour bill.
As soon as the French National Assembly had approved the CPE, however, the far-left student unions at the French universities called a strike. They occupied their universities and went on a rampage. Valuable university facilities, such as libraries, were vandalized and – as if to imitate last November’s immigrant youths – the French students (mostly indigenous French this time) spilled out into the streets, engaged in street rioting with the police and turned over cars, often setting them on fire.
The students received the support of the French trade unions, who have called for a national strike against the CPE on Thursday next week. According to the students and the trade unions the CPE erodes job stability and threatens France’s traditionally strong workers’ rights. Moreover, giving employers the right to fire people after hiring them, is said to be an “Anglo-Saxon” practice which smacks of “globalisation.”
Last November our friend Joel Shepherd, commenting from Paris, explained that there was some truth in the claim that social dissatisfaction exacerbated the situation of the immigrants. Joel described the situation in the banlieus:
There’s just no damn jobs. White college grads can’t get jobs, what hope do immigrants from regions with bad schools have? […] They can’t change schools to get a better education because the government says you have to go to the school where you live, and they live where they do because of the zoning laws... which I’m no expert about, but I do know that the government owns 30 percent of all housing in France, and poor immigrants basically live where they’re told. The government tries to give them everything and does it extremely badly, there’s no upward mobility, and it doesn’t breed a happy community. […] So yeah, It’s a stupid French government problem, […]
Indeed, the French are reaping the harvest of their own stupid policies during the past decades. The same applies to today’s student dissatisfaction. In France a university degree does not guarantee success in life. More important than universities are the so-called grandes écoles, such as the ENA, the École nationale d’administration. The ruling élite (to which Prime Minister Villepin and President Chirac belong but not, significantly, their rival, the “pro-Anglo-Saxon” Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy) consists of so-called énarques or ENA alumni. The state run grandes écoles can only be entered after taking two years of “classes préparatoires” (or prépas). It is very difficult, and costs a fortune, to get admitted to the prépas, with the result that university is only a second choice for many students.
For the French state, too, universities are merely second choice. While it subsidizes the prépas with 13,760 euros per head per year, universities get only 6,700 euros per head per year. Universities are typically overcrowded institutions, housed in old, delapidated buildings. In general students are not even free to choose their university, but have to go to the one nearest to where they live. Almost half of the students fail to pass the first two of the six years, and leave the institution after two years without a degree, entering the job market without qualifications. Mia Doornaert, a Belgian journalist who has lived in France for many years, describes French universities as “parking lots” for youths, where they can be stored for two years, allowing the government to pretend that unemployment figures are actually lower than they really are.
The universities have, however, become recruiting grounds for far-left activists. “The confrontation between riot police and enraged casseurs (smashers) fits perfectly into the oppressor-oppressed discourse they have been eagerly consuming for the past six years. [...] In the flaming imagination of this year’s crop of latter day revolutionaries the CPE will reduce workers to serfdom,” Nidra Poller writes in an analysis of the current student rioting in France.
They are, indeed, being reduced to serfdom but not, however, by Villepin’s CPE – a sensible measure which can only be qualified as being too little too late – but by the so-called “social” policies of yesteryear and by the “latter day revolutionaries,” the trade union leaders and the Socialist politicians intent on continuing their self-defeating policies.
Behind the scenes the politicians are playing their games. Nidra Poller: “Having failed to block the measure in the Parliament, the Socialists hope to bring it down with the battering ram of the French street, and reap the benefits in the 2007 presidential elections.”
It is worth noting that the leaders of the Socialist Party, such as party leader François Hollande and his wife, presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal, are énarques as well. While claiming égalité there is no society in Europe as élitist and preventive of upward mobility as France. The best hope for France is probably Sarkozy, if only for the simple reason that he is not an énarque.
Meanwhile in America young people are reaping the benefits of Anglo-Saxonism:
U.S. college graduates are facing the best job market since 2001, with business, computer, engineering, education and health care grads in highest demand, a report by an employment consulting firm showed on Monday. […] In its annual outlook of entry-level jobs, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said strong job growth and falling unemployment makes this spring the hottest job market for America's 1.4 million college graduates since the dot-com collapse in 2001. The firm pointed to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers which showed employers plan to hire 14.5 percent more new college graduates than a year ago.