Paris is, Let’s Hope, Not Burning

Tomorrow will see a massive disruption here in Paris, and all over France.  135 demonstrations are planned, 5 million government employees will strike, and many professionals and other workers in the private sector.  400 extra police officers have been ordered to Paris to try to ensure security.  It will surely be the largest mass action in France since 1995, when almost a week of demonstrations were staged against a government social-security law.

The fuss is about something called the CPE, as I explained a bit earlier.  Long story short: Currently, in France, when a company hires a new worker, there’s a short probationary period.  After the probationary period, the worked has an automatic right to an unlimited-duration labor contract.  When this phase sets in, the worker can only be fired for cause, and after a lengthy administrative process.  The right-of-center coalition in the French parliament passed a law changing these rules for workers under 26.  Under the new law, there is a two-year probationary period for these young workers during which they can be fired at any time.  Further, at the end of that period, the company can simply elect not to extend the contract, and they are out of a job. 

De Villepin claims the law will reduce youth unemployment, currently at a disastrous 23%, by introducing much-needed flexibility into the labor market for younger workers. Most college students, as well as students in the top tier of French high schools, strongly oppose the law, and it’s not hard to see why.  Importantly, they also have the support of France’s hard-left labor unions, and a large number of white-collar employees.  The white-collar employees, who entered the work force under the older, more generous regime, sympathize with the young people trying to break into a labor market in which there’s high unemployment.  It all adds up to a perfect storm: 65-70% disapproval of the law, and a major, nation-paralyzing mobilization scheduled for tomorrow.

I try not to comment about the internal politics of other countries, since I usually don’t have enough information to say anything intelligent.  This is an exception, though, since this issue has been inescapable in France.  I have patiently followed all sides of the debate, and have also been enlightened by my French teacher, who has explained a lot of background to us.

As I think about it, I cannot escape a feeling of depression.  There’s nobody to root for, and no noble principle at stake.  The back-story is an intense and growing fear of international competition.  French workers now enjoy a thorough welfare state, and most regular employees also have a 35-hour work week.  They know their privileged status can’t go on forever.  The bogeyman that’s going to steal it from them is defined as "liberalism," which in European parlance means a political philosophy favoring limited government regulation, market competition, and flexibility.  Any reform which seems headed in this direction immediately activates the powerful background fear of "liberalism" (harder work, less job security).  Slowly but surely, as the rhetorical trope of "liberalism" is invoked, the reform becomes more and more unpopular, until it reaches between 60%-70% unpopularity — enough to permit massive mobilization.

I’m not here to scold those "spoiled Frenchmen."  I understand many of their reservations.  They have something magical.  After all, I moved to Europe partly because I enjoy the stability and reasonable work-life accommodation of the European social model.  But the question is no longer whether France has to change but how.  The anti-liberalism forces, however have no convincing argument that the present system — which has produced anemic growth and catastrophic unemployment — is sustainable.  Second, even if they do admit this, few have any workable, practical reform proposals.  The Communists, of course, have proposals, but I said "workable" and "practical." Most of the anti-CPE people just repeat the same tired attacks on the patronat (the "bosses") and make empty speeches featuring liberal use of the words "social" and "solidarity."

So I find these demonstrations are understandable, but not inspiring.  They’re driven mostly by fear.  Please note, I am not a big fan of the CPE law.  Most observers who understand the barest outlines of economic theory recognize that the French labor market needs to be made more flexible, but the CPE law probably violates European law (because of age discrimination) and singles out one particular interest group (the young) for disadvantage, which is very dumb political strategy.

The atmosphere surrounding the strike is also ugly.  We all know that the French love a good strike.  But what can you say about a polity in which the public stages a massive, crippling strike against a law duly passed by a government they — at least theoretically — elected?  Bitter ideological divisions further reduce the remnants of trust in France’s governing institutions or elite.  The foreigner is immediately struck by how much thinly-veiled contempt, and cynicism there is on all sides of the argument.  French economist Jacques Marseille, last weekend declared French society unreformable, and predicted that the current crisis would almost certainly lead to a rupture, or profound — and possibly violent — political upheaval.  Rupture, he declared, is "synonomous with [French] history."  Imagine reading that with your Sunday morning coffee.

The final element in the mix is the casseurs, roughly translatable as violent hooligans or rowdies.  They’re generally alienated youth from the suburbs — often the same ones who were burning cars last November.  They have been coming into Paris and hanging around on the edges of the demonstrations.  Sometimes they attack journalists, sometimes they attack the largely white, middle-class protesters, and after the main demonstrations disperse, they begin small-scale riots.  They are not representative of the movement as a whole, but their isolated acts of random violence dominate foreign press coverage.  Their presence highlights yet more uncomfortable questions which French political leaders don’t seem to have answers to.

So tomorrow I will try to fight my way into Paris, meet a friend of mine, and watch a demonstration or two.  But I can’t think of myself as a disinterested tourist, because France means too much to me.  I will be hoping that the newspapers have exaggerated the depth of the crisis, as they are prone to do.  I will be hoping that the nation that gave us such inestimable treasures as Charles Trenet, Gabriel Fauré, the Church of St.

One thought on “Paris is, Let’s Hope, Not Burning

  1. “But the question is no longer whether France has to change but how. The anti-liberalism forces, however have no convincing argument that the present system — which has produced anemic growth and catastrophic unemployment — is sustainable. ”

    In terms of GDP/hour worked, France’s system has produced spectacular growth – at $54.06/hr French workers are behind only Norway and Luxembourg (and are significantly more productive than the average American, who produces only $48.20 per hour worked). (Numbers are from U of Groningen’s “Total Economy Database” –

    There’s no good economic argument for favoring GDP over leisure time. Measuring economic success in terms of number of hours worked is an essentially pre-capitalist idea. In the capitalist era, a better measure is, as Adam Smith put it, “the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which [a nation’s] labour is generally applied.”

    Those who argue against liberalism are right – why move to a less productive economic system?


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