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French Meltdown By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, March 31, 2006

"It’s the revolution!” one of my good friends said when I phoned him from the Paris airport yesterday morning.

Students around the country are continuing their “strike” to protest proposed new legislation that would allow employers to fire young people under the age of 26 during the first two years they are on the job.

In Aix-en-Provence, hundreds of young people trekked from their trendy provencal campus to the main autoroute on the outskirts of town and shut down traffic this morning.

On Tuesday, an estimated two million people took to the streets in dozens of cities across France. The metro was down, the trains were down, schools were closed – even air traffic was dicey once air traffic controllers joined the strike.

But good news: restaurants and cafes were all open, since that’s where any respectable striking student or worker must go to spend his welfare euros and discourse endlessly on the “revolution.”

With the planned arrival yesterday of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in Paris, the air traffic controllers had the good grace to return to work – at least, for awhile, and at least at Charles de Gaulle airport. (Orly is still touch and go, I am told).

Most Americans are probably shaking their heads in amused wonder. Of course companies should be able to fire employees (unless you’re the government, in which case failure is almost always rewarded with a promotion, not a pink slip).

Employment ebbs and flows with the market. When business is good, you hire. When business is bad, you cut back. (And when health care costs go through the roof, you file for bankrupcy).

But that’s not the French way. Ever wonder why France continues to have 10 percent unemployment, despites billions of euros spent on a grab-bag of youth employment initiatives, minority employment initiatives, professional training programs and job incentive programs?

Among the young, unemployment runs well over 25 percent. And if you’re a young Muslim immigrant, it’s close to 50 percent.

What gives?

Elementary, mon cher Albert. It’s the benefits.

French companies don’t hire – period – because they can’t fire.

Welcome to the modern-day worker’s paradise, with a 35-hour work week and six weeks paid vacations - in 16th century chateaux, if you please. (Many of those chateaux are owned and managed by the Communist Party-controlled labor unions on behalf of their members).

Take comfort, Laura Bush! Bernadette Chirac’s man, Jacques (the one who lied to W. before the Iraq war, remember?), has become the least popular president in the history of France.

Asked if they would vote for him should he stand for re-election next year (as he has threatened to do), just one percent of those polls said yes. One percent!

Even Leonid Brezhnev did better than that.

My favorite newspaper in France has long been Le Canard Enchainé, a wickedly “satiric” weekly with the best investigative reporters in France and an untranslatable name. (“Canard” – duck – is slang for newspaper. “Enchainé” means bound by chains, but also “persistent.”)

In this week’s issue, they rip Prime Minister Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin to shreds. In a hilarious review of his repeated claims in favor of social “dialogue” (as in, “I will be audacious! and imaginative! in pursuing social dialogue”), they conclude that he failed to consult anyone before introducing his ill-fated reform.

Americans will remember de Villepin as the wound-up ballet dancer pretending to be foreign minister, preening and strutting at the United Nations during the debate over Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs.

But you don’t have to be American to hate de Villepin.

The center-Left daily Liberation boasted a full-page cartoon yesterday morning of Chirac as puppet-master, with his precious Dominique turning to slime in his hands and dripping through his fingers. The headline: “Melt down.”

Chirac biographer and confidant Franz-Olivier Giesbert, in a newly published book, opens both barrels on the pompous de Villepin. “He is so egotistical he doesn’t realize that to his visitors he just appears like an anachronism,” Giesbert writes.

And Wednesday, stressed to the maximum, the French premier made a Freudian slip during the question period in parliament that left his opponents in stitches and his own party-members scratching their heads. The French Supreme Court was scheduled to render its verdict on Thursday as to the constitutionality of the new law. Villepin cautioned supporters and opponents alike to “await the decision” of the court. But it came out “await the resignation” of the court. Guess what’s on his mind….

So what’s it all about? The center-Right daily Le Parisien made a pop-survey of a dozen young people, some who had joined the protests, others who hadn’t. What they found was fear, more than anger: fear that society was leaving them behind, fear that the horizon was closing in on them, that the government “solutions” of subsidized temporary work would leave them permanently without a career.

A widely-read student blog site is compiling a list of things “we don’t want to hear.” [If you read French, go to www.jeneveuxplus.net.] They included: “We don’t want to hear economics professors who tell us that technical degrees are worthless;  that France is finished socially and economically. Tell me that it’s difficult but that we’re going to make it.”

“It’s a depressing system,” said 17-year-old Ilona. If you come from a family “without money and without influence, you have four times fewer opportunities to realize your dreams.”

The Financial Times may have had the last word on the political future of de Villepin, who had been primping himself to become Chirac’s successor in next year’s presidential elections.

“Mr Villepin is not a tragic figure who is sacrificing his political career for the greater good. He’s simply a politician who has torpedoed one of the greatest reforms of contemporary French politics,” the august British daily concluded.

Mr. Villepin’s ill-conceived and poorly-executed reform was a first stab at changing the logic of French society. But instead of bringing the people along with him, he rammed the legislation down the throat of parliament in an up-or-down no confidance vote, and stiffed every sector of France’s vibrant civil society for good measure.

The real issue is opportunity. France long ago ceased to be an opportunity society and became an entitlement society.

There is no job growth because welfare state rules put so many restrictions on employers that they refuse to hire. (In France, the penalty for “economic firing” – called “downsizing” or “restructuring” in the United States – is a cash indemnity equal to two year’s salary.)

At the same time, young French men and women are not creating their own businesses, because small businesses are subject to similar firing restrictions. Add to that crippling social welfare taxes (well over 40 percent), and this makes the cost of creating new jobs and expanding growth prohibitively high.

Governments on the Left and the Right have tried to mitigate these structural deficiencies over the years by fiddling at the margins.  What France needs – and what no French politician has the guts to say out loud – is to scrap the entire system and start over. They need politicians with the vision and skills capable of triggering a national debate, not an aristocratic fiat.

Failing that, France will become an elegant theme park for wealthy tourists, where the biggest growth industry will be the police.

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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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