I think the comedic value of the anti-French joke peaked sometime back in 2003, during those hot-blooded months of diplomatic wrangling before U.S. forces invaded Iraq. The French have grown increasingly cooperative since then, and tensions have begun to cool. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting worried. It’s almost April. My time at this University is drawing to a rapid close, and the thought of forfeiting this column space without taking a parting shot at the French was making me uneasy. Of course, that was earlier this month, before thousands of well-to-do French students began tearing Paris to pieces. Their object of contention: a law that makes it legal to fire people.

Sarah Royce

Well, there’s a little more to it, but not much. The bill relaxes France’s First Employment Contract, a provision that effectively guarantees permanent job security for citizens who work full-time. Under the proposed changes, employers will have a two-year window in which they can fire new workers without having to defend their reasoning in court. After two years, the old rules take effect, and French workers get to fall back on comfortable lifetime employment contracts and oversized pension packages.

It’s a fairly moderate reform, though you wouldn’t know it from the noisy reception they gave it in Paris. I took one look at the mayhem on CNN and was certain the Eiffel Tower had fallen. Cars were flipped on their sides and left to smolder in the streets. Storefront windows were shattered. Students rushed police barricades. The signs being hoisted in the streets seemed to suggest that a national birthright was under assault. Students apparently feel entitled to a steady paycheck as they do to clean water and military defense. Nevermind the French economy, which is literally sinking under the weight of its unemployed; these students would give up croissants before living one minute in a social compact that doesn’t bring jobs through a feeding tube.

After all, that’s the system that served their parents. It’s everything organized labor was marching for in 1968, the last time demonstrators took to the streets in such large numbers. Since then, France’s command economy has expanded at a suffocating pace. The French workforce now operates in a vacuum of competition. For those on the inside, the work weeks are brief and the wages are healthy. Summer vacations are often compensated and lavish pension plans give workers freedom to retire early. It’s a structure that institutionalizes laziness. It’s what Disney Land would look like if Karl Marx were in charge. As for the involuntarily unemployed, that unfortunate 10 percent residing outside the ivory walls of the worker state? C’est la vie.

The system has survived as a tacit covenant between the voting public and the political left: The French workforce gets its bed of roses and politicians keep their jobs. And despite their better judgments – the majority of French lawmakers recognize that excessive regulation is drowning the economy – French lawmakers continue to support costly interventions in the labor market. In the rare occasion that Parliament considers peeling away employment protections, French workers do what they do best – they strike.

But bowing to Big Labor won’t be as easy this time. The devastating riots that engulfed Paris’s poor, largely Muslim suburbs last year marked a sea change in French politics. Lawmakers now have an entirely new variety of working class on their hands. Most of these workers are of North African descent. They’re the children of the laborers France brought in by the thousands in the 1950s to help rebuild the country after World War II. They’re young, they’re poor and, because of France’s rigid naturalization requirements, few of them are citizens. As a result, many remain ineligible for the extravagant employment benefits France offers to full-time, naturalized workers. They’re France’s real proletariat, the workers the labor unions left behind.

That’s what is so ironic about the French brand of socialism. By denying foreign nationals citizenship while profiting off their labor, the French model is actually reinforcing inequality. Economic playing fields aren’t exactly even back here in the states, but at least we don’t have the audacity to call ourselves socialists.

Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu.

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