Vive la France! Vive le 'joblessness'?
This spring's mass protests by French students are not a repeat of 1968, which felled the presidency and reshaped society. That was a throwing off of their parents' values to embrace new ones. This time, students are siding with their elders, defending outmoded lifelong job security in an era of global competition. If only they could muster the spirit, if not the letter, of '68.
Today's world economy demands a fresh approach to work, including a flexible labor force. Yet young French people - and many other Europeans - want nothing to do with the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" model, which they feel is heartless. Pulling their fluffy duvets over their heads, they'd rather dream of the jobs-for-life their parents enjoyed since the end of World War II.
What's roused them is a law that attempts to lower youth unemployment, at nearly 23 percent, by making it easier to lay off young new hires.
Because businesses face high hurdles in firing, they're cautious about hiring. To stimulate hiring, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin spearheaded the new law, which allows employers to fire at will anyone under age 26 who has been on the job for less than two years.
The law was a response to last year's riots of youths in France's immigrant suburbs. But it's caused a backlash, with students and unions calling the law discriminatory and condemning its lack of job security. They demand it be rescinded, and plan a national strike on Tuesday.
One could brush the demonstrations aside as typical French protests - practically a rite of spring in la république. But they point to an overall resistance that will make economic and social reform that much harder in the future.
Each year of delayed reform will only prolong the sluggishness of the French economy and high joblessness. According to an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development index that measures restrictive job environments, French job inflexibility is nearly 15 times higher than in the US, where workers can expect to change jobs six times in their career. The US jobless rate is less than 5 percent, while in France it hovers near 10 percent.
Slow growth and high unemployment is not limited to France, and European countries are grappling with how to reform expensive social systems and restrictive labor practices without provoking unrest.
One model is Denmark, which now puts a time limit on unemployment benefits, but invests significantly in training the jobless. This has halved the Danish jobless rate to less than 5 percent, pushing people off the dole and into work. Their "flexicurity" system isn't cheap, but Danes are working, and fewer than 10 percent worry about job security.
In France, Mr. Villepin never bothered to explain or sell the new law, which includes job training and help with housing - things students say they want. He pushed it through the national Assembly without debate.
That's no way to build a consensus for a change that really should apply to all age groups, and not just those under 26. Meanwhile, the students of France need to brush up on their logic lessons. Is job security at all costs really better than no jobs?