Monday, April 03, 2006

Progressive hypocrisy: Unemployment and the state of French politics

An update on the new French employment law and the protests against it -- which I've already looked at here, here, and here. According to the BBC, President Chirac has "vowed to enact a modified version of the legislation".

How modified? -- "[Chirac] pledged to shorten from two years to one the period in which youths under 26 could be fired -- and said employers would need a reason for the dismissal." But his decision has been "condemned" by unions and students, and it looks like a planned general strike will go ahead this week. And, of course, there will be more demonstrations.

If you click on the links to my previous posts above, you'll see that the new employment law left me somewhat ambivalent. With youth unemployment in France at 20 percent (40 percent in "France's poorest communities"), something needs to be done, perhaps something drastic, to deal with an obviously serious problem. However, it's not at all clear that a "law [making] it easier for employers to hire and fire people under 26" is the right something, and it's perfectly understandable that students and others who would be affected by the law would respond with anxiety and hostility.

But I think I'm with Chirac on this one (let me know if you think I'm way off). The modifications to the law seem quite sensible to me. They would prevent an employer from simply firing an employee under 26 at will. Whatever my general criticisms of Chirac, I think he does understand "the anxieties expressed by many young people across France" and I think his efforts "to defuse the situation" have been sincere. In addition, "has also told employers not to put the law into practice yet, as he wants to hold more talks with business leaders and trades unionists".

Not that the opponents of the law will back off. This is now a cause. Once the French are in the streets, it's awfully hard to get them out again.

And it's about more than the law itself. It's about France's decaying welfare state, the plight of its immigrant communities (some of which exploded in riotous anger just last November), its place in an increasingly globalized economy, and the state of its politics, particularly its reformist, progressive politics.

As Keelin McDonell put it last week in The New Republic, these protests expose "a French progressive movement on the brink of collapse," a movement that is astoundingly conservative in its opposition to any and all change to the status quo of the French welfare state, a movement that "has become intellectually arid and xenophobic". After all, just to take this case, neither students nor workers (nor their political representatives) have "put forward an alternate plan to boost employment and secure a place for France in the international economy". I understand their concerns about globalization and the free market, and I share some of them myself, but I'm not sure how opposition to the new employment law and, indeed, opposition to all market-oriented reforms can be in any way productive. It seems to me that these protesters would rather the international economy didn't exist, that they are living in some halcyon past that exists only in their imagination, in their own personal and political self-romanticization.

Which is all quite French. And a recipe for disaster. How else to explain youth unemployment at 20 percent, or at 40 percent? The fact is, the international economy does exist and France needs to find a way to be a part of it. If nothing else, what about that unemployment? Statistics are statistics, but these are real people without real jobs. What do the protesters -- what does the French left -- have to say to them? The protesters, the barricade-builders who revel in putting their crackpot theories into action on the streets, will ultimately return to their classrooms at the Sorbonne and the comforts of their leftist ideologies, but those 20 to 40 percent, many deeply entrenched in segregated immigrant communities, still won't have jobs.

The employment law may or may not have been ill-conceived, and it may or may not be the answer (it's likely just a small part of the answer), but Chirac at least understands that something beyond maintaining the status quo at all costs must be done. It's a shame that those who are set to strike and to continue to protest don't seem to get that. Which means that those who are most in need of help might not get what they need most -- hope, opportunity, a job.

Those out on the streets may consider themselves to be the progressive defenders of social justice struggling valiantly against the reactionary forces of capitalism, but mostly they are just embittered, hypocritical, and utterly self-interested conservatives in abject denial of reality.

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