Debra J. Saunders

See how low the mighty have fallen. In France, more than a million students have demonstrated in the streets, riots have erupted and strikers have shut down public-transportation systems throughout the country. Now, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who worked so hard to undercut President Bush's popularity before the Iraq war, has reaped the same unhappy job-approval rating -- 37 percent, according to Le Journal du Dimanche -- as Dubya.

Sadly, de Villepin is in trouble because he is doing the right thing for his country. Last November, prolonged rioting by largely unemployed Muslim and Arab youth served as a wake-up call to President Jacques Chirac that he had better do something to increase employment in Parisian suburbs. De Villepin was determined to reduce one of the highest youth-unemployment rates in Europe -- 22 percent, according to the French government, but a whopping 40 percent for the least skilled.

De Villepin introduced a reform of the "first employment contract" (referred to by the French acronym CPE) to allow private employers to fire workers under the age of 26 during the first two years they are on the job without cause.

Opponents charge that the measure would allow employers to dispose of young workers like "Kleenex." The current system, however, has turned potential employees into underemployed deadweights.

Dennis Bark, a Hoover Institution fellow who spends a great deal of time in France, explained that, after six months, employers cannot fire workers without cause, but: "If you have cause and (an employee) takes you to court, you're very likely to lose the case, even if you're right." Employers then often have to pay a year's salary to someone who no longer works for them.

"The main reason why French unemployment is so high is the highly rigid labor market, with almost nonexistent labor mobility," Bark noted. "What de Villepin is trying to do by passing this law is to give employers an incentive to hire people they otherwise may not hire."

Most observers believe the prime minister will back down because the demonstrations, strikes and violence are hurting the French economy. It doesn't help that polls show that the French public opposes the reform. Even in America, some have lionized the demonstrators.

Debra J. Saunders

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