Imagine riot police had to be sent into Harvard to quell an enormous student protest. OK, that's not terribly hard to imagine. But instead of the usual reasons for prosperous students to get all uppity - gay rights, antiwar hoopla, a strong math requirement - imagine that Harvard students rioted over the possibility that they could ever be fired from their first jobs.
Well, that's pretty much what happened over the weekend at the Sorbonne, the creme de la Brie of French education. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the leader with the most important hair in Europe, pushed through a law which says that employers don't have to give lifetime job security to job applicants under the age of 26. Seriously. For the first two years of what the French call the First Employment Contract, employers can fire you if you don't do your work satisfactorily or if they can't afford to keep paying you. Of course, if you make it past those first two years, the smothering mothering of the crapulent French Au Pair State kicks back in and you never again have to worry about getting fired. You would have to be an on-the-job rapist or serial killer to get sacked. Even using the wrong salad fork at the company bistro wouldn't do it.
France passed the law because its economic flexibility makes Dick Cheney look like a yoga master by comparison. Until this latest dip of the French baby toe into economic reform, employers had little choice but to offer open-ended employment contracts that amounted to "employment for life." Even the few exceptions to the rule require endless legal battles that may end in the employer being fined and forced to reinstate the employee with back pay. This is a great system if you are already employed (and care more about enjoying cafe-au-laits and endless vacations then you do about the long prosperity and posterity of your civilization). But if you are young, unemployed or (shudder) an employer, this is a disaster of epic proportions.
Just imagine you own a small company. How eager would you be to hire someone - anyone! - if you knew that you had to carry him or her forever? Never mind all the perks you are required to lavish on employees.
Every sane economist understands that this is an untenable system. Unemployment among French workers under the age of 26 runs at about 23 percent, and it's higher than 50 percent in immigrant-heavy suburbs. Last year's "youth riots" were widely seen as a protest against the lack of economic opportunity. And while surely this is partly a convenient retreat into socialist dogma, who can doubt that unemployment was a significant factor?