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?
So parliament decided to add un petite peu of flexibility. Of course, they couldn't call it "flexibility" because the French consider that a code word for capitalism run amok or "Americanization." And what greater hell is there than Americanization? After all, between 1970 and 2003, America produced 59 million jobs. France, Germany and Italy put together managed to create fewer than 18 million jobs over the same period - and nearly half of that came from the demographic injection of the East German economy.
America, according to French politicians, journalists and intellectuals, is an economic state of nature. But in 2004, according to economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, only 13 percent of unemployed American workers couldn't find jobs in 12 months of looking. In France, 42 percent of unemployed workers couldn't find jobs within 12 months. (In Germany the number was 52 percent, and in Italy it was 50 percent.)
In response to the hint of "flexibility," students at the Sorbonne rioted with the aid of France's powerful labor unions. Fifty-eight percent of French voters now believe the First Employment Contract should be repealed.
The Sorbonne takeover is the most interesting and revealing part of the story because these are the best students France has to offer. In other words, these kids should have the least trouble finding work. But they're revolting because they understand that France isn't an egalitarian society - French propaganda notwithstanding. It is a system designed to lavish job protections, perks and, most of all, the French "lifestyle" on the upper-middle class. France pretends to be a great civilization, but in reality it wants to be an Epcot Center attraction, a "FranceLand" where everything is comfortable and protected. Liberating the job market, even a tiny bit, threatens a system designed to keep the French upper crust from working too hard and to keep those brown-skinned and lower-class slobs out of the best jobs and cocktail parties.
What should be so frightening about this episode for Americans is that it shows how even the best and brightest can become addicted to welfare.