The French way implodes

Mona Charen

11/11/2005 12:05:00 AM - Mona Charen

Through a combination of socialism at home and appeasement abroad, the French believed they had found a viable alternative to, in former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's phrase, "jungle capitalism," as practiced by you know who. Jacques Chirac was more direct, condemning "ultra liberal Anglo-Saxon" economic policies, while also famously boasting that France would anchor a European pole in a "multipolar" world, with American influence vastly reduced. With 300 French cities in flames, French pretensions lie singed and shriveled.

 By "ultra liberal" Chirac of course meant free market, not liberal in the American sense. American liberals are equivalent to European socialists. And French socialists have set the table for the current crisis. Yes, the rioters are all Muslim youths from North Africa and the Middle East. And the racism of French society may fuel the flames to some extent, but the most important factors in this story are economic. The French have accepted wave after wave of immigrants with no prospect of employing them. In the U.S., the unemployment rate among natives and immigrants is the same. Not so in France.

 The French have enacted all of the economic policies that liberals would like to see implemented in this country. So, for example, jobs are protected. If a French company employing more than 600 people wants to fire someone, it must endure administrative procedures that last an average of 106 days. Because it is so difficult to fire employees, French companies are less willing to take risks in hiring. This hurts young, inexperienced workers disproportionately. Once unemployed, 40 percent of French workers can expect to remain so for more than a year. Not only are jobs hard to find, but joblessness is softened by generous benefits. Unemployment benefits range from 57 to 75 percent of the worker's last salary and can last as long as three years (with a cap of 5,126 Euros per month).

 The French boast of (and American liberals drool over) France's 35-hour workweek. But French economic growth slowed to 0.1 percent in the second quarter of 2005 and is unlikely to reach 2 percent for the year. American economic growth, by contrast, was 3.8 percent in the first quarter of 2005. Payroll taxes are higher in France than in any of the other 30 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 Writing in The American Enterprise magazine, Olaf Gersemann estimates that per capita income in the U.S. now exceeds that of France by 40 percent. The French unemployment rate is more than 10 percent -- 21.7 percent among 15- to 24-year-olds, and reportedly as much as 40 percent among Muslim youths. Since the 1970s, Europe has created only 4 million new jobs. The U.S. has created 57 million in the same period. Some Europeans may be enjoying their short workweeks and lavish paid vacations, but many others, particularly immigrants, cannot find jobs at all.

 And welfare, while generous, does not quell the unrest -- it stokes discontent. Immigrants who cannot find jobs, particularly young males from traditionalist Muslim societies, need dignity as much or more than comfort. Yet French society, with its rigid socialist economy and intrusive state, lacks the engine that can provide jobs -- a vibrant private sector.

 But socialism is an insidious poison. The vast majority of French voters seem wedded to their government-supplied goodies -- failing to recognize that their economic and therefore social lives are unraveling because of that dependence. When they rejected the proposed EU constitution last summer, most French voters told pollsters they were worried about losing welfare benefits and trade protections.

 The cars aflame in French cities now underscore the dangers of economic stagnation. The French have imported a small army of socially, culturally and economically estranged young men. These Muslim men would have been difficult to assimilate under the best of circumstances. But in a sclerotic, socialist state, where the prospect of jobs and economic advancement is so remote, the task becomes titanic.

 So, Monsieur Jospin, which economic system deserves the prefix "jungle"?