It's positively French

Posted: Mar 30, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

CNN's Kyra Phillips said Tuesday that the video of protesters facing police water cannons in Paris brought back "memories of Tiananmen Square." Mais, non. In 1989, outgunned Chinese students risked their lives in a quest for freedom and self-determination. Many paid with their lives, and few today would be happy with the outcome. In France, students brave water cannons secure in the knowledge that prime ministers almost always back down in the face of big strikes because that's what French prime ministers do.

In France, as in the United States, ambition trumps policy. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, de Villepin's expected rival in the 2007 presidential primary, decided to score some cheap political points rather than push for a policy consistent with his ideology. Sarkozy has called for suspending the contracts to allow time to negotiate with unions. That's crying uncle -- or oncle -- to tactics that should not prevail.

Bark laments: "There's going to be no debate about whether this law makes sense. The debate is going to be about: How do we get these kids off the street?" Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters Wednesday that the situation has people questioning France's "ability to reform so as to be competitive in the new world we're living in."

Meanwhile, critics fault de Villepin for mishandling the issue and not consulting union leaders first. Now de Villepin knows how it feels when the world demands that one man be perfect, even as his opponents resort to lawlessness and force to win their objectives.

These strikes show Old Europe digging its economic grave while clutching onto job-killing regulations, as the French choose unemployment over economic growth. The French have a saying: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) Hmmm. Maybe, things stay the same because they don't change.