Craig Smith of the New York Times opined on Sunday that the anti-CPE movement roiling French society and politics is a sign that much of Europe, and France in particular, remains devoted to a quasi-socialist ideal. -- [W]hile most of the world struggles to cope with the shifting threats and opportunities of an increasingly global economy . . . [f]ew French people say they want a major change, arguing that their approach, cumbersome and costly as it may be, makes for a healthier, more humane society. -- After all, France is not doing so badly, Smith noted: [T]he country continues to draw large amounts of foreign direct investment -- in 2003, it received more than the United States, Britain, Germany, or Japan, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. -- The organization also ranked France at the top in terms of productivity -- economic output per hour worked -- among the Group of 7 industrialized nations in 2004. -- The World Health Organization rated the French health care system the best of any of its members in 2000. -- For many people, the changes [represented by the recent introduction of the CNE and the CPE, explained below] also represent a betrayal by the French state, according to Smith. Ever since the French Revolution, he wrote, with considerable exaggeration, the state has been expected to ensure equality among its citizens and protect the rights of its lower classes -- even though it continues to be controlled by the social elite. -- That the New York Times considers ensuring equality among citizens and protecting rights to be a quasi-socialist ideal is revealing....
FRENCH UNREST REFLECTS OLD FAITH IN QUASI-SOCIALIST IDEALS
By Craig S. Smith
New York Times
April 9, 2006
Section 1, Page 8
PARIS -- Standing amid the chaos of the protests here this week, Omar Sylla, 22, tried to explain why the French are so angry about what seems to many people like such a small thing: the French government's attempt to loosen labor laws a bit by allowing employers the right to fire young workers without cause during a trial period on the job.
Even after President Jacques Chirac promised to shorten the period to one year from two, the protests continued, and French students and unions have vowed to keep demonstrating until the law is repealed.
"We need less precariousness, not more," said Mr. Sylla, the son of immigrants from Ivory Coast, who still lives with his parents in a government-subsidized apartment in a working-class suburb of Paris.
Mr. Sylla said he had searched for years for a job before finding work about a month ago as a baggage handler at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. Even then, he said, he only got the job because his sister works at the airport and pulled strings on his behalf.
But Mr. Sylla could secure only a three-month contract, with the promise of a six-month contract to follow if he did well. After that, he said, he will be on the street again, looking for a job.
"We only want to work," he muttered, as younger men in hoods charged past toward a confrontation with riot police. The demonstration soon deteriorated into flying bottles, stones and tear gas and clubs.
France's government has argued that the hotly contested new labor law will encourage companies to hire more young people, giving them a chance to prove themselves and land permanent jobs.
But opponents say the new measure will just make it easier for employers to hire cheap, disposable labor and keep young people like Mr. Sylla turning in an unsteady netherworld of partial employment.
That may sound like basic market economics to Americans, but while most of the world struggles to cope with the shifting threats and opportunities of an increasingly global economy, much of Europe, and France in particular, remains devoted to a quasi-socialist ideal.
Few French people say they want a major change, arguing that their approach, cumbersome and costly as it may be, makes for a healthier, more humane society.
Bad as France's recent unrest has been, for example, some people argue that it has never reached the level of violence seen during periods of unrest in American cities. A more equitable social welfare system could be one reason, they say.
France's defenders argue that its great successes are overlooked; the country continues to draw large amounts of foreign direct investment -- in 2003, it received more than the United States, Britain, Germany, or Japan, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.
The organization also ranked France at the top in terms of productivity -- economic output per hour worked -- among the Group of 7 industrialized nations in 2004.
The World Health Organization rated the French health care system the best of any of its members in 2000.
"We are not ready to give it up," said Sylvie Goulard, a political science professor at France's Center for International Studies and Research. "The only thing is, we cannot afford it in this form."
France's biggest problem has been persistent and high unemployment, particularly among the country's new minorities, which include people like Mr. Sylla.
French society is far more tightly regulated than American society, and for most people the worker-employer relationship is defined by one of more than a dozen kinds of contract. The contracts, meanwhile, refer to a larger body of labor laws and collective bargaining agreements that have been developed through decades of negotiation among France's unions, its employers, and its government.
The legal protections and generous benefits afforded under the multilayered labor laws and contract agreements have made companies reluctant to take on new workers.
Many companies prefer instead to hire young people on short-term contracts of up to 18 months to avoid giving them the full benefits and job protections due permanent employees.
But short-term contracts cause employers other problems: companies can only offer the same employee two such contracts in a row, after which they must wait a period before hiring the person again. And firing workers hired under the contracts is prohibited except in cases of gross misconduct. Employers must also pay short-term workers a "precariousness premium" of 10 percent of their wages.
Worse for employers, because the short-term contracts are legally only intended for temporary jobs, companies run the risk of an employee's declaring that the contract has been abused and demanding that he or she be reclassified as a permanent employee, making them expensive and hard to get rid of.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin intended to align the law with reality by giving employers a simpler and more legally sound way to hire young workers on a trial basis without immediately exposing companies to the costly benefits and protections that make hiring and firing in France so daunting.
First he created the "new employment contract," which gives companies with 20 employees or fewer the right to fire new workers without cause during their first two years on the job. When it met only moderate resistance, he introduced the "first employment contract," which was identical except that it could be used by all companies and applied only to employees 25 or younger.
That woke people up.
The French youth, angry at being singled out, quickly built a nationwide protest movement, and the unions have fallen into formation behind them.
"For the employees concerned, these contracts effectively annul the collective bargaining agreements during this new legal trial period, and that is something very new in French law and very shocking for the unions," said Isabelle D'Aubenton, a lawyer who helps companies navigate French labor laws.
The laws defining the contracts represent two steps backward from the secure and benevolent working environment that the French have labored so long to create.
For many people, the changes also represent a betrayal by the French state. Ever since the French Revolution, the state has been expected to ensure equality among its citizens and protect the rights of its lower classes -- even though it continues to be controlled by the social elite.
"The role of the state isn't to liberalize the market, but, on the contrary, to make sure that workers are taken care of," said Jean-Daniel Levy, a director at the polling company CSA. "In France, what we ask for is not that the state withdraw, but that it be as present as possible."
The fact that someone has the right to fire a worker or that workers serve at someone else's pleasure resonates uncomfortably with absolute monarchy, some experts say.
"There remains in the French imagination a sense of the sans-culotte against the castle," said Philippe d'Iribarne, author of French Strangeness [Etrangeté française (Seuil, 2006)]. "It's tied to the national mythology."
"In the American imagination, the relationship between a worker and employer is that of a supplier and a client," Mr. d'Iribarne said. "It's normal for there to be a trial period during which the supplier must prove to a new client that he can deliver."
But he said the French do not share that vision.
"In France, when people work," he said, "they say they have a 'situation,' which they expect to endure for life."