Things not working in France
The widespread riots over new labour laws in France threaten to tear the country’s social fabric apart. With talks between trade unions and the government seemingly going nowhere, it could become impossible for the French authorities to keep the protests from spilling over into university campuses and alienating even larger sections of society. It’s evident now that conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin acted in haste by seeking to replace years of social protection measures in the country overnight by deregulating the labour market. The controversial law that triggered the violent protests allows employers to fire workers younger than 26 without any explanation and very little notice during their first two years on the job. In other words, employees could hope for protection under a standard contract only after completion of this two-year period.
Mr Villepin’s move is not without justification, given that the old French routine is obviously getting the country nowhere. But the hasty enactment of the law and the government’s explanation — to counter job competition from emerging markets — seem to have irked French workers who find longer hours and lower pay on par with Asian economies unacceptable.
Many European governments face similar challenges today as they seek to reform their job markets for globalisation. If the French can’t seem to cope, it may have to do with their failure to realise that the problems they face are the result of decades of misguided social policies. What else could explain the appalling 24 per cent unemployment among the country’s under-25 workforce? That many of them are poor and belong to ethnic minorities only makes a mockery of social policies like France’s famous 35-hour week, high minimum wage and high unemployment benefits. It’s not clear if Mr Villepin, who makes no secret of his presidential ambitions and has staked his political career on labour reforms, will agree to modify the new law in any manner. What is clear though is that the issue will have a major impact on next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections.