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French madness

What's going on in France is just unfathomable to me, and I'm not even sure why.

I lived in France for almost three years, and I have a good sense of the people and their culture. On the one hand, there's nothing fundamentally surprising here. The French have always reacted negatively to even the suggestion that market-based reforms might be in the offing, no matter how modest.

Still, I just can't wrap my mind around the virulence of this current uprising. Here is American, we can't even agree on the wisdom of tenure in an academic setting. In France, tenure is a birthright. When you graduate and get that first job it's yours for life, for all intents and purposes. As Roger Simon points out, the thought of keeping one's first job for life would be infinitely depressing for most Americans, but it's a different culture over there, so let's just set that aside.

The problem with this system should be fairly obvious. French employers are understandably very picky when it comes to hiring people. Employers aren't allowed to "date," really -- they have to commit to a lifetime marriage based on a resume and a brief interview. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that the unemployment rate among French youths now exceeds 20%.

The French government doesn't want another summer like last one, with thousands of cars being torched nightly by disaffected, disenfranchised youth, so they proposed a fairly modest reform measure. The idea was to remove some of the disincentives for hiring French youth by allowing them to be hired on a provisional basis. For the first two years on the job (later bargained down to a single year) it would be easier (read "possible") to terminate employment for employees who simply weren't working out.

That didn't go over too well. French youths took to the streets in massive numbers, in riots that sometimes turned violent. Looking at the wire photos of these protestors, it's interesting how few of them look like the swarthy, North African rioters of last summer, for whom the joblessness rate is astronomical. Rather, these rioters are people who fully expect to be in the 80% who do find jobs, and dammit, they don't ever want to lose them for petty little reasons like incompetence or non-performance.

It's an astonishing spectacle, and a fairly depressing one. I've said it before and I'll say it again: France will either be forced to swallow some measure of economic reform from mainstream politicians or else risk the rise of a Le Pen-like figure. The protestors, whether they realize it or not, are working hard to realize the latter.

Across the Atlantic, we understand that American economic hegemony is not to be taken for granted, and that sooner or later the era of American dominance will end. For the time being, however, it seems that we need not fear any competition from Western Europe.


The French system is crazy. Germany is much like France. You can't get rid of anybody no matter what. And that is exactly what leads to the high unemployment.

On the other hand, we could learn a lot from their vacation periods. We should all get more than ten days of vacation during the year. Yes there might be a drop in productivity, but four weeks of vacation for every worker might actually have the effect of increasing productivity because people would be more relaxed and would get less burned out at their jobs. Maybe. I'd like to try it. I could use the extra time off. I could use a week off right now, actually, but I'm saving my vacation time and going away in May.

To France. Seriously. I'm listening to Berlitz tapes every day in the car to and from work. We'll be spending five or six days in Provence, then four days in Paris. I hope the riots are over by then.

yeah, cool out Frenchies...I am hankering to take a trip there asap.

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