The problem with France

I’ve only loosely been following the French protests over the proposed new employment law. Given my generally jaundiced view of the French system, I’ve seen the students as forces of reaction against a too-timid reform of labor law.

An impassioned letter in the Financial Times, however, gives me pause. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, from Swiss management school IMD, has reached boiling point on the issue:

There is no valid case to be made in support of French Prime Minister de Villepin’s first employment contract. I am totally in favour of far more flexible labour conditions and contracts and also of longer working hours, but I am definitely against picking on youth, among the most vulnerable and traumatised segments of French society. What de Villepin is doing is trying to show his machismo by bullying the weak. France is full, full, full of subsidised, molly-coddled, highly protected sectors throughout the labour force. This is what is responsible for the 24% youth unemployment in France and this is what needs to be addressed. The farmers, the huge government sector, the civil servants, who in France more often than not are highly uncivil, the transport “workers”, plumbers, pensioners, these are the people who need to be confronted. If de Villepin were to give the clarion call to dimantle these bastions of privilege, which are doing so much damage to France in general and French youth in particular, in order to open France to youth and to the future, then he would deserve indeed to be supported. As it is, by picking on youth, de Villepin is just a big repulsive snivelling bully; he deserves neither support, nor sympathy, but should be condemned for what he is: a cowardly bully.

I’m sure Lehmann is right. The kind of liberalization de Villepin intends might be right in the abstract, but by choosing what he saw (I’d guess) as a soft target, he neglected the far more important reforms. The puzzle is how, in the French context, the debate can move onto the terrain Lehmann suggests: liberalization that threatens so many overly protected interest groups. It’s hard to see any government figure having the courage, and no one even seems to be forcing the debate in the right direction.

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