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The riots of spring

March 21, 2006

IT'S SPRING, AND THE FRENCH are rioting again. This time, it's students and labor unions protesting a minor reform of the country's employment laws that was imposed to help solve the problems that spurred last fall's riots. If the protesters get what they want and the law is rescinded, the result will be continued high youth unemployment -- which will doubtless spur more riots. And that, Simba, is the Circle of Life in French politics.

The latest hubbub has been percolating since Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pushed a law through the National Assembly in February creating a new type of employment contract that would restrict generous job protections for the young workers who sign it. The controversy exploded over the weekend, when more than half a million protesters took to the streets and shut down the Sorbonne. Demonstrations were initially peaceful, but the largest march ended with violence and overturned cars -- frighteningly reminiscent of the riots that tore through the country's working-class immigrant suburbs last year.

The students get high marks for civic engagement but Fs in Economics 101. They are furious because the new law allows employers to fire without cause anyone under 26 who has signed the contract and been on the job less than two years. That might not seem revolutionary in the United States, but in France, workers who obtain long-term contracts are essentially guaranteed tenure after no more than six months. In order to fire them, employers must prove the dismissals are justified, plus pay extensive compensation -- and endure all the appeals that fired French workers are entitled to file.

It's little wonder that French businesses are reluctant to take on the burden of hiring new employees. The result is a persistent unemployment rate of 9.6%, and more than 20% for young people (for immigrants in the suburbs it's even worse, at up to 50%). De Villepin recognizes that the only way to change that is to reform the nation's rigid labor laws.

The students are right about one thing: The new law is discriminatory, creating a second class of young workers with less protection than their elders. A smarter response would be for the students to demand that job guarantees be loosened for workers of all ages. Instead, they are simply pushing for the same damaging job protections that allow older employees security at the expense of those seeking work.

France is having a harder time than other European nations adapting to a globalized economy, largely because the French would rather blame "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" (i.e., free markets) for their problems than examine their own self-defeating policies. De Villepin, who is paying a heavy political price for common sense, should hang tough. The youth labor law doesn't go far enough, but it's a start.

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