Politics & Policy

Economic Nonsense

Paris students march again--backwards.

In 1968 they ruined the hitherto famous universities of France–now, their sons and daughters are ruining the most modest attempts to repair the nation’s decaying economy. In the process, as in 1968, they are destroying their own future. They are France’s future, and its most reactionary group–the students.

Nadjet Boubakeur, a 26-year-old history major explains: “Our revolt is not to get more. It’s to keep what we have.” Indeed, graffiti at the Sorbonne proudly proclaims “We will get only what we know how to take.”

The latter claim is more appropriate to gangsterism, but let us concentrate on the former, which largely explains the enthusiastic support the students are receiving from the usual suspects: the Socialist, Communist, and Green parties, and groups much further to the leftist fringes of the universe, all far more influential in France than anywhere else in Europe west of Belarus.

The immediate reason for the students’ outburst is the contrat première embauche (CPE–roughly translated as “first job contract”), Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s idea for reducing France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, which now stands at 9.6 percent, the second worst in Western Europe after Germany’s 10-percent plus. The law would allow employers the discretion to fire new employees within their first two years on the job. Currently, any worker who is fired must be paid an enormous severance, no matter what the reason for the dismissal.

Outside of France, that may be seen as economic literacy 101, but France’s brightest youth, as the above-mentioned slogan demonstrates, prefer the status quo–namely, 23 percent of those between 18 and 25 years of age being unemployed (a number that rises to 50 percent in the majority-Muslim suburbs). As for the older voters, they seem to share their kids’ economic notions: 68 percent of them oppose the CPE. Not surprisingly, since they enjoy the status quo: mostly government jobs, retirement before 60, enormous pensions, 905 hours of work time per year (compared to 945 in Germany and 1,213 in Britain), and at least four months paid vacation a year–all this if they have a job. And since the jobless are a minority, the status quo is democratically supported.

The problem is that the jobless are young, and can only afford to stay unemployed because the shrinking number of overtaxed employed pay for unsustainable social benefits, covered by huge budget deficits that are equally unsustainable.

This is a revolt against reality, and in France it may well succeed, as it did in similar circumstances in 1994, when it brought down another timidly conservative government. It is also, to various extents, characteristic of a Europe that cannot deal with the threats to its identity represented by both the unelected bureaucracy of the European Union in Brussels from above and the unassimilable, but fast growing, Islamic minorities from below. To that may be added demographic decline everywhere except in France, where a dysfunctional but assertive Muslim immigrant community provides growing numbers of youths. It is no surprise that French bookstores are now full of pessimistic books predicting the decline of the country.

Politically, and when they vote rather than demonstrate, French youth are divided along educational lines. The more educated (if that is the term for those who have already produced over a million Euros in damage at the Sorbonne) support the Left–usually the farthest Left (Greens, Trotskyites) rather than the Socialists. Those with only a high school education or less often support the anti-immigrant National Front on the Right.

One of the results of the “democratization” of higher education following 1968 was an explosion in the quantity, at the expense of quality, of university graduates. Not surprisingly, when French universities continue to churn out psychologists, sociologists and “philosophers,” the percentage of graduates between 30 and 35 years of age who find a managerial job has declined from 70 in 1970 to 54 in 2002. Considering the economic illiteracy of French students (and the French public at large), that is natural. Who would seriously consider hiring someone who thinks that, since French multinationals made 84-billion Euros in profits last year, “[The CPE] is a politician’s trick to try to convince us that we need to make sacrifices so those companies can become even richer,” as one 22-year-old student asked? While the country sinks under the burden of multitudes of postmodern followers of Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, there are not enough plumbers or electricians. To the contrary, the mythological menace of the “Polish plumber” ready to invade France was a key element in last year’s vote against the EU constitutional treaty.

What France is going through, and what the student demonstrations exemplify, is a desperately reactionary opposition to the laws of economics and globalization–it is a mass rejection of reality.

Michael Radu is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and co-chairman of its Center on Terrrorism, Counter-terrorism, and Homeland Security.

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