The Chirac government committed the horrible gaffe, the dreadful faux pas, the unforgivable gaucherie–no wonder all those words are French–of trying to reform their labor laws just a little to help ease rampant unemployment. The result: As many as three million demonstrators marching through cities and towns across France and as far away as Réunion in protest. A friend sent me this little list of questions.
What are these French protests really all about?
Not much. In practical terms, the CPE–le contrat première embauche, the new employment law that would allow businesses in France to fire employees who are under 26 within their first two years on the job–won’t mean much. Almost a quarter of French people under the age of 26 are jobless already. They’ve been fired by a lousy economy.
The government claims relaxing the hideous web of laws that make it nearly impossible to fire a French worker will give more jobs to more people–who can then be fired to make room for more people who could also be fired. That’s a French solution. In fact, increasing the number of jobs would require an expanding economy, something France hasn’t had for years, partly because it’s impossible to fire anybody.
In principle, however, the protests are significant because they show the future of economic reform in Old Europe. Today’s French lesson: You cannot take back entitlements from people who have been told they’re entitled to them. Yet this tiny “reform” is a first step, as the protesters and the government both know.
They’re also about democracy–or the corruption of it by a truly cancerous political class, such as the one that has governed France since World War II. The problem is that no matter how people vote in regular elections, the ruling élite puts its own self-interests ahead of everything else, including ideology. Therefore, if you want to your vote to mean anything in France, you don’t cast a ballot, you cast a cobblestone. So what we’re seeing in Paris isn’t a demonstration. It’s more like a bad election.
However this particular contest won’t amount to a hill of haricots because the only people rioting are the usual suspects–kids and commies. The slacker set has been taught that among “the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man” is the God-given right to be incompetent without bothering to get a government job first. The CGT–a basket of backward unions–is the last bastion of communist and hardline leftist influence in France. Middle-class French people aren’t in the streets, except to go to work. Why should they care about laws protecting spoiled students? Yes, bus drivers have taken to the streets–but only because they’re driving busses.
Then who will gain from all this?
Not the protesters, because even if they win, eventually they lose.
The real targets of the demonstrators are Jacques Chirac, whose popularity rating is now perhaps higher in the U.S. than it is in France–20 percent–and Dominique de Villepin, who’s not doing much better. Chirac’s made himself even more despicable by doing a Kerry Waffle with the employment legislation: He signed it into law before saying the law needs to be changed and preventing it from taking effect. His protégé, Villepin, is despised because he’s an imperious political hack, an upper-class poseur who’s never run for office and who, in the manner of his hero, Napoleon, imposed the law without asking anybody outside the legislature. Many want to see scrappy Nicholas Sarkozy, the nemesis of both Chirac and Villepin, emerge victorious. If he does, by next year Chirac will be doing reunion gigs with Gorby.
It’s a relief though, isn’t it, that someone wants to reform things?
It’s a huge relief–to the Socialist opposition. Reform is essential if France is to avoid ruin. Everybody knows that. The Socialists are just glad they aren’t the ones trying to implement it. The last time they gave reform a shot, voters relocated their Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, so far outside the political mainstream that he was beaten by Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Yosemite Sam of French politics.
I feel very uncomfortable thinking of Chirac as the good guy in all this. Can you help me feel better?
Yes! Chirac is not a good guy. He’s a very old, corrupt guy who’s enraptured by a younger bad guy–Villepin–who supplies Chirac with huge amounts of bad advice. Chirac wants Villepin to be his successor and protector so he doesn’t have to face corruption charges when he leaves the Elysée next year. Villepin is definitely not a good guy. He does however have very good hair. His dendrites are totally external.
Do the French media get that they have a generation of spoiled brats on their streets?
No. The French press is far more fascinated by the nostalgic parallel with May 1968, back in the day when a demo was a demo, and by the current transient political drama, which of course looks a lot like farce. Le Monde today reports stronger demonstrations by the young, yet weaker strikes, no doubt because the CGT is growing old and tired. It’s a crazy Parisian paradox! Le Figaro can’t believe the demonstrators don’t believe they’ve already won, which is what the paper–and the UMP–very badly wants them to believe. Libération reports the demos have the UMP on the run, and they do.
Why are the cable-news stations carrying the protests live? Do Americans care as much about Paris as they do car chases in Los Angeles?
No. In fact, the cable nets are carrying the news from Paris precisely because there are no car chases in Los Angeles. If there were a car chase in L.A., they’d cut away from Paris faster than Shep Smith could say “Fox News Alert.”
When will this end?
We’re talking “French government” here, so surrender, however artfully disguised, can’t be far off. The French government has lost face so many times it no longer has a functioning head. In the coming months and years, there will be even more French demonstrations–by students, by Muslims, by farmers, by Muslim student farmers. The CGT will get involved if they think they can maneuver a leftist into power. But none of those demos will mean more than a temporary personnel crisis until the middle class chucks out les énarques–the French ruling class, including, at the moment, Chirac, Villepin, and Francois Hollande, the leader of the opposition Socialists, and most of rest of the upper crust.
When you see the words “Sixth Republic” in a French newspaper headline, that’s when it will end.
–Denis Boyles is author of Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese. He is presently working on a book about midwestern politics.