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France: The Issue behind the Barricades

by : Carl Bloice
Sunday April 9, 2006 - 03:49
1 comment

By Carl Bloice

Boy, those students sure have a lot of people in a tizzy. From the slightly left of center of the political spectrum all the way to the far right, pundits and politicians are outdoing each others to declare that something horrible is going on in the streets of France. At the former end, the students are being roundly ridiculed as lazy elitists, and on the far right, the whole French nation is being characterized as crazy. Some of the drivel passed on by the New York Times illustrates the first; the second is reflected in a headline on a rightwing website that asked why the French would rather riot than work?

The demonstrators, wrote Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson, are suffering from "the illusion that if they march long enough and burn enough cars they can prevent unwanted change."

Post columnist Steven Pearlstein pontificated, "Rather than supporting the reforms that might generate more jobs and more income," the protesters "have bought into the nostalgic of a France that once was, but can never be again."

But it’s not all sound and fury signifying nothing, either in the streets of Lyon or the columns of U.S. newspapers. There is a real issue here. The U.S. (and some of the European) media choose not to recognize it and insists on dissing the demonstrators and the French labor unions. But the people see it. That’s why the French people support the protestors, as do a lot of people elsewhere in Europe and beyond. This isn’t just a dispute over the silly oxymoronic proposition that you can fight unemployment by making it easier to fire people. The students have challenged the holy grail of contemporary runamok capitalism: "reform."

The government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin introduced a reform of the "first employment contract" (referred to by the French acronym CPE) to allow private employers to fire workers under the age of 26 without cause during the first two years they are on the job. The essence of reform is something called "labor market liberalization." Simply put, for the "market system" to move forward working people are going to have to give up some of the gains they have made over the past century in wages, working condition and employment security, some of which they have come to take for granted. These changes, it is argued, are unavoidable if market economies are to survive, and the government is the agent to bring them about.

It is generally acknowledged throughout Western Europe that such power of dismissal is one thing that distinguishes the capitalist regime there and the one in the United States. Associated Press writer Angela Charlton got it right when she observed that "In much of Europe, the idea that a company can dismiss workers just because profits are sagging is unacceptable, an affront to modern values." She correctly notes that: "In the United States and Britain, young people frequently jump from job to job. To dismiss an employee, companies can often just say, ’You’re fired’."

"Yet," wrote Charlton, "economists say that even if the American model, where layoffs are common, would never fly here, reforms to Europe’s labor laws are crucial to the continent’s economic health." She doesn’t indicate which "economists" she’s been talking to, but rest assured there are economists in France who wouldn’t agree. There are lots of economists who also wouldn’t agree that "The battle in France over a new labor law is just the loudest and latest sign that the European system is ailing." In fact, they would probably say just the opposite is true; that the struggle in the parliament and the streets is a sign that the situation is healthy because the people who would be adversely affected are resisting this relentless drive to produce ever more economic inequality.

The question of how to "cure" the "ailing" European system, Charlton writes with breathtaking pomposity, "is prompting soul-searching and underscoring divisions across the continent. At stake is Europe’s vision of itself: Is it the world’s epicenter of enlightened ideas, or an economic heavyweight? Can it be both?" Does she mean an enlightened idea like the idea that the richest economies in the world ought to be able to provide some measure of employment security and protection against arbitrary dismissal for young people, whose knowledge and skills are indispensable? An enlightened idea that young people entering the workforce should not be treated, in the view of the students, like facial tissue?

No one should be fooled that the French business class and the conservative government are concerned here for the fate of the unemployed youth in immigrant communities, whose marginalization produced violent street convulsions last year. It’s just a ploy, on par with the demagogic assertions from the political right that the current campaign in our country against undocumented workers is motivated by concern for unemployed African American youth. The French government is pushing the new labor law because the bosses want it. They see a chance to reap greater profits from their greater freedom to dismiss and to discipline workers. If they thought they could get away with it they would be pressing for the same sacking power over all workers, regardless of age. The French establishment targeted young worker with this "reform" because they thought they could get away with it. If they had their druthers the eradication of job protections would extend to everybody who works for a wage.

Workplace "reform" is even further advanced in Australia, where a new law called "Work Choices" decimates collective bargaining, replacing it with a new system of individual contracts. The measure allows trading off vacation time for higher pay and exempts companies with less than 100 employees from any unfair dismissal laws. One union leader has called the new labor law "the most vicious and draconian" legislation the country has even seen.

Taking measure of the U.S. media’s response to the French protests, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently noted that, "while reporters and pundits are sure it’s a simple matter of economics, not everyone is convinced." The media watchdog went on to quote economist Mark Weisbrot who wrote recently that "The idea that labor protections are the cause of European unemployment is part of an overall myth that Europeans would benefit from a more American-style economy. "The U.S. economy is said to be more competitive, yet we are running a record trade deficit of more than 6 percent of GDP, and the European Union is running a trade surplus," continued Weisbrot, "The U.S. economy is supposedly more dynamic, but French productivity is actually higher than ours. Their public pensions, free tuition at universities, longer vacations (4-5 weeks as compared with 2 weeks here), state-sponsored daycare, and other benefits are said to be unaffordable in a ’global economy.’ But since these were affordable in years past, there is no economic logic that would make them less so today, with productivity having grown—no matter what happens in India or China."

Actually, there is no reason to think that in today’s world higher productivity and greater ability to compete on the world market will automatically result in improvements in the lives of working people. What it can be counted upon to do is to increase profits and exacerbate the steadily growing economic inequality in contemporary capitalism. The rich are getting richer at a much faster rate than any improvement in the lives of working people.

"By any reasonable standard, the last few years have been bad ones for most people’s paychecks," wrote David Leonhardt in the New York Times (April 5). "The average hourly wage of rank-and-file workers — a group that makes up 80 percent of the work force — is slightly lower than it was four years ago, once inflation is taken into account. That’s right: Most Americans have taken a pay cut since 2002." So much for U.S.-style employment reforms.

As the protests in France wore on and it became evident that the new labor law was probably dead in the water, the line of its supporters began to change. Like Democrats arguing that the war in Iraq was justified but bungled, they began pouring criticism on the head of poor Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin, accusing him of screwing up a chance to do something good. "The slow- motion collapse of the French government’s attempt to free up youth employment law is a serious setback to labour market liberalization in Europe," declared the editors of the Financial Times (April 5). "But if this marks the start of a proper debate about the need for reform in France it will still be possible to salvage something valuable from this debacle.

"What has failed so spectacularly over the past few weeks is not liberalization itself but a political methodology of reform. Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, rammed reform through parliament as if he were leading a charge of the Imperial Guard. Jacques Chirac, the president, maintained an Olympian detachment from controversy far too long, so by the time he intervened it was already too late.

"The lesson French reformers should take away from this is not that labour market reform is political suicide, but that it cannot be conducted in such an arrogant manner."

AP’s Charlton chimed in, "Protesters over the jobs law are as upset by how Chirac and his government have handled the crisis as by the legislation that sparked it. As they have done with unpopular reforms over the past two decades, French leaders pushed this one through without explaining it first to the people it would affect."

Much of the media attack on the French workers and students has centered on the question of whether there should be strikes and street demonstrations at all. Most of the outraged commentators are big hypocrites on this question. Such political protests are bad when they involve students and workers in Paris or immigrant rights campaigners in Los Angeles, but are to be celebrated when they are against governments they don’t approve of or involve any of their favorite color-coded "revolutions." This also reflects a skewed view of democracy. If the polls are to be believed, most French people support the stance of the demonstrators, and the government that rammed through the "reform" is on the way out in the next election.

If it comes to pass that the awful employment "reform" is ditched, it will be a victory not only for its opponents in France but for working people everywhere. The workers and students have once again demonstrated the vitality of the ideas upon which the French republic was born: justice, equality and solidarity. We can all be glad they stood on the front lines of the resistance to neo-liberal globalization.

Times’ correspondent Elaine Sciolino wrote that "The contrasts are apparent on the campus here. Banners predict nothing less than the fall of France’s center- right government and the inevitable triumph of collective progress over individualism." She went on rather dismissively to report: "But there is also guitar playing, soccer ball kicking and sun tanning to be done." On the day that three million people took to the streets across France, I was talking to a young Frenchman (by way of Central Africa) who said he had received a call that day from a friend in Paris who reported he had demonstrated all day, went home, took a long bath and went out for a good meal. "We French as very political," my acquaintance said. "But we like to live too."

Get it?

— -

Carl Bloice is a journalist based in San Francisco.



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> France: The Issue behind the Barricades
Sunday April 23 - 08:41 - Posted by 4bed6216c7a85236...

Mr. Bloice: Excellent reporting on the French labor protests. Wonderful that you and Fair.org have underscored the ignorance of American mainstream "journalists" and their contempt for the French protesters. Keep up the fine work! Sincerely — Daniel Birnbaum, Paris







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