Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Paris demonstrations

My apologies for using such a graphic image to start this post, but I want to make that point that people are getting injured in Paris while protesting a seemingly mild proposal by Dominique de Villepin. And whatever one's view on the CPE, I just don't see how it is being interpreted by so many as this oppressive measure which will engender discrimination against the young.

I know that Karibu has touched on this issue in some recent postings, but I find the demonstrations in Paris to be extremely troubling. Organized protests have a distinguished history in France (think 1968), but any sort of valid reasoning behind millions of people effectively shutting down an entire country today has escaped me. In Belarus, people are risking their lives to protest a rigged election by a dictator who routinely violates their civil rights. To me, that's a cause worth fighting for. To some Belarussians, it's worth dying for. But, taking to the streets, burning cars, throwing rocks at police, shutting down universities and high schools, and disrupting the public transit system in protest of Villepin's proposed employment law seems to fall short of rationality.

Maybe I'm biased in my opinion because workers in the US don't have contracts. In a free market economy, contracts and overly generous social safety nets don't provide the flexibility to sustain growth (think General Motors and its infamous Jobs Bank). France's social welfare model and rigidity in it's view on reform has created very high unemployment. New jobs created tend to be very low skilled. The sense of possibility and optimism among France's youth (especially poor, immigrant youth as witnessed by the riots last year) is ever diminishing. Hopelessness. Some estimate 25% youth unemployment nationwide and TWICE that figure in the banlieues.

I want to give the students and unions organizing these protests the benefit of the doubt. However, they are protesting (some rioting) to protect a status quo that simply does not jive with the realities of an open European Union. If you have a job, it's easy to see why you would want to keep these social welfare models alive and running. But, for the less fortunate, those not graduating from the grandes ecoles, jobs are scarce because employers are reluctant to hire due to the immense costs associated with those positions.

I certainly agree that Villepin erred severely by not coordinating his overhaul efforts with the unions, students and constituents. I do, however, give him credit for attempting to make some small change to stimulate growth in a flat economy. I still have a hard time believing that all of this is simply in response to a modest proposal such as he put forward. Germany has been facing the same issues, and similarly has incredibly powerful labor unions, but has somehow managed to put forth even stronger initiatives without experiencing the severe backlash witnessed in France. What does all of this mean for the future of France? Maybe it's the beginning of a change for the better, and these demonstrations are just frustrations with the growing pains of living in a global economy.


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