French workers don’t work very much because the law guarantees a 35-hour workweek, generous vacation and plenty of days off. If they don’t work very hard, there’s not much an employer can do about it because the law makes workers almost impossible to hire.
The result is that French employers don’t hire much and they especially don’t hire many young people because, if the new hires don’t work, the employer is stuck with them for a long time. Thus, the youth jobless rate is 23 percent and in the heavily Arab and African suburbs twice that and it’s been like that for about 30 years.
A timid attempt at a solution is a recently enacted law, the First Job Contract, and it allows employers to fire workers under 26 their first two years on the job. It won’t solve the problem but it’s a start. More flexible and functional labor markets elsewhere in Europe mean France can’t continue to stagnate.
But French university students and public employee unions don’t see it that way. They have taken to the streets in noisy and disruptive demonstrations, demanding the law be repealed and if it is not threatening nationwide strikes and boycotts this week.
One salient point about the protesters: The students, because they attend France’s top universities and specialty schools, will have jobs when they graduate. The members of the public employee unions have jobs already.
The beneficiaries of this law, the idle Arab and African youths who crowd the dreary Arab suburbs, have not been heard from and their plight has been ignored by the better-off protesters.
The First Job Contract has been caught up in political sparring between Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose idea it was, and Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom plan to run for president next year. Sarkozy was praised for his stern response to last year’s car-burning riots — by, as it happens, unemployed young people. Whether his response to a national shutdown by unions and students will be as stern will have to be seen.
There is a lot not to like about the way the Contract law was passed — rammed through without debate in the wee hours as an amendment to another law. But it was duly passed by the National Assembly and the Senate.
If protesters taking to the streets can force the retraction of a legally enacted law, before it has even been given a chance to work, France has far graver problems than just youth unemployment.