April 24, 2006


France: The Children's Hour (William Pfaff, May 11, 2006, NY Review of Books)

Over a month of demonstrations by French students, workers, and would-be workers have delivered a devastating blow to the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, which was forced to withdraw its new law meant to increase employment opportunities for young people lacking formal qualifications. Hundreds of thousands—the organizers say millions— have been in the streets of cities across the country. Students left their classes and blocked others from attending. Some universities and lycées shut down to prevent violence between striking students and those anxious to study for impending examinations. The Sorbonne's auditorium was temporarily occupied, and classrooms there and elsewhere trashed. These events have dominated the political scene. Foreign observers were waiting for the revolution.

All this activity was intended to force the withdrawal of a minor change in the French government's employment legislation, which mainly would have benefited the young people in the ghetto suburbs who last fall were rioting nightly and burning thousands of automobiles in outrage at their "exclusion." The scale of the affair has been grotesquely out of proportion to its ostensible purpose. Yet it has turned into a symbolic event of high significance. The protests became a challenge to a certain model of capitalist economy that a large part, if not most, of French society regards as a danger to national standards of justice—and, above all, to "equality," that radical notion which France is nearly alone in proclaiming as a national cause, the central value in its republican motto of "liberty, equality, fraternity."

Villepin surely had no notion of the consequences when he launched what seemed to him a small but constructive employment initiative, intended to loosen current inhibitions to job creation by encouraging the hiring of the unqualified young. Villepin's measure created a new "first-job contract" that would make it easier for employers to hire people for two-year trials, with the possibility of discharging them, without explanation, if they didn't work out (or if the employer no longer could afford them). Under the long-prevailing system, such dismissals were largely forbidden. [...]

The message of the mostly Muslim suburbs resembles the message of class conflict in the past—the demand for equality. The crucial difference is that the conflict is no longer one economic class against another, which was a purposeful conflict, but protest by those excluded for cultural and racial reasons (which money doesn't cure) from the larger society. The response to that exclusion can only be immigrant assimilation. This was understood and is not impossible, since France has always been more colorblind than any other country in Europe—assimilation for the French is a matter of language and culture. But whether the public response will be adequate remains to be seen; so does the degree to which the Muslim minority is prepared to be assimilated.

Villepin, in putting forward a change in the employment laws, inadvertently opened a fundamental question about what economic and social model should be adopted in France, just as two years ago the referendum on the European constitution posed disturbing questions about the political future of the European Union and the direction being taken by European capitalism.

The French obviously are not alone in their concerns. A kindred debate about "models" of capitalism persists in Germany, which has suffered recent labor unrest, connected to demands for wage sacrifices by workers, and in the European Commission itself, which since EU expansion to twenty-five members has, under the commission presidency of Portugal's José Manuel Barroso, tipped away from the established "European social model," with its emphasis on provisions for welfare, and toward Anglo-American market capitalism, provoking considerable controversy. Even Britain saw its biggest strike since the 1920s on March 28, when workers for local authorities protested against proposed changes in their pensions.

Two hundred years of failure for the French model and a hundred million dead isn't enough?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 24, 2006 12:42 PM

Well, OJ, most people are as good as they have to be. The French elite has done very well by doing wrong. They made WWI much longer and blooder then it should have been, and got rewarded at the end for it. They stuck it to the Germans and more than any other country, started WWII. Having caused WWII, they quickly surrendered and sat out the war. They got a spot on the U.N. security comm. for that act of bad faith. They have danced with the Soviet Union and Iraq, and were almost given control of U.S. policy at the last election. Why would they stop now?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at April 24, 2006 1:43 PM

It's not the ideology, it's just the right people weren't in place.

Posted by: Sandy P at April 24, 2006 2:39 PM

The excerpt is presented as if Pfaff agrees that French students were defending the indefensable. In fact, he calls them "canaries in the coal mine," harbingers of a growing resistance to a system of "savage capitalism" and globalization "that is already under attack from within." He concludes by quoting a French critic Philippe Grasset:
"Yet one sees perfectly well that the opposite is true: globalism is less and less the only way to go; it is not at all irresistible, never ceases to run into difficulties, and is more and more unpredictable. We no longer need to question whether these doubts about it are valid; it is increasingly apparent that they are true, and that their truth soon will be irresistible."

Posted by: Richard J at April 26, 2006 12:18 AM

Mr. J:

Yes, Pfaff is an anti-American Francophile, who doesn't get, even after two centuries of failure, that the French model is a murderous failure.

Posted by: oj at April 26, 2006 7:34 AM