The French pride themselves on their intellectual culture, and as intellectuals sometimes do, they have managed to produce a paradox from which they appear to have no exit. As the French man in the street also has a habit of doing, he has taken to protest en masse because no one knows how to find a way out. What we have seen on display in recent weeks is the profound disconnect between the French political elite and the French people, who find that they have few other ways of getting the attention of their leaders.
In the past weeks, French students, their parents and numerous others have taken to the streets again to protest what appears to be a reasonable attempt at a solution to the intractable problem of French unemployment. As many as two million people have been on the march through the streets of major French towns on any given day. French unemployment figures hover at 10 percent for the general work force, up to 25 percent for French youth, and close to 50 percent for young French immigrants of Arab descent.
One very troubling consequence of these facts is the total lack of integration into the workforce of young first and second Arab immigrants to France. Their alienation found expression in last fall's car in the French suburbs last fall, in which young immigrants burned thousands of cars, attacked government buildings and caused more mayhem than France has seen since the student riots of 1968.
Now, one does not normally expect constructive thinking from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the man who as foreign minister presided over the debacle in 2002 when he steered French foreign policy on a direct coalition course with the Bush administration over Iraq. Mr. de Villepin is also an ardent admirer of Napoleon, not exactly a great role model for a democratic statesman.
Yet, Mr. de Villepin has come up with a proposal for modest labor market reform that would at least make a small dent in the problems that France so desperately need to face. It would give younger workers up to the age of 26 less job security, allowing employers to hire and fire them during their first two years without the punitive consequences that otherwise prevent turnover in the French labor force. As a consequence, presumably, more flexibility would allow them to get a job in the first place. Meanwhile the French economy is in a state of prolonged stagnation.
For Americans, most of who are employed at will, this would sound like a good deal. For the French students, however, it sounds like downright treason by their parents' generation, who would not be affected. "You mean, if we don't do what they want, they can fire us?" asked one young female protestors, appalled at the idea that she would actually have to perform and take orders in order to keep a job.
Unfortunately for Mr. de Villepin, his modest proposal may cost him the victory in the next French presidential election. He is President Chirac's chosen successor, but his personal aristocratic style and his troubles as prime minister will count against him with the French voters. Not only has he presided over two rounds of riots now, but he is also proposing to tinker with the French social contract.
The main beneficiary of Mr. de Villepin's dire straits could be Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected to be his strongest rival in the presidential elections. He has not done a whole lot to conceal his glee at the prime minister's plummeting approval ratings, and is cut from an entirely different cloth than the aristocratic Mr. de Villepin. A former businessman, son of immigrants and Jewish parents as well, Mr. Sarozy is not of the traditional French elite. Yet, at the same time he is a very skilled politician. Mr. Sarkozy, however, is keenly aware that economic and social reforms will be needed to boost job creation and would certainly go further than Mr. de Villepin.
What is desperately called for is a change in the French entitlement mentality and in the view that the state, like the kings of old, are the ultimate source of all things good and bad. Without adding the private sector to the equation along with the liberating effects of competition, social mobility, and ethnic integration, it is hard to see how France will ever pull free of the past.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times