April 4, 2006

Letters from France

Letters from France

The media in Europe seem to say that France is always difficult to reform. That France is blocked on its own system. But my thought is that those protests are not only linked to the CPE bill. I believe they reveal something more profound: Maybe a generation gap between our political staff and the citizens.

Tristan Mendès France, egoblog.net, in a letter to Open Source, 4/2/06

Cars burned in Paris again; students and labor unions in France were in the streets this week to protest the First Employment Contract, or CPE, which would create a two-year limited contract with workers under 26. The outrage is hard to process — looking at France from our own labor market — so we found ourselves some bloggers.

Everyone seems to be taking the the streets, led by the student groups and the (very powerful) syndicates, which are essentially labor unions. The people at the demonstrations are reflective of a good portion of French society. I haven’t talked to a single person who thinks the CPE is a good idea.

aneequs, in a letter to Open Source, 4/2/06
Statue climbers

“A protester in Place de la Nation’s main statue is mooning the crowd, imitating the statue below representing the Republic” [Hugo*/Flickr]

Insult to the youth

“CPE: An Insult to Youth” [Hugo*/Flickr]


The goals differs with the groups concerned. Student and “lycéens” want the bill not to be enforced, while some in the political opposition asks for the goverment to resign. Not all protesters know precisly what is in the bill. It shows that, in my opinion, the anger is more diffuse. Some speak of a “regime” crisis. As if our political institution wasnt able to cope with this general miscontent. Other even speak of May, 1968, even if I dont beleive we are there yet…

Tristan Mendès France, egoblog.net, in a letter to Open Source, 4/2/06
Viking protest

A Gaul thinks Dominique de Villepin should resign [Alain Bachellier/Flickr]


The first obvious link [to the November 2005 riots] is that those who commited those riots in the suburbs joined (and sometimes attacked) the protesters. The second link could be found in the general miscontent of the French soceity, the general frustration with our political system, which is unable to deal with the situation (unemployment mainly, integration of immigration).

Tristan Mendès France, egoblog.net, in a letter to Open Source, 4/2/06


The emotion is very strong in France and the demonstrations are increasingly violent. The degradation of the social climate involves the reappearance of violences of the suburbs of November 2005 and one sees breakers benefitting from the disorder to make offences are not political.

Nobody knows today how the government, which shows great firmness, will be able to leave this crisis. The youth who have already lost a lot of school time seem ready to continue these increasingly violent actions.

Alain Bachellier, in a letter to Open Source, 3/31/06

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  • fiddlesticks

    The French student protesters are a bunch of spoiled brats trying to protect their privileged life style. I am strongly pro union and in favor of worker’s rights but not in favor of cuddling sluggish kids. Employers shouldn’t be mandated to keep on the job workers who don’t perform well.

    The strikes are more a sign of a cultural event than the indication of unjust treatment.

  • I’m hardly a expert on the French, but between a visit to Paris last summer where I found plenty of time to bone up on French culture and politics on the flight over…a seven hour flight delayed by six more hours…and a wife that works in international relations, I did notice something striking: the French have a much stronger attachment to the idea of nationalism than the average American does. And perhaps somewhat unusually, this strong attachment is actually spelled out in the letter of the law as well.

    That sort of arrangement, making law out of strong emotions…well, as you might imagine, it leads to problems. Especially these days with more and more immigrants coming to France. It’s not so much that immigrants are the problem, it’s that French culture and law is geared upon the premise of instant assimilation and the reality is that immigrants do not check years (or centuries) of cultural and religious heritage at the door.

    Now here’s a really interesting thing, it appears to me that in spite of – or perhaps because – the French are of a nationalistic bent, they don’t trust their elected government worth a damn. Since the Bourbon Dynasty ended in 1830, there’s been 13 different forms of government…and only two of them have lasted more than 20 years. Perhaps most telling, there’s practically no such as a local police force in all of France. The only way your town can have a local police is if the town’s population is UNDER 10,000 citizens…meaning it’s got to be a pretty small town. So all the police you see around Paris, for example, are the Police Nationale. Or if you’re in the countryside, it’s probably the Gerdarmerie Nationale…the former being more civilian and focusing on the cities, the latter being more military and focusing on the rural areas…although the specific areas of responsibility are more varied and have been undergoing significant (and not at all smooth) overhauls in the past three years or so.

    The key here is the “Nationale” part…these cops are often compared to the FBI – often they’re very well trained and well equipped. But you wouldn’t really expect the FBI to deal with some punk selling dimebags on the corner and spray-painting graffiti, right? That’s too “small time” for an agency like the FBI, let the local cops handle it. Well, in France – there aren’t any local cops…it’s all up to the Police Nationale. Hypothetically, those guys might have to deal with a murder near the Eiffel Tower one day, a theft from the Louvre the next day, and a pushcart vendor who got robbed of 50 euro inbetween. No wonder they have a hard time really dealing with ultra-local “small time” crime; who could build a relationship with the community when you’re being yanked this way and that?

    But remember, the French people don’t trust the government, so they don’t want to have any district or area have its own police force because that could too easily turn into a paramilitary force for ultimate control over that area. Better to have a national police force that’d be too hard to turn over control to any one tyrant.

    This is a long-winded comment, I know, but I think it helps point out the cultural disconnect that the French have between the ideals of their society and the realities of their society. It’s probably reaching a real breaking point and who knows if a Sixth Republic will soon be on its way…although at the same time, replacing the entire government has already been tried several times in the past 150 years, and it hasn’t ever really worked all that well.

    It’s a real bummer because despite all the flaws we Americans tend to see with the French government and economy…it’s still the fourth largest economy in the world, one of the better-educated, one of the most worker-friendly economies that still has reasonably good productivity (measured on a global scale) and one that produces high quality goods. There’s a lot to like about how the entire French system works….maybe that’s why the rest of the world seems so hellbent on making it so the “global economy” is incompatible with the French! :-/

  • Iteachlang

    I have to agree with Aread that the French don’t trust their government and never have. But like De Gaule said: “How can you govern a country that has more than 180 types of cheeses?”. The French hate reforms unless it gives them more free time. They never protested against the 35 hour work day.

    Furthermore the French are individualistic and as long as they get what they want, the good of the country isn’t important, that is why the French are impossible to govern. They did elect this government and this CPE law was passed by most of the representatives in the government and it should be implemented as is. But I suspect that because the government is right wing and most protesters are left wing, the issue is one of dissent for the sake of it. They wouldn’t want a right wing government to succeed in solving youth unemployment which has reached 22%.

    Sorry Bridget Copley; I am for the CPE now let me tell you the reasons. First I find appalling to be against a reform that hasn’t yet been tried . In English we say wait and see ….The French youth can always riot once they know that this new law isn’t yielding the forseen consequences.

    Now I have to grant you that this law isn’t based on equality; but then again what is?

    Equality in real life doesn’t exist. Yes it isn’t fair that young people aren’t employed at the same rate as others; Life is such that you need to play the cards you are dealt. The fact here remains that French employers are tired of not being able to easily fire a bad employee. It is indeed very expensive to fire someone (indemnités) and the red tape you have to go through makes you think twice about employing someone with no experience. Now I guess those young people would prefer not working and so be it. They certaintly have shown it these past 2 months. They would rather forgo their studies for demonstrations and strikes and in doing so prevent others from resuming their studies. To the rest of the world the French appear to be a nation that doesn’t respect work and isn’t willing to compromise.

    Some Fremch companies have been moving to Ireland and England because of: first heavy taxes they must pay and second because they are stuck with some bad employees. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they stayed and hired the young? Why do young people expect to benefit from the same laws that apply to their parents when they lack the necessary experience? And who cares if they do not have the contract their parents have in their FIRST job since in any case there is little doubt they will keep this first job for the rest of their life. They talk about “précarité” and yes that is what life is all about. Welcome to reality. Everything is based on uncertainty and perhaps it is time they understand it. On the French News which I watch religiously every morning I hear some young French say they won’t be able to buy a car or a house. Now, how many people under 26 are financially secure enough to buy a house?

    Fiddlesticks says they are spoiled brats and perhaps I have to agree with him/her eventhough it may seem harsh. But it isn’t the youth that is spoiled but the entire society with its 35 hour week work and its 4-6 week yearly paid vacation. No wonder the economy totally stagnates during the months of July and August when all the French are gone on vacation. We are far from having these types of benefits here and we don’t complain half as much. It is difficult for us to understand these riots; but for the French it is a way of life… I for one hope that the government will not give up like it usually does and stand firm in its decision and see if this reform will work or not. However Chirac has already made concessions and I am fearful of what he will concede next to appease this spoiled and idealistic youth.

  • Nikos

    aread: Great, illuminating comment. Thank you for it, and don’t apologize ever again for the ‘long-windedness’ when your dishing out so much helpful knowledge.

    Now, I’ve a question: does the ‘national’ scope of the police force(s) diminish opportunities for corruption?

    iteachlang: I found your commentary interesting, too. However, you wrote this: “Equality in real life doesn’t exist…� which is true for contemporary hierarchical societies. But I question the implication that we shouldn’t bother striving for equality.

    It’s true that achieving equality as a Platonic ‘ideal state’ is almost surely an impossibility – I won’t argue that. But striving for equality is noble and necessary. We can argue the means to this end, as we do here in the USA over Affirmative Action, and that’s a fair and necessary process. But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because the goal is daunting doesn’t mean we should quail from the quest.

    As for the ‘spoiled brat’ characterization: I agree with you that it seems an overly harsh (if predictable) American judgment. It might not feel the same if your parents and older siblings benefited from laws that you, who might be a hard and diligent worker, are about to have yanked from under you.

    It’s a different system than the American, and a different society, and a whole nother country.

    And who knows? It’s not inconceivable to me that the French model might offer a feature or two we could benefit from by adapting into our own. Not wholesale, not by any means – but selectively, and with the good of the whole people in mind, and not merely the good of the wealthiest of our country.

  • (Nikos) Now, I’ve a question: does the ‘national’ scope of the police force(s) diminish opportunities for corruption?

    —–

    I honestly hadn’t thought of that. My hunch is that there isn’t the kind of local police corruption you tend to think of when you think of corrupt cops…but I doubt it does anything to stem the plenty of corruption you can have at the federal level. Look at “Zip” Connoly of Whitey Bulger fame.

    There are some politicans in France who’ve been fighting more and more to create local police forces that are able to really get to know a district or suburb and improve community relations without tripping the paranoia wires of the masses. So far they haven’t made much progress but the last time I checked on that was not long before the two weeks of suburb/immigrant riots several months ago…so I wouldn’t be surprised if between that and CPE, the idea of more local police forces is gaining traction.

    (Iteachlang) – the interesting thing about all this is that you’re absolutely right, but at the same time, France has the world’s fourth largest economy and some of the highest worker satisfaction. The gulf between the haves and have nots is getting bigger every day, of course, but life for the haves is pretty decent AND (more importantly) even people we’d think of as being in the lower middle-class bracket, have enough to be “haves” in France…whereas you’ve gotta get to at least upper middle-class to be a “have” in America.

    The real rub of CPE that I wonder about is whether that 2 year thing will create a giant revolving door as employers hire young folks for 23 months and then dump them on the street to hire another young person. My hunch is that scenario is exceedingly likely and that’s what people are protesting against. If so, I can’t say that I blame them – it’s not unlike being asked to tie your own noose.

  • Iteachlang

    To Nikos, even if we strive for equality we will not get it; that would indeed be utopia. After all some are born more, even a lot more, intelligent than others and better looking than others. As soon as we are born we are not equal; let alone later on in life. Affirmative action, at least from my point of view, is far from working well. We are accepting students or employees on the basis of their race and not their intelligence or skills; we just have a quota to uphold… Is that right? I am not sure. I hope that in the long run we have helped under priviledged people with affirmative action and opened doors to other races…But I wouldn’t call affirmative action fair either.

    To Aread., I am not sure where you get your information about France; I am not saying you are wrong; but France’s economy isn’t doing well and I was told that their standard of living is diminishing rapidly. I do go there quite a bit and see some serious changes. And if the workers’ satisfaction was so high; why would they need to demonstrate at least twice a year? or so it seems, when you go there and the country is plagued with strikes. The French complain constantly about everything so I am not sure about their satisfaction in the workforce. But you are right that the lower middle-class is doing reasonably well.

    I, however, seriously doubt employers would dump someone after 23 months especially if that worker is actually good in his/her job. After all it does take a while to train somone and it is expensive for a company. Why on earth would an employer do that? I certainly doubt it; it isn’t profitable. I any case this only applies to employees under 26. Again will they keep this first job for ever?

  • Iteachlang

    Well, now we know who is running France and it isn’t the government; the students won and it is a very sad day. I cannot believe the government backed down on a reform that wasn’t even tried.

    Now the French know what to do when they don’t like any social change that could jeapordize their labor laws; laws that smothers the country’s future in this globalization.

    How stupid could they be?