A spoilt, arrogant yet fearful young French generation is shrieking for a free lunch and would wreck what it can because it is unable to grasp that there is no such thing.
Last November's riots in the outskirts of Paris and other major cities have not yet been forgotten, but the French are at it again. The country is living up to its sorry reputation of lawlessness and violence as the accepted means for any interest group to defend itself against the facts of life. When truckers find that freight rates do not pay, they block the highways and blockade the refineries. When fruit and vegetables are too cheap, growers overturn supermarket shelves and spill cargoes of Spanish fruit into the ditch. Imports of Italian bulk wine are treated with no greater respect. When the tobacco tax goes up faster than usual and cigarette sales dwindle, tobacconists threaten the government with revenge, and receive compensation. Schoolchildren respond to poor marks or words of blame with beating up the teacher; real little revolutionaries stab her. Hardly a week passes without a futile demonstration or factory occupation where layoffs menace. Such resorts to violence are routine and pass almost unnoticed.
Many observers, including President Chirac, are convinced that the French are ferocious by temperament and must be treated with kid gloves, for if their violence is met by violence, mayhem and civil war will break out and blood will flow in the gutters. France has one of the world's largest, and very efficient, riot police, the CRS that, however, is hardly ever used in politically sensitive conflicts for fear that worse might ensue. In his 11 years as president, Mr. Chirac has never faced down street crowds and has been especially quick to capitulate when all too necessary school and university reforms were met, as they always were, with protests by students and their teachers.
The obvious result is that street crowds have in fact become ferocious and the young self-willed and intractable because they have never been resisted or punished. Every interest group has learnt the lesson that it always pays to stamp their feet and shout 'boo!' for the government to cut and run.
Currently, the young are at it again, with over 50 out of 84 universities paralysed by small groups of militants who shut out the bulk of the student body. High schools are joining in the fun. Eager commentators are promising that it will be the May 1968 youth 'revolt' all over again.
French unemployment for the under-25 age group is 23 per cent compared with an average of under 10 per cent. French labour law is among the most elaborate in the world. As I write this, it is 2,632 pages long and is growing longer almost by the hour. It is aimed at ever tighter job protection. Laying off employees has become very difficult. It can be prohibitively expensive and may involve batteries of labour lawyers litigating endlessly while the employees in question draw their salaries. The obvious result is that business fears the risk of getting caught with labour it no longer wants. Firms are reluctant to hire anyone, let alone the untried and untrained young. To get round this, the government has just amended the labour law, which permits employers to dismiss under 25 year old workers (who have not been previously employed) without specific justification during a two-year period, though with normal notice and fairly generous compensation. Not unreasonably, the government argues that even if the young employee is not retained beyond two years, she will have gained work experience, learnt the habit of getting up in the morning, and become more employable. In any event, two years in an insecure job is better than the mortal boredom of idleness.
It is against this relaxation of the labour code that French youth is now stamping their feet and shouting 'boo!'
How To Be An Economist
As the Latin dictum has it, poeta non fit sed nascitur—a poet is born, not bred. We owe another version of this truth to Milton Friedman. When he was asked whether the study of economics was a good thing, he allegedly replied: Yes, it can be useful, but you have to be an economist to start with.
Some nations have economics in their basic culture and indeed in the way their mind works. They instinctively understand opportunity cost, scarcity, they know that you cannot have it both ways, that you do not create more jobs by making labour more expensive, that the state can only give to Peter what it takes away from Paul, and that there is no free lunch. English-speaking nations, the Scandinavians, the Dutch and to some extent the Germans are economists in this instinctive way. It has just been proved that 68 per cent of the French are, at no little cost to themselves, not economists. The proof lies in a recent nationwide poll, which showed that 68 per cent of the French wish the new legislation for promoting youth employment to be revoked without further ado.
It stands to reason why. You only have to ask the right questions. They might go something like this:
Are secure, permanent jobs not better than insecure temporary ones? (Yes, they are much better).
Is it fair to allow an employer to give his employee notice without sufficient grounds? (No, it is grossly unfair).
Does a business need two years to decide whether a young worker is worth being made permanent? (Of course it does not, a month or two should do it.)
Can you expect the young to respect the law and behave responsibly when it is treated without due respect? (No, it is only normal that the young cut up a little rough and one cannot blame them.) And so forth. Small wonder that 68 per cent agree with answers of this kind.
Public choice, a study that combines economics and politics, teaches that what is happening in France is perfectly rational and intelligent. Ninety per cent of the working population is in more or less safe jobs, and within that vast majority there are public service employees (notably in the state railways and in Electricite de France) and union officials who are doubly safe and enjoy privileges. They fight tooth and nail for the most restrictive labour laws and 'worker rights' in an ever more elaborate welfare state, cynically sacrificing the 10 per cent unemployed and the 23 per cent young unemployed whom these policies condemn to joblessness. The privileged keep up a hypocritical rhetoric lamenting the fate of the jobless and the hopeless young, but this is only a fake alibi.
It would be almost comforting to believe that public choice has got it right, for rational calculation, however selfish and cynical, is not quite so frightening as sheer stupidity. Looking around him, however, this writer strongly feels that what has brought France to her present pass and what is stirring up the current mini-revolt of the young is not rational calculation, but, well, the other thing.
*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.
The State is also available online on this website.
For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.