Paris Burning, Once Again

The Washington Post, March 2006

LAST SATURDAY MORNING, needing help to move several heavy cartons of books from my apartment in central Paris to a storage room, I hired two movers and a van from the want ads. Students were in the streets protesting the Contrat de Première Embauche (CPE) — a law proposed to combat unemployment by giving employers more flexibility to fire young employees — and the barricades and traffic diversions made our four-block drive into a half-hour ordeal.

As we turned down one obstructed street after another, the movers — both Arab immigrants — became more and more incensed.”They’re idiots,” said the driver, gesturing toward the ecstatic protesters. “Puppets for the socialists and the communists.” He pantomimed pulling the strings of a marionette.

“It’s us they hurt,” added the second man. By this he meant immigrants and their children, particularly the residents of France’s suburban ghettos, where unemployment runs as high as 50 percent. And, of course, he was right, as everyone with even a rudimentary grasp of economics appreciates: If employers are unable to fire workers, they will be less likely to hire them. It is now almost impossible to fire an employee in France, a circumstance that disproportionately penalizes groups seen by employers as risky: minorities, inexperienced workers and those without elite educations, like the outraged man sitting beside me.

This is the second time in four months that France has been seized with violent protests. And in an important sense, these are counter-riots, since the goals of the privileged students conflict with those of the suburban rioters who took to the streets last November. The message of the suburban rioters: Things must change. The message of the students: Things must stay the same. In other words: Screw the immigrants.

The issue at stake is not, of course, the CPE, which in addition to being unknown in its effects would apply only to a two-year trial period, after which employees would still, effectively, be guaranteed jobs for life. The issue is fear of a real overhaul of France’s economically stifling labor laws. While some of the suburban hoodlums have joined in these protests — after all, a riot is a riot — it is clear that unless this overhaul proceeds, the immigrants are doomed. If so, last year’s violence will seem a lark compared with what is coming.

Curiously, however, no French politician will say this openly. They will not even say these obvious words: France is a representative democracy; if you don’t like what your elected leaders are doing, you can vote against them. Some more words you will never hear in France: Students who continue to disrupt civil and academic life will be expelled. Strikers will be fired. We are calling in the troops.

Instead, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is nightly seen on television, earnestly proposing one compromise after the other, even as his supporters scuttle for cover. The powerful barons of the labor unions, on the other hand — the puppet masters of that golden flock of imbeciles now on the streets — can scarcely be bothered to give interviews. Compromise? Only when the law is repealed. By then, of course, compromise would be unnecessary. Instead of negotiations, they call for a general strike.

That’s because France is still in the grip of precisely the political mentality that has prevailed here since the Middle Ages. As the protesters themselves cheerfully declare: It’s the street that rules. Today’s mobs, like their predecessors, are notable for their poor grasp of economic principles and their hostility to the free market. Only wardrobe distinguishes these demonstrations from those that led to the invasion of the national convention in 1795, when first the mob protested that commodity prices were too high; when the government responded with price controls, it protested with equal vigor that goods had disappeared and black market prices had risen. Similarly, the students on the streets today espouse economic views entirely unpolluted by reality. If the CPE is enacted, said one young woman, “You’ll get a job knowing that you’ve got to do every single thing they ask you to do because otherwise you may get sacked.”

Imagine that.

As a legacy of this long tradition, the choice in France now is between popular legislation — that is, useless legislation — and the street. Thus the paradox at the heart of the protests: Those who want power exploit the mobs to maneuver themselves into position, but having gained power cannot use it to achieve anything worthwhile, lest the same tactics be used against them. The fear of the mob has created a cadre of politicians in France who are unable to speak the truth and thereby prepare French citizens for the inevitable. No one in France — not one single politician, nor anyone in the media — is willing to say it: France’s labor laws are an absurdity, and if they are not reformed at once, France will go under. “What do they think?” said my driver, who was not, he told me, a mover by trade but an unemployed radio journalist forced to moonlight. “Do they think that jobs just fall from the sky?”

Apparently, they think just that.

In this regard, France, like every European country, remains blackmailed by its history. French rulers, seemingly unable to appeal to the legitimacy they possess as elected leaders, instead behave as popular kings, or as leaders of some faction — like a king’s ministers. They cannot seem to forget what happens when a king loses his popularity. There are thus two choices for the French ruling elite, as they see it: toady or go under.

When Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, an urgent question hung in the air: In Britain, who rules? It was a question to which Britain’s powerful unions had a ready answer: We do. Men such as Arthur Scargill, the head of the miner’s union, were convinced that although they would never lead Britain, it was within their power to run it and to run it for their benefit through labor laws that anyone beyond the union halls could see would destroy the nation as a competitive economic power. Thatcher so thoroughly crushed both Scargill and his union that neither recovered. For a brief moment, power politics stood revealed. The unions had made a bid for power. They lost.

The same question is now being raised in France: Who rules? This is the second time in 11 years that a popularly elected government here faces dismissal not from the voters, but from the streets. If this does not represent a direct challenge to the government’s power, it is hard to know what would. Should the government fall, the question will have been answered.

And the answer will be the mob. As usual.

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