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A Revolution Against Economic Freedom

Krishna Gupta

“Let them eat cake.” The now-famous words purportedly uttered by Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution have resonated with the French public since then as a symbol of how low the upper classes could fall. In 1789, the issue at hand was the non-taxation of nobility and the price of bread. Today, the streets of France are once again buzzing with noisy citizens — and Bastille Day is still some months off. The First Employment Contract (CPE) proposed by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has caused uproar among the youth across France as a symbol of central tyranny. For days the country has been embroiled in a student-organized strike that captured the attention of the entire world. With the announcement of the measure’s defeat this past Monday, the CPE will be remembered as yet another episode of social unrest etching political tragedy into French history.

What is truly unfortunate about this defeat of the CPE is that its institution represented a step in the right direction. The government has lost the chance to reassert itself and the public death of the CPE, determined so irrationally, only sharpens the conviction that the international standing of France continues to slip down a rather steep slope.

What exactly was the CPE? Essentially, it instituted a new work contract for workers under the age of twenty-six, allowing businesses to hire eligible workers for up to a two-year trial period. During this period, employers could terminate the workers’ contracts without any explanation; however, if the worker remained employed after two years, the contract reverted to a standard full-time contract.

Such an arrangement naturally creates more flexibility in the labor market. In today’s world, particularly in Western Europe, flexible labor markets are absolutely crucial to economic success. For France, bogged down by a ten percent unemployment rate, the importance of a more accessible labor market cannot be overstated. Without the CPE, there exists a very distinct group of workers who have little opportunity to enter the work force and little chance of living a fulfilling life or contributing to their country. Either they are not qualified to be hired in the competitive market or they bring liabilities to companies.

Under the CPE, however, the employers would place less of an emphasis on the past, because there would be much less of a risk associated with hiring. The CV becomes less absolute. This change in valuation criteria moves a greater percentage of the population into the work force, and this, in turn, helps to reduce unemployment.

The students who have taken to the streets clearly view the situation differently. For the French protesters, the CPE threatened to take away their basic rights as citizens. It allowed the government, and ultimately employers, to control their futures without consulting them even once. It allowed the aristocratic M. ‘Let them drink champagne’ de Villepin to script a possible heroic presidential bid. It allowed Chirac to end his own term with a measure that would create a lasting impression. It allowed France, with alarming alacrity, to fall prey to the free market ideology so pervasively being imposed across the world. In sum, the CPE allowed the workers to be used. Or so the students feel. After all, France does have the highest worker productivity in the world. Their workers deserve some respect from their own government, right?

What the students don’t realize is that the CPE benefits them. Perhaps it does infringe upon some of the freedoms that the French seem to take as given. But, more importantly, it also attempts to tackle one of the most pressing social problems that the French face. No, not arrogance, but rather unemployment. Government-induced acrimony is fine, but there are limits to protest and rebellion. The French public needs to look beyond the short term and think of the future.

The debate over the CPE uncovers more fundamental anxieties. The public protests reflect a shared fear about the future of France. Individual and national existential angst has driven France in the past, but now it threatens to tear the proud nation apart. Let’s not forget that it was only last year that the French rejected the European Union constitution. These protests are really directed at the underpinnings of globalization and the drive for efficiency that is part of the modern world. To be quite honest, I can sympathize. It is a rather unfortunate era when the people are forgotten in the name of efficiency; however, this does not imply that global capitalism and the rights of the people cannot grow together. By having more flexibility in the labor market, employers are more willing to hire. As unemployment decreases, the freedoms of the people will increase twofold: through their own employment with the accompanying benefits and through the increase in the negotiation power of labor.

M. de Villepin staked his political reputation and career on the CPE. Unfortunately, the French public could not understand his impassioned pleas. It’s been only four years since he gained the respect of the world after his grandstand in front of the UN denouncing action against Iraq. Now, we all must examine what has gone wrong in France.