France's President Jacques Chirac, on Friday night offered new concessions over the disputed labour reforms that provoked mass protests by students and trade unions, while trying to provide a smokescreen for his embattled Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, to save face.
Chirac said that he would sign the reforms into law but not to implement them until they had been significantly modified. Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, head of the governing UMP Party and De Villepin’s rival to succeed Chirac next year, welcomed the President’s announcement as a “wise decision”.
Chirac proposed that the law’s trial period for workers aged under 26 be cut from from two years to one year and a requirement for companies to justify their sacking, should also be introduced.
The President stressed the need for economic reform, saying: “We must work to end this shocking situation where companies, because they fear excessive rigidity of the labour market, prefer to refuse orders or move overseas instead of hiring new staff.”
“This is not going to calm things,” François Hollande, the leader of the Socialist party, said after Chirac’s five-minute speech. Bruno Julliard, the leader of UNEF, the main student union, said: “Perhaps he has a hearing problem. All he proposed was what we have heard for weeks. He has listened to nothing and we are heading for trouble.”
This week's issue of The Economist says in a leader on France that according to one astonishing poll, three-quarters of young French people today would like to become civil servants, and mostly because that would mean “a job for life”. Buried inside this chilling lack of ambition are one delusion and one crippling myth.
The Economist says that the delusion is that preserving France as it is, in some sort of formaldehyde solution, means preserving jobs for life. Students, as well as unqualified suburban youngsters, do not today face a choice between the new, less protected work contract and a lifelong perch in the bureaucracy. They, by and large, face a choice between already unprotected short-term work and no work at all. And the reason for this, which is also the reason for France's intractable mass unemployment of nearly 10%, is simple: those permanent life-time jobs are so protected, and hence so difficult to get rid of, that many employers are not creating them any more.
The leader says that this delusion is accompanied by an equally pernicious myth: that France has more to fear from globalisation, widely held responsible for imposing the sort of insecurity enshrined in the new job contract, than it does to gain. It is true that the forces of global capitalism are not always benign, but nobody has yet found a better way of creating and spreading prosperity. In another startling poll, however, whereas 71% of Americans, 66% of the British and 65% of Germans agreed that the free market was the best system available, the number in France was just 36%.
The Economist says that the French seem to be uniquely hostile to the capitalist system that has made them the world's fifth richest country and generated so many first-rate French companies. This hostility appears to go deeper than resistance to painful reform, which is common to Italy and Germany too; or than a desire for a strong welfare state, which Scandinavian countries share; or even than a fondness for protectionism, which America periodically betrays.