Note to the caption: Clashes between police and students during a protest in Rennes against a new labour law (Vincent Michel/AP)
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French students should go back to class to learn some economics
THE SIGHT OF MILLIONS of Frenchmen, predominantly young, demonstrating in deep sympathy and solidarity with themselves, is one that will cause amusement and satisfaction on the English side of the Channel. Everyone enjoys the troubles of his neighbours. And at least our public service strikers just stay away from work, and spend the day peacefully performing the rites of their religion, DIY, and not making a terrible nuisance of themselves. In fact, many of them are probably less of a public nuisance if they stay at home than if they go to work.
Of course, demonstrating in huge numbers is what the French do from time to time. We should never forget that to break a shop window for the good of humanity is one of the greatest pleasures known to Man. Trying to topple governments by shouting insults is also great fun.
We like to think of France as having a deplorably statist and centrally controlled economy, while the French like to think of Britain as a land of savage liberalism (in French parlance, the two words are as inseparable as Siamese twins), divided unequally between plutocrats and beggars. In fact, the two countries differ far less than is often supposed. While it is true that there remain some differences despite Gordon Browns best efforts, the British labour market is still more flexible than the French the similarities grow daily more striking (as it were).
The ultimate cause of the demonstrations and strikes in the two countries is the same: the State has made promises that it is increasingly unable to keep. It has pursued policies that were bound in the end to produce not just cracks but fissures that could no longer be papered over. The main difference is that while Dominque de Villepin is tentatively dragging France, albeit kicking and screaming, and with every likelihood of failure, in the right direction, Mr Brown is still stuck on the royal road to disaster, for which the British people, but not of course Mr Brown, will ultimately pay very dearly. When the crash comes, the social dislocation in Britain will make French disaffection seem positively genteel.
Whether they know it or not, the people on the streets in France were demonstrating to keep the youth of the banlieues who recently so amused the world for an entire fortnight with their arsonist antics exactly where they are, namely hopeless, unemployed and feeling betrayed. For unless the French labour market is liberalised, they will never find employment and therefore integration into French society. You have only to speak to a few small businessmen or artisans in France the petits bourgeois so vehemently despised by the snobbish intellectuals to find out why this should be so. The French labour regulations make employment of untried persons completely uneconomic for them.
It is often pointed out that French unemployment under the age of 26 is the highest in Europe, running at about 25 per cent. Moreover, in the banlieues it is 50 per cent. These banlieues are homes to millions of people, disproportionately young. It follows does it not? that there must be a considerable section of the young population in which unemployment is less than a quarter, actually much less. One would hardly have to be de Tocqueville to guess in which section of the young population the unemployment was less: the section from which the demonstrators, or at least their leaders and agents provocateurs, are drawn. In an increasingly desperate situation, the demonstrators are so afraid of the future that they want to hang on to their privileges and job security by hook or by crook, even if it means that the youth of the banlieues will eventually have to be kept in order by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the much-feared riot police, the CRS. There is nothing idealistic or generous about the demonstrators, just as there wasnt in 1968.
There are of course deeper but intangible problems that are even more difficult to solve than the inflexibility of the labour market. If you speak to small businessmen in France, they will tell you that the young in any case do not want to do the kind of work of which there is no shortage. At a time of such high unemployment, artisans have no one willing to be trained by them, even if they are willing to take the risk by taking them on. This is even though such artisans are so overwhelmed by work that a carpenter, for example, is booked up for more than a year in advance and can charge almost anything he likes.
We have no reason to condescend to the French, however, for the British are in fundamentally the same boat, with a few extra problems of our own. The vast and fraudulent expansion of tertiary education, which leaves students indebted for their own useless education, is merely a means by which the Government disguises youth unemployment and keeps young people off the streets. Contrary to government propaganda, unemployment is not low in Britain: but it is now called sickness.
Our economy is corruptly creating public service jobs endless co-ordinators of facilitation and facilitators of co-ordination but not many in the private sector, the only true measure of economic health and growth. Any fool can create public sector jobs, and Mr Brown has done so: but not even the most brilliant man can make them economically productive in the long term.
The British economy has all the brilliance of a fish rotting by moonlight, and eventually to change the metaphor slightly the bill will come in. And since so large a proportion of the population is now dependent, wholly or partly, on the State, the bill will be a large one, not only in financial terms but in social terms as well. We will need our very own CRS.
It cant be said either that we wont deserve what we get. It is we, after all, who have listened to the urgings of demagogic confidence tricksters, and believed their promises of irreconcilable goods. We should have paid attention instead to the wise words of Benjamin Franklin that apply as much to economics as to politics. He who gives up freedom for security, he said, will end up with neither.
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