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March 13, 2006
De Villepin's Dance Goes Badly

French prime minister Dominique De Villepin finds himself drowning in political waters after the ugly student protests and their forced end at the Sorbonne that resulted from his reform plan to solve youth unemployment. With over 20% of young French out of a job, DeVillepin attempted to give employers more leeway in terminating employees so that they would take more risks in hiring young workers, but the students wanted their guarantees more than the jobs themselves:

Dominique de Villepin, France's prime minister, was fighting for his political survival last night after a week of protests over his flagship youth employment scheme, culminating in students occupying the Sorbonne for the first time since May 1968.

Facing his sternest test since taking up office last June, Mr de Villepin said on France's main television news programme last night that his Bill "will be applied" but intimated that it could be tweaked.

His words came a day after 1,200 riot police stormed the Sorbonne and evicted around 200 students who had been staging a sit-in in Paris's historic university - the centre of the student riots of May 1968.

The students were calling on Mr de Villepin to drop his First Employment Contract (CPE) - a youth job scheme aimed at cutting France's woeful youth unemployment rate by making it easier to hire and fire young recruits in their first two years in a company. They argue that the scheme - a personal initiative of the prime minister - simply increases job insecurity.

Last Tuesday, half a million secondary school pupils and university students took to the streets to protest against the CPE. Half of France's 84 universities are at least partially on strike. More demonstrations are expected this week in a move that student unions and the French Left hope will force Mr de Villepin into an embarrassing U-turn and resignation.

This reaction shows exactly why France will not reform its socialist economy -- too many people have invested themselves into the notion that government force should dictate terms of employment. Under these conditions, foreign investment will be more difficult to procure, as corporations will not want to subject themselves to funding a nanny state where workers cannot be terminated regardless of their work habits. The students who protest against high unemployment have kneecapped themselves and all but guaranteed that their problems will only worsen.

De Villepin had the right idea, or at least the right start to the right idea. His modest proposal would have allowed French firms to take chances on younger workers, usually less reliable than those with more responsibilities. With so many looking for work, these employers do not want to waste a position on someone lacking a track record of reliability, especially since they can't get rid of an employee once hired. Why should employers take risks like that with students and new graduates, especially with their attitude of entitlement as expressed in the protests at the Sorbonne?

The irony of the event is that the man who ordered the storming of the Sorbonne, Nicolas Sarkozy, will benefit from De Villepin's political woes. While De Villepin danced around the conundrum of French economics, Sarkozy took direct action to end the petulant ranting of the latest generation of French layabouts. In truth, neither man dares to tell the French what they really need to hear: they have consigned their nation to long-term decline and ruin in their demands for perpetual welfare. In a global economy, French investment will simply flee France and find better returns -- and better workers -- elsewhere.

Until the nation completely collapses, the French will never change.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 13, 2006 6:16 AM

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