Arnold Kling  

The French are Different

Teaching Economics... Perry Mehrling, Fischer Black,...

Maybe the best take on the French labor strike comes from Charles Krauthammer.

Yes, the old should be protected from precariousness because they are exhausted; the sick, because they are too weak. But privileged students under the age of 26? They cannot endure 24 months of precariousness at the prime of life, the height of their energy?

This brought it home to me. Since graduating college last June, my daughter has already quit two jobs, with her friends and family strongly supporting her decisions. Her problem was that the jobs demanded too little from her. At her age, she would rather do temp work and keep busy than have a job with benefits where she just sits and waits in vain for an assignment. She is against boredom, not precariousness.

The French are different.

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CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Bill writes:

Sloth seems to be held in the highest regard on the continent. Soon, calling someone lazy will be considered a compliment.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Clearly, the French kids want enhanced government protection, not equal unprotection for the old people who are over 25. So when Algeria and Libya invade France in 2010, we'd all be better off to trade cheap white flags for French wine and cheese. However, the problem with Krauthammer's critique is that it translates too easily to support Social Security non-reform in the US. Means testing, raising the retirement entitlement age, or race/sex norming that age look impossible if our leading Conservative cultural thinker can't muster up some courage to support the French kids from the angle of "26 isn't that old".

Max Schwing writes:

What else would you get, when you have people nestedin a social security and a government expanionist system that carries them from the beginning? Self-aware and self-responsible people? Hardly. If I look at the amount of dependency in my semester, I am sometimes astonished that they know how to dress themselves (obviously bathing is sometimes a problem). And I live right next to France...

dearieme writes:

But the girls are so chic. Keep a sense of proportion.

scottynx writes:

Your daughter has an exceptional father. I'd be cautious about extrapolating from her to the US mean, though I agree with your main point.

Renaud d'Avout d'Auerstaedt writes:

Some French young people are pathetic but let us not generalize. I am a French youth myself, albeit a peculiar one (I am a business school student and I've lived most of my life out of France), so maybe I could broaden your views on the situation in France...

I cannot really explain why without entering into a profound philosophical reflexion, but it seems to me that there is a major gap between two kinds of youth. There's the kind you see on TV, that basically spend their time whining and complaining, and there's the silent kind that work or/and study hard. In my business school (the ESSEC:, only 5 students have openly taken position against the CPE and demonstrated, and their support committee must count somewhere near the double of that number. 5! We must be 2000 on campus at least... Who talks about us? Nobody. Yet not one single lesson was postponed or cancelled during the whole affair, and I followed the whole political debate with as much distance as you all from the States.

The only (slight) difference is that the public park that lies between my school and my dorm has been constantly crowded with strikers. Last week, I even stumbled across some revolutionary graffitis on the way home -- they were ridiculous. They talked about marxism, anarchy, exploitation, capitalist swine and the such but they taught me a revealing aspect of this so-called social revolution. Indeed, I found one detail quite revealing: "Sarkozy" wasn't written correctly and the grammar of most sentences was despairingly bad... I was therefore led to think that the frustration comes from the lower classes. The "uneducated masses" seem to be tempted by a view of the economic reality that would favour them more, and thereby refuse to admit economic measures that confirm their precarity. The main problem with the CPE is that the lower-class youth experience the flexibilization of work as a bad thing, because they have few skills to offer to a company and can often not even express themselves clearly in French. The French governement has failed to show them how they could benefit form the CPE and so they sheepishly followed the biased opinions of the trade-unionists.

And of course, I should mention that many middle-class kids follow suit, as long as they are in their first years of university. Before entering the elite of the French educational system (the "Grandes Écoles"), I also happen to have been to state college for a year. That year, my exams were blocked by strikers and nearly all freshmen were in favour of the movement except me and most foreigners (that all wanted to have full vacations at home). Most French freshmen are tourists, and low-rate university diplomas are handed out to them (I managed to have a **perfect** score in maths during the two semesters of my year, despite working less than an hour for each exam and not being a genius in the field). In fact, student benefits are so good, that most French pay themselves a sabbatical at home ("aux frais de la princesse" as we say in France : the princess [State] pays it all). Either they drop out after two years with no further professional experience or greater knowledge, either they (finally?) get serious and continue college (and in that case work really becomes necessary to succeed and there's no more slacking around). At one point in college, I witnessed freshmen trying to force fourth-year students out of a lecture. The strikers stormed the room and declared they were holding a general assembly and so the lecture was over (please note that all assemblies are hold by far-left students committees with little or no external views or participation. a party-registered socialist friend of mine once went to one but was expelled nearly immediately because he questioned the democratic pertinence of the agenda, which called for the impeachment of Chirac by the student movement). The strikers were outraged at their refusal but finally settled for an election on whether they should hold their assembly in the room or not. In spite of their taking part in the election, they lost and had to back off. The whole process took some twenty to thirty minutes, because they didn't want leave the room without blaming the lack of civic sense of modern youth, and holding one or two improvised speeches on the matter.

To put it clearly, the whole debate among the youth amounts to class division, overlapping with the division between undergraduates from the "Université" and students from the "Grandes Écoles" and higher level students from the "Université", with a good seasoning of political discontent. In other words, this is not a clear-cut situation, it's French-cut !!

To conclude, I must say that these problems aren't very stimulating at the level of economics at the level of the layman and here in France, you don't go very far in any intellectual reflection if you don't make the effort to free yourself form the myriads of "franco-français" conundrums. As far as economics are concerned, that means you can't talk to many people that aren't either gaullist statists, economic marxists or, by reaction, extremist libertarian free-marketers !!

Well that's all folks ! I'm sorry for any languages mistakes or typos but its already 3:30 AM over here, and I don't have the courage to read through my contribution to proofread it. Ciao !! (I'm waiting for your feedback on this...)

Robert Speirs writes:

Fascinating. So the student underclass are rioting so that the (relatively) hard working and more intelligent ones can get lifetime jobs they don't want or need and they (the underclass) will never have to work at all.

Bumbler writes:

Renaud d'Avout d'Auerstaedt, your english is probably better than most people in english speaking countries. Your insights were most valuble.

Laurent GUERBY writes:

Hi Arnold, welcome to the type M crew!

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