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Another political post

Because the last political post got such a good response (from real people and some slighty less real), I thought I'd share this piece from the April 1/April 2, 2006 edition of the Financial Times.  It's long, so I've put it behind a cut.

The prime minister refuses to let popular opinion hinder his war on youth unemployment, writes John Thornhill

In 1796 the dashing young Napoleon Bonaparte rallied his flagging troops at the Battle of Arcole bridge by seizing a tricolour flag and leading the charge into the Austrian army's fire.  The scene was later immortalised in a painting by Horace Vernet, burnishing the legend of Napoleon's heroism.

France's contemporary cartoonists have been portraying Dominique de Villepin as a modern-day Napoleon, an impressive squiggle of flowing hair and flaring nostrils, storming over the Arcole bridge.  Only in this depiction, the prime minister is not followed by any troops while Nicolas Sarkozy, his rival lieutenant, ignores the fray and dangles a fishing line over the side.

Mr. de Villepin has certainly been leading from the front in attempting to reform France's inflexible labour laws but -- for the moment, at least -- his charge seems more reckless than brave.  His hasty introduction of a contentious first job contract (CPE), designed to tackle France's high youth unemployment, has led to an outburst of mass protests across the country.  More than 1m students and trade unionists took to the streets on Tuesday to demonstrate against the government's law with more protests planned for next week.

This intense public reaction has boosted the opposition Socialist party and spread dismay, verging on panic, among Mr. de Villepin's own supporters on the right.  While declaring his solidarity with the government, Mr. Sarkozy, the interior minister and leader of the governing UMP party, who is preparing to bid for the presidency next year, has called for the law to be suspended pending further changes.

The prime minister's personal approval rating has collapsed from 47 per cent in January to 29 per cent in March, seemingly shredding his own hopes of contesting the presidential elections.  Hooligans have even exploited the latest civil unrest to bring violence to the heart of Paris, rioting last week on the well-manicured lawns outside Napoleon's tomb.  Yet in spite of it all, Mr. de Villepin has resulutely refused to withdraw the CPE, which he insists will help marginalised youths in blighted suburbs find jobs.  He also appears determined to show once and for all that it is the legitimate government of France, rather than militants on the streets, that runs the country.

Buy why has Mr. de Villepin incited such a risky trial of strength at such a delicate time?  Is he a courageous -- but somewhat naive -- idealist prepared to brave unpopularity for the sake of the disadvantaged or -- as his opponents suggest -- a political opportunist whose cynical calculations have simply gone awry?

Impetuosity has certainly pockmarked the career of 52-year-old Mr. de Villepin, who has been involved in some of the most tempestuous domestic and international dramas of the past decade.  In 1997, as head of the presidential staff, Mr. de Villepin persuaded Jacques Chirac, president, to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections after the rightwing government of the day faced mass protests against its reform programme.  It was a disastrous decision leading to a humiliating defeat for Mr. Chirac's party and opening the way to five years of Socialist government.  Mr. Chirac's wife, Bernadette, bestowed the nickname "Nero" on Mr. de Villepin for his incendiary talents.

In 2002, as foreign minister, Mr. de Villepin famously championed international opposition to the Iraq war, making an emotional plea for peace at the United Nations in New York.  But even French diplomats admit that Mr. de Villepin went too far in touring Africa to cajole UN security council members to vote against a second resolution authorising force.  That was unacceptable behaviour from a country that claimed friendship with the US and caused enormous damage to transatlantic relations.

Mr. de Villepin has been equally impassioned in making the argument for the CPE.  In a recent television interview, he said the government had an urgent duty to respond to last year's urban riots by disaffected youths.  The CPE was a practical measure to encourage employers to take on new workers at little risk.  "We have 23 per cent unemployment among the young, 40 per cent among the non-qualified," he said.  "Should we stand with our arms crossed as we have done all these years?  Should we lower our eyes?  Or should we treat the problem?"

However, Mr. de Villepin's opponents argue the treatment could only exacerbate the disease.  Rather than curing job insecurity among the young, it might only worsen it.  By giving employers the right to fire workers under the age of 26 at any time during a two-year trial period, the CPE could increase discrimination between labour market "insiders", who benefit from full job protection, and those "outsiders" who do not.

Jacques Attali, the former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development who now runs a microfinance agency providing loans to young entrepreneurs in the suburbs, says that the CPE is unlikely to create more jobs, only economic growth will do that.  But the CPE will make employment more precarious for all young workers.  "We are going from a situation where it is impossible to fire anyone for any reason to a situation where you can fire anyone without any reason, which is an extreme.  An intermediary situation would have been good," he says.

Zake Laidi, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, says France undoubtedly needs a more flexible labour market.  But Mr. de Villepin chose to ram an ill-prepared law with questionable economic benefits through parliament with no consultation.  "De Villepin is much more concerned about the symbolic dimension of politics than by its technicalities.  He is not disturbed by details.  He thinks he is running a war," he says.  "This reform is scaring people but at the same time is probably inefficient because it widens the gaps between insiders and outsiders."

Mr. de Villepin appears to be calculating that he can face down the protestors, reduce youth unemployment and emerge as the visionary strong man of French politics before next year's elections.  But it is an extraordinary gamble of near-Napoleonic ambition.

As it happens, the precise events of the battle of Arcole bridge are disputed.  One version has it that a fellow officer so feared for Napoleon's life that he pushed him off the bridge into the river with the words:  "If you fall, we are all lost.  You shall go no further."

The question now is whether Mr. Chirac will stand by his impetuous officer to the bitter end or throw him off the bridge in the face of intensifying fire to save them both.  The next few weeks for France could prove momentous.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 2nd, 2006 01:29 am (UTC)
(how did I start at 1:30 and go to bed at 3:20? whose daylight is being saved, exactly?)
It seems more and more that the one thing on everyone's list of high priorities is unemployment. Reduce unemployment, it seems, and all your economic problems will vanish! This is certainly the page France's current government has pulled from the economics textbook, especially the Prime Minister, who seems to be staking his success in his post on the reduction of unemployment figures. These are also the figures bandied about by world leaders all over the world, regardless of their political-economic stripes. It also seems to be the only statistic quoted in regards to France's 'woefully backward and stagnant economy.'

Employment figures are not, however, the whole story. I'm not saying that unemployment is a good thing - I have spent enough time voluntarily unemployed to know that if one were involuntarily unemployed it would not only be a huge financial burden and constant worry, but it would be maddeningly depressing. But low unemployment figures detract attention from gloomier economic indicators, most pressingly, poverty indicators. Take the below (rather lame) table:

Percentage of population unemployed, and percentage of population living below the poverty line (U.S., UK, Canda and France):

U.S.- 5.1% unemployment | 12.0% poverty
U.K.- 4.7% unemployment | 17.0% poverty
Cnd - 6.8% unemployment | 15.9% poverty*
Frn - 10.0% unemployment| 6.5% poverty

(*Canada has no poverty line, but instead measures according to the Low income cutoff (LICO), which, were more basic terms such as those in the U.S. or the UK used, would result in Canada's relative poverty rate being lower.)

Source: CIA World Factbook

Fantastic - so France may have about twice the unemployment as France, but it also has about half the rate of poverty. It has just over twice the unemployment as the UK, but the UK has more than 2.6 times of its population living below the poverty line, compared to France. These figures are not foolproof, and require a lot of thought and explanation behind them (which is what should be demanded of all statistics, because figures themselves more often than not mean absolutely nothing) but I probably haven't got room here. Please feel free to ask, though, and I will be glad to discuss.

But what I would most like to point out from the above figures is that we need to read with a more critical eye - that we need not feel primarily proud or guilty about our country's unemployment figures, but more about our country's poverty figures. When a company is claiming to 'create more jobs', is it creating more long-term, substantial-income positions, or is it merely tipping the unemployed over the line to working poor?

Fiscal responsibility is my least favourite term, because while it is supposed to be used to indicate responsibility for money, in practice it is all about responsibility to money. It's time for more emphasis on social responsibility: responsibility for and to the people.
Apr. 2nd, 2006 05:27 am (UTC)
Re: (how did I start at 1:30 and go to bed at 3:20? whose daylight is being saved, exactly?)
Please stop trying to mix unemployment with poverty figures! Yes, America, UK, etc, ought to pay attention to their poverty statistics before laughing at the French unemployment rate, but France urgently needs to do something about unemployment.

Yes, France must concentrate on unemployment, because if they don't now, soon it may be too late. Unemployment is not a mere political issue that politicians are talking about to try to get votes. It's deadly serious now. We're already seeing the first effects of the past years: growth has slowed to an embarrassing amount. And when growth slows, the unemployment figures will not go down! They'll probably get worse. More people are unemployed, so consumer spending goes down, gdp and growth go down. And then businesses can't afford to keep as many staff on, so we have more unemployment. Add to that the trillion dollar debt Thierry discovered three months ago, and the upcoming pensions crisis - the state cannot afford to pay the pensions of all the fonctionnaires who will be retiring soon - and it's looking really bad. I pity the coming Presidents of France in the next 20 years. Unless it's Sarko. And if things do get as bad as they promise, the state is going to have quite some difficulty supporting the welfare of the poor. France's poverty rate could be in for a very sharp rise in the future.
Apr. 2nd, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC)
I don't challenge anything that you say in your explanation - that is exactly what happens in an economically liberal, pro-market model. What I do challenge, however, are your assumptions - the assumption made by every mainstream politician, certainly every politician currently in power: the assumption that growth is desirable. Growth for the sake of growth, as I think bears repeating, is the philosophy of the cancer cell. I ask two (sets of) questions:

1. How much growth is enough, that is, how far do we go before we stop? What is our watermark of 'enough'? What can we do without, and what can we not do without? What are the limits on our consumerism? How valuable can consumerism be in our complex lives?

2. How sustainable is growth? Calling upon a sense of comprehensive logic, is continual growth even possible? If we want continual growth within a framework of pro-market capitalism, does this not require that there is always someone at the bottom keeping us propped up at the top?

That should be enough for the moment...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )