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France and Sanity

So, the French government caved. After months of protests by hundreds of thousands of university students, President Jacques Chirac agreed last week to kill off a proposed law that would have allowed private employers to fire workers under age 26 with less than two years on the job, without cause.

So, the French government caved. After months of protests by hundreds of thousands of university students, President Jacques Chirac agreed last week to kill off a proposed law that would have allowed private employers to fire workers under age 26 with less than two years on the job, without cause.

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In many of the English-language news reports on the protests and their denouement, the implicit question was more or less: Are they nuts? France’s economy is among the weaker in Western Europe, which itself is falling further behind the U.S.–which in turn is threatened by China, India, and the rest. The liberalization of France’s rigid labor laws could, aguably, have helped ease the nation’s 10% unemployment rate.

But I think there was something else going on here. The protests were really about preserving a certain, relatively sane, lifestyle in the face of global capitalism.

French employers said, basically: We have to compete, and not just in France. You workers have to start working harder and taking on some of our risk.

And the workers said, basically: No way. We like things the way they are.

And why not? Things the way they are in France are generally pretty nice. Not if you’re poor and unemployed, of course. But if you’ve got a job, you can content yourself with secure employment, government-sponsored benefits, long vacations, and a workday that leaves room for . . . life.

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I think the French are doomed; you can’t just stick your head in the sand and hope the rest of the world will go away. But I also wonder: Does the crush of the global economy–the threat of competition from lower-cost nations that can do what we do just as well, or better–inevitably require us to work like maniacs, increasingly harder and longer? That attitude has become baked into the American mindset–or at least, the management mindset. But is it really the only way to compete?

Is work-life insanity a global imperative?

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