Sunday, March 26, 2006

Security, Work, Dignity, Protest

I wish this photo were in better focus. Again, taken with my trusty cell phone. I'll see if I can take it again next time I'm at the metro stop where I saw it. Okay, so this poster is in the metro. It's "headline" or major anchor there in red reads, "Etre Chomeur n'est pas un crime," or "Being Unemployed is not a crime." Can you imagine seeing this in the U.S. at any other time after the Great Depression? A very different idea about unemployment and being on welfare with over 12% of the population on government relief, which continues to be much more generous than in the United States. How can such policies continue? Obviously there has to be rhetorical efforts like this, by the government itself! It attempts to anticipate and cut off those responses by critics of government subsidies, insisting that these are citizens of the republic and worthy of their respect, like any other citizen.

The topic of work and unemployment, economic security, has of course been at the forefront of French media and culture over the past two weeks. The new CPE law (Contrat Premier d'Embauche/First Job Contract) is summed up in the following way on "The CPE is a new employment contract due to take effect in April. The CPE would allow firms to hire people aged under 26 for a two-year trial period, during which they could be easily dismissed without a reason. Students and others complain this will only increase the precarity of everyday life in France where unemployment currently runs at 10% and 50% in some areas." In fact, "[t]he rate rises to 40-50 percent in some of the poor suburbs hit by several weeks of youth rioting last autumn" (Reuters).

As much as I hate neo-liberalism and the economic insecurity of life in places like the United States, I have mixed feelings about this. In my opinion, French culture is very hostile to change of all types that announce themselves officially. Bring American and other global cultural products in on the market and people are more likely to experience and take part in change almost imperceptibly, despite the roaring of their intellectuals (who do indeed get more public voice than their counterparts in the U.S.). The biggest problem with this law may be that it discriminates against an age group, those under 26. But is the spirit of the policy bad?

Again, I tread cautiously here. I have watched the "new economy" roll across the U.S. like a juggernaut in my lifetime. Downsizing and corporate unaccountability have cost loyal American workers jobs, pensions, and human dignity. This trend of de-industrialization and outsourcing to cheaper places in the world also corresponded with the exacerbation of racial-economic disparities, where entire formerly industrial communities lost work and were abandoned with the rusty warehouses that once buzzed the dreams of upward mobility, on one hand; and the downsizing of the welfare state and villification of the poor, on the other(especially after 1980).

But France has a very strong safety net for its citizens and, as I note above, a very strong civic rhetoric that insists citizens owe respect to their fellows, even if or especially if they are without work. Of course, some French will remind me that those benefits have decreased over the years.

"The Paris march began with students in front and workers behind, but turned into a multi-generational mix including many parents who accompanied their teenage children. Banners declared "No to throw-away youths" and "Tired Of Being Squeezed Lemons."

Opposition Socialist and Communist politicians also joined the protest, only the third time in almost four decades -- after 1968 and 1994 -- that students and workers marched together" (Reuters).

But I have trouble understanding the argument of those objecting. It appears to me as something of a slippery slope. That is, is this law the first of a series of inevitable measures to come where not just the young but people of all ages will lose job security and the social security aspect of the state will wither away in the vapor of neo-liberalism? Or might this actually be a compromise that begins to deal with many stagnant and problematic aspects of the French economy and culture? What do I mean?

It is striking to someone from the U.S. how extreme the difference is here on job security. In my job, for example, the American tenure process doesn't apply. Under French labor law, I have a one-year trial period, during which I may be dismissed if the employer so desires. That means if there's no problem after one year I have tenure and job security for life, unless I do something taboo. In French academia as well as the state and corporate bureaucracy, there appear to be thousands of people who have gotten in through nepotism (and not) and who are content to stay in that position forever, with very little incentive to do their jobs to their utmost. The pay is low, and in some cases, it is not easy to be promoted quickly. There is a vexxing torpor in many aspects of the economy and culture generally. On the one hand, I respect their uncompromising privileging of time with family and friends, cooking, eating, talking, spending time with each other that is not limited to watching television or shopping. That time is partly due to the tradition of not overvaluing the workplace, especially boring, alienating labor with very little quality human contact. But one might ask whom the current system serves most?

A question I can't competently answer but which I wish to explore is whether in fact the mass of French youth are well served by the current laws (of course they may not be for the current laws, either, but are certainly against the new one; it may not be either/or). It appears to me that they have an education system that privileges early over-achievers and those who are annointed (through culturally-constructed measurements of intelligence and intellect, as all such tests inevitably are) brilliant. For these latter people, the current system is great. I'm not saying this group is not brilliant by many standards, but many have had extra resources (including geography and race), and the "others'" cultural formation produces knowledges devalued by official French institutions. Some of France's most famous intellectuals have weighed in on these subtleties of power distribution through education, in particular Roland Barthes and esp. Pierre Bourdieu, to which the majority of French, some of them quite well-educated, remain unaware. See Barthe's classic essay "Dominici, or The Triumph of Literature". Bourdieu, for his part, produced several works
" * showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with their social position
* showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style — all part of cultural capital — are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job)."

The privileged groups have all sorts of nepotistic networks and opportunities as the result. They will get into comfortable positions and are not obligated to meet any goals that would require them to uphold their privilege, while the high rate of unemployment may prey on the less fortunate. Of course, the same nepotism and education system that selects out the elite may not be broken by such a law. The same employers who overlook well-qualified Africans and Arabs and academically elite achievers, may not ruthlessly dismiss their select employees even if they do not perform up to their ability.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope raised the question of how this law is worse than the current situation: "Defending the CPE contract, Cope argued it was better than the present situation in which 70 percent of employees under 26 work under short-term contracts of only a few months, after which they can be fired just as easily as with the new contract."

As mentioned above, this is the first time in decades that unions, socialists, communists and students have come together. Why do these old dudes support what was initially a youth protest? Interestingly, most of the articles I found on the web don't mention the larger context of dwindling benefits and security:
The main contingents on the trade union sections of the marches tended to be older workers concerned not only for the future of their children and grandchildren but also their own situation: the second largest category of the unemployed in France is workers over 50. They have been hit by the harsh reductions in unemployment and retirement benefits imposed since 2002 by the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) government of President Jacques Chirac. For them the administration is proposing the “CDD Seniors”—short-term contracts for workers over age 57, and a low-wage-combined-with-pension contract for retirees.

However, these schemes were not raised on the demonstrations. Nor was the New Hire Contract (CNE—Contrat nouvelle embauche) mentioned, which was passed last August without a fight from the unions or the left parties. Designed for small businesses employing less than 20 staff (4 million workers—29 percent of the French workforce) it was the template for the CPE. Laurence Parisot, chairman of the big business organisation MEDEF (Movement of Enterprises of France), has criticised its friends in government for not implementing a contrat unique—extending the provisions of the CPE to all French workers. She told the press on Tuesday, “We have some reservations. It’s never good to treat young workers in a separate category.”

It's not an issue with an easy solution. The aspiration of market capitalism to keep its labor costs low has always resulted in attempts to prevent labor from organizing and collectively demanding job and wage security, not to mention workplace safety. For employers, the CPE can fit right into this tradition of dismissing any notion of worker rights to job and wage security. Though France, again, has a strong safety net, the fear that this is just the beginning of a neo-liberal trend that was bound to wash over France sooner or later is quite real. Afterall, it's been washing across the globe to the tune of There Is No Alternative.
See this NYT/IHT article or this for more.


David said...

I would hope that there is some sort of alternative to the global neo-liberal trend because the CPE seems mightily unprogressive to me. This is the angle that most interests me:

For workers in the States, or workers who are on the new CPE, firing can come without warning. But effectively, what does this mean? Instead of the blanket protection that workers have now in France, it would come down to the needs of the employer versus the performance of the worker.

This would result in a "create-your-own job security" situation. Stronger, more skilled workers would have more job security (they are less subject to firing), while less qualified workers will have more of a problem with precarity.

The problem with this is that LESS qualified workers are the POORER workers, or, say, African and Arab.

So the gravy train ends for the youth of today and even more drastically for the lower social and economic classes.

Obviously it's not so simple as that, but there may be some major demographics issues with the CPE.

Jayson said...

I hear you, Dave. Not that this invalidates anything you're saying but despite my concern for social-economic rights, I'm not happy with the stasis of French bureaucracy. I'm not sure what excatly the answer is to this problem. Liberals here (educated, pro-market and safety net) predictably think that taking away job security will produce better quality in job performance. Is there any compromise where morsels of their position are worth considering (I find it strange that I'm in the position of writing this)?

Second: I read that 70% of people under 26 are already on short-term contracts that give them no security. I suppose this law just allows them to legally extend the 70 to 100%.
Thanks for your input, though. I'm trying to study this one more.

David said...

Some sort of comprimise might be possible, but that delves much further into economic and legal issues than I am able to follow.

It seems everyone mentions the difficulty in firing "deadweight" employees. Perhaps this would be more useful to focus on--the illogical laws preventing reasonable firing/laying off. This would be a more productive fix for firms--allowing them more flexibility, and might only loosely reduce job security.