When I lived in France, I became convinced that the primary purpose of the French government was to undermine the French economy. It’s become clear to me that the population is now in cahoots. There have been sweeping protests across the country in response to proposed legislation to reduce the bureaucracy involved with regard to hiring and firing young employees. “Employ at will” — the law of the land in the U.S. — is quite literally a foreign concept. And working age French citizens have demonstrated a profound unwillingness to accept changes to a system that fosters economic waste and laziness. (Most, however, were delighted to accept the 35-hour work week a few years ago, despite the fact that the most rudimentary education in economics would lead one to the conclusion that it was a ludicrous policy.)
An article in the NY Times by Elaine Sciolo is insightful: “It is a collective failure of the French system,” said Louis Chauvel, a sociologist who studies generational change. “You earn more doing nothing in retirement at the age of 60 to 65 than working full-time at the age of 35. And we have organized society so there is no room for new entrants.”
And get this, in a poll of 22 countries, France was the only one in which a majority of the population disagreed with a free market economy. (36% of the French endorsed open markets, contrasted again 59% of Italians, 65% of Germans, 66% of Brits, 71% of Americans, and 74% of Chinese.) If France wants to preserve its social welfare system, it was little choice, but to press ahead with economic reform. Marie Antoinette is rumored to have said, “Let them eat cake,” I think that the French would benefit from learning a different gateau-related phrase: You can’t have your cake and eat it too.