There is a considerable irony in the latest French riots, which are mainly by high school, college, and university students protesting a new law that allows employers to fire employees (without cause) during their first two years of employment, if the employee is under 26 years of age. The law, which has not yet gone into effect and will not if the government caves in to the rioters and their supporters (including public-employee unions, especially in transportation), is a response in part to a previous round of more serious riots, by French Muslims of mainly North African origin protesting their economic situation, which includes an astronomical unemployment rate particularly among the young. (Becker and I blogged about those riots on November 13 of last year.) The overall unemployment rate of the under-26 population in France is in excess of 20 percent, which is greater than that of the adult population as a whole (the corresponding rate for the United States is about 10 percent). The reason is that once hired, an employee can be fired only with great difficulty. Employers are naturally reluctant to hire people, mainly young, many of whom haven‚Äôt worked before (or if they have, it can only have been for a short time), because the likelihood that they will do a good job is difficult to assess unless they have a record of prior employment.
The youth unemployment rate is even higher among Muslims in France, and they are among the rioters, which makes no sense in terms of their economic self-interest. That ethnic French youth should be rioting against a law that would help the Muslims is perhaps surprising given the liberal ideology of most young people in France, yet may be, I will suggest, an expression of rational self-interest.
The youth unemployment rate is largely an artefact of French law. If employers were free to fire employees without cause, as under "employment at will," the most common form of employment contract in the U.S. private sector, they would be much more willing to take a chance on hiring workers without a record of satisfactory performance. Tenuring just-hired workers may be good for those people lucky enough to land a job (though average wages will decline because the expected productivity of a worker will be lower than if he could be fired easily), but like other labor protections it is bad for the marginal workers, such as the Muslims who rioted the last time, and for the economy as a whole. It is part of a complex of unwise laws in Europe that are contributing to Europe‚Äôs economic stagnation.
The rioting by the non-Muslim students may be rational. For if they are the most likely to land jobs under a legal regime in which a newly hired worker cannot be fired in his or her first two years of employment, they may be harmed by the new law. This cost-benefit analysis of rioting assumes that the cost to the students of rioting is low, but it does appear to be, since apparently they are not being expelled or suspended from school. Even the widespread public support of the students may be rational, if that support is concentrated among workers who have tenured jobs and fear that if the new law, though limited to the under-26 work force, goes into effect and is successful in reducing unemployment, it will be the start of a slippery slope leading eventually to free labor markets on the U.S. and British model.
What is particularly difficult to explain from a rational-choice perspective is the widespread public condonation of riots and strikes as methods of forestalling legislative changes. If the public strongly opposes a law, it is much more efficent for that opposition to be expressed in a parliamentary vote to rescind the law than in riots and work stoppages that cause widespread inconvenience and other costs. The inference, assuming the French people are as rational and well informed as other European peoples--which seems the sensible assumption when one consider the high level of education in France, the nation‚Äôs wealth, and the many French contributions to science and culture--is that their political system is not functioning properly; and indeed that seems to be the case. Although the new law is, according to public opinion polls, opposed by 68 percent of the population, it was, of course, duly enacted by the French legislature. Although representative democracy does not automatically translate popular majorities into laws, because of the operation of interest groups and the fact that intensity of preference or aversion is not captured in simple majoritarianism, it would be unusual in the United States for a law opposed by more than two-thirds of the population to pass, though a counterexample is the impeachment of President Clinton by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives. It was opposed by about two-thirds of the U.S. population--but of course Clinton was acquitted by the Senate.
A great country can have a lousy government. (Our government is not doing so well these days.) The design of the French government may be unsound. Ordinarily in a parliamentary system, the head of the government is a member of parliament, that is, an elected official; in a presidential system, too, the head of the government is an elected official. But in France, the president, who is elected, appoints the prime minister. The current prime minister, de Villepin, has never held elective office, and this is a considerable weakness from the standpoint of ability to gauge public opinion and assuage public anxieties, and more broadly from the standpoint of perceived legitimacy in a democratic society.
France has a long history of rioting, but so do many other countries (including the United States), which have outgrown it as their governments stabilized. It seems more likely that the French propensity to riot is rooted in problems of government design than in a peculiarly French proclivity for rioting. But this is a tentative suggestion. For there do appear to be French cultural peculiarities, such as the effort to prevent changes in the French language and resistance to the use of English at academic and other conferences, and to foreign takeovers of French companies, that may be related not to the riots as such but to the intensity with which the French resist globalization and its concomitants, which include competition. The new law that has provoked the riots is designed to make labor markets slightly more competitive.