Mark Lilla in the NYRB:
While the political class fumbled, the French economy remained dangerously stalled. At 10 percent, the unemployment rate is the highest in twenty years and one of the highest in Europe. (The German unemployment rate is 6 percent, the lowest in twenty years.) Half of those out of work have been so for at least a year. The Hollande government recognizes that structural reforms (such as changes in working hours) are needed but is stymied by the opposition of unions, Socialist members of Parliament, and the wider public, which is economically conservative, attached to its suffocating web of small privileges, and ready to resist forcibly if provoked. (It must be added that EU debt policies have exacerbated the problem by preventing the government from further stimulating growth and investing in public works.)
In October Air France employees protesting a company plan to reduce its workforce broke into negotiations and attacked two company officials, who were saved by their union counterparts. Pictures of fleeing businessmen with their clothes in shreds were on every front page. In June taxi drivers with medallions shut down parts of Paris and the airport in protests against nonunionized drivers for Uber, beating several up and smashing a number of their cars. Under this pressure the Constitutional Court shortly thereafter ruled illegal one of Uber’s most popular services.
The forward-looking finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, fully measures the cost of France’s economic failure and has called for major reforms. All he has been able to obtain, though, is an absurdly modest package that could be passed only by using a complicated constitutional maneuver that obviated the need for a parliamentary vote. The law increases slightly the number of Sundays that stores can open and the evening hours workers can work, and simplifies the labyrinthine process for getting a driver’s license so that young people can get to jobs. Long-distance bus companies can finally compete with the national train system on major routes, and some closed, archaic legal professions that date to the ancien régime will be opened up.
After months of hysterical doomsaying, these were the only changes. The psychological barriers to further change—such as extending the standard thirty-five hour workweek or simplifying the country’s labor code that makes hiring and firing a nightmare—are high. A poll last year found that over two thirds of the French support allowing more stores to open on Sundays. Less than half, though, say they would be willing to work on those days.
Perversely, this paralysis swells the ranks of potential National Front voters, even though the party has no economic policy to speak of. So does perceived paralysis in dealing with immigration and refugee issues. In fact, France has accepted relatively few asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, and rejects their applications at nearly three times the rate of other European nations. But this is not the public perception. One reason is the long-festering situation in the so-called “jungle” of Calais. For a decade and a half now France has had to deal with large waves of illegal migrants, from Albanians to Kuwaiti Bedouins, who are trying to make their way to Britain and find employment. (Given the dire economic situation, they have no interest in remaining in France.) Several large encampments have grown up near the Calais Chunnel entrance and every night anywhere from a dozen to a thousand of the mainly young men try to sneak through on foot or hide in the trucks in line. Some die trying. It’s a police nightmare and a humanitarian disaster.