Ask any student of history what the French are most famous for and you are likely to be told that they are good at starting revolutions. I remember quite distinctly the 1968 French student revolution that blew a breath of fresh air into European society. More recently, French farmers took to the streets of Paris and even Brussels whenever they perceived that the EU was trying to curb their very substantial agricultural subsidies.
But the most recent revolution is that of French students who cannot accept the labour market reforms that President François Hollande is steering a year ahead of presidential elections.
As is normal in France, trade unions and even farmers have put their weight behind the student protests.
The French economy is not performing well. A bloated civil service, lack of infrastructural reforms and poor political leadership are some of the causes behind this potential minefield that can destroy the aspirations of any incumbent president to be re-elected.
President Hollande will probably be remembered more for his less-than-orthodox personal life than for the reforms he promised in his election campaign but only partially delivered.
When he defeated the centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande based his campaign on a 60-point left-leaning manifesto that promised to raise taxes on business and the wealthy, employ more teachers, partly reverse pension reforms and oppose economic austerity.
Much to his disappointment, his left-wing tactics failed to deliver economic growth. Unemployment, especially among the young, continued to grow and economic growth remains sluggish. Many economists believe that the highly prescriptive French labour laws need to be liberalised if employers are to be encouraged to employ more young people. Trade unions totally oppose this line of thinking.
The irony of all this is that student and trade union resistance to market reforms created a two-tier labour market: the traditional workforce that benefits from various rights or privileges that have been acquired over decades of trade union militancy; and an underclass of young workers who struggle to get their foot in the labour market.
Employers are scared of committing themselves to employ more people as they know that if their business goes into a slump they will have to pay hefty compensation to workers that have to be made redundant.
The Jobs Act seems to be bearing fruit even if it is not the silver bullet that will resolve all the economic problems which are affecting France and Italy
The Italian Prime Minister faced the same problem in Italy when he courageously proposed the Jobs Act to encourage employers to take more risks by employing new workers. The Jobs Act seems to be bearing fruit even if it is not the silver bullet that will resolve all the economic problems which are affecting France and Italy.
Whether the current student protests will be well managed by Hollande remains to be seen. His approval ratings –now below 15 per cent indicate – that it is now too late for the French President to have any chance of winning the next presidential election.
The real problem facing Hollande and many other politicians who say one thing in an election campaign only to forget their promises when in government is that the French electorate have lost trust in their president.
Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and now hoping to be the centre-right nomine for the presidency, encapsulated Hollande’s dilemma when he said: “First one needs to tell the truth before being elected. If the government is stalling now, it’s because voters are forced to drink a potion that does not resemble the elixir they had been promised.”
The worrying reality that many EU countries as well as the US are facing is electorate fatigue. Many hard-pressed workers who are suffering the brunt of sluggish economic performance have lost faith in traditional politicians and are using their votes to elect mavericks of the right or the left who exploit their frustration even if they have no serious plans on how to fix the economy.
As pointed out in the recent G7 meeting in Japan, next year we may see Donald Trump, Beppe Grillo and Marie Le Pen representing some of the biggest global economies. This will not just be an economic risk. It may also be a major political risk as the advent of maverick leaders could see the dismemberment of the EU with no viable replacement to hold EU countries together, the return of protectionism and the exploitation of the political vacuum created would be filled by Russian opportunism on the one hand and terrorist organisations on the other.
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