France: “Job Security at Any Cost”?

Squeezed April 3, 2006

Ah, Paris. The city of lights, burning with the light of cars on fire. Again.

This time it’s over an employment law that would allow an employer to fire anyone under 26 for any reason within the first two years. Of course, here in the U.S. where anyone can quit or be fired at any time, this sounds like a really nutty reason to riot, but it’s a big thing in France. Says Michael Stickings at The Moderate Voice:

I think I’m with Chirac on this one (let me know if you think I’m way off). The modifications to the law seem quite sensible to me. They would prevent an employer from simply firing an employee under 26 at will. Whatever my general criticisms of Chirac, I think he does understand “the anxieties expressed by many young people across France” and I think his efforts “to defuse the situation” have been sincere. In addition, “has also told employers not to put the law into practice yet, as he wants to hold more talks with business leaders and trades unionists”.

Not that the opponents of the law will back off. This is now a cause. Once the French are in the streets, it’s awfully hard to get them off them.

Make no mistake, if the United States had 20% to 40% of its young people without a means to support themselves, for sure something would be broken.

Of course, I don’t know why Chirac just doesn’t bite the bullet and adopt, whole hog, the American system of nearly universal “at will” employment, where anyone can be fired or laid off for any reason, but on the flip side, anyone can voluntarily leave their jobs for any reason. I think it would definitely solve the problem of youth unemployment. I mean, here in the U.S., it’s older people who have trouble finding jobs after layoffs and downsizing. Young people have it better here.

Part of the difference seems to be the culture. In France, once you’re in, you’re in; layoffs are virtually unheard of. And employees will stay with their companies until they retire or expire.

By contrast, and using myself as an example, I’ve been at my current day job for about three and a half years. That’s the longest stretch I’ve ever been at a single company. And of those changes, some were entirely my choice, and others were forced on me. Such is the fluid, somewhat unstable nature of employment here in the U.S. But at the same time, that fluidity adds up to flexibility. People here in the U.S. will willingly uproot themselves in search of the Perfect Job.

Certainly, for a problem of this magnitude, there needs to be some sort of legal remedy. And Chirac backing down by making the probationary period only one year and basically saying that it has to be for a reason (not sure if it’s “for cause” in the way that phrase is used here in the U.S.) is a good step toward reconciliation. But what young French people should do, rather than rail against the change, is take advantage of the flexibility this provides. They should shop around and find the best job, and they shouldn’t be afraid to take the initiative and say, “J’arrête.” Of course, this is easier said than done, but that’s what it’s going to take…changing hearts and minds and a culture that worships job security at all costs.

France should do what it can to encourage job creation. Job security is an important concept too. But you can’t have job security without a job.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments from first time commenters are moderated and will be posted at my first opportunity, usually within 48 hours.