France Afraid of Free Trade

UPI editor-in-chief Martin Walker explains France’s current labor crisis by its cultural antipathy to free trade. In recent surveys, the French not only supported market economics at rates half of their Western cousins but much less than even the Chinese.

Students, labor unions and France’s political leaders alike all share a suspicion of free trade, free markets and to globalization, which is usually described in the French media as an “Anglo-Saxon” system that leads to intense competition, job insecurity, lower wages and the outsourcing of jobs to cheaper countries. The much lower levels of unemployment in Anglo-Saxon countries like Britain and the United States are dismissed as the result of “Macdo culture,” after the supposedly low-wage and semi-skilled jobs at U.S.-style fast food places like McDonald’s. (Ironically, McDonald’s is a big success in France, opening 30 new restaurants this year, while closing 25 in Britain.) The Anglo-Saxon system of lower taxes and hire and fire and low-wage entry-level jobs is condemned as the raw capitalism of the jungle — despite their higher growth rates.

France touts instead its culture of “solidarity,” which means high taxes to finance a generous welfare state, and a high level of job security that dissuades employers from hiring new staff because it is then difficult and costly to fire them in a downturn. This is the logic behind Villepin’s new labor law that allows employers to hire people under the age of 26 but then to fire them — without explanation — at any time in the next two years.

In short, this tiny step towards an Anglo-Saxon style of labor market reform by the government is being violently resisted because it is seen as betraying the French culture of solidarity, even though that culture is visibly in trouble and failing its under-employed and under-skilled young people. The student revolt and this week’s general strike are thus reactionary rather than revolutionary, even as they are justified as being “progressive” by defending France against the competitive horrors of globalization.

The French critique of free trade is not without merit, of course, as all those things do in fact happen. The benefits far outweigh the costs over time, though, as much higher growth, productivity, and employment ensues.

Sadly, though, things will have to get much worse in France before cultural change can happen. They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into GATT, the Common Market, the WTO, and the EU. There have been riots at the suggestion that French people work 36 hours a week or that French farmers compete with those from other Western countries.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.