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France Will Continue to Mirror Apartheid-Era South Africa, Says Law Professor

France Will Continue to Mirror Apartheid-Era South Africa, Says Law Professor


      French President Jacques Chirac succumbed to pressure from students and unions on Monday and has withdrawn the controversial youth labor law that triggered massive protests and strikes across the country.

      According to Harry Hutchison, a visiting law professor at George Mason University, the French government did not have the courage to implement the law and “the costs will be borne disproportionately by the poor — particularly poor immigrants.

      “Some of these individuals will likely find work in the underground economy and will continue to have poor long-term prospects as the law of unintended consequences continues to discourage French employers to take the risk and employ marginal workers,” he says.

      Hutchison adds that in this sense, France will continue to mirror apartheid-era South Africa. During the period before Nelson Mandela rose to political power, White South Africans understood that if they raised the minimum wage high enough, they would not have to discriminate on the basis of race. The theory said most South African Blacks lacked sufficient skills to justify employing them in “White jobs.” Hence the employment of South African Blacks remained at a very low level for most of the 20th century, says Hutchison.

      While some French unions celebrated what they called “a great victory,” students who had planned more demonstrations appeared more cautious, saying their movement would continue for now.

      Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who wrote the law, had faced down protesters for weeks, insisting that its most divisive provision, a so-called “first job contract,” was necessary to reduce high unemployment rates among French youths by making it easier for companies to hire and fire young workers.

      A somber Villepin, in a television appearance, explained that his original legislation was designed to curb “despair of many youths” and strike a “better balance … between more flexibility for the employer and more security for workers.

      “This was not understood by everyone, I’m sorry to say,” Villepin said.

      The new measures increase the government’s role in the work place instead of decreasing them, as Villepin had sought.

      Cynthia Estlund, a professor of labor, employment and property law at New York University, says the new law could’ve been helpful. “It follows conventional economic wisdom [of hiring and firing employees at will] that is used in the United States. Young people don’t have a track record. When you throw into the equation young, poor Muslim employees, it’s not hard to understand the employer’s position.”

      Estlund says globalization is undermining some valuable protection. “Lives are more humane because of flexible labor laws, but that doesn’t mean you can protect against these barricades.”

      Villepin drew up the labor legislation as part of his response to last fall’s wave of rioting in France’s impoverished suburbs, where many immigrants and their French-born children live. The unemployment rate for youths under 26 is a staggering 22 percent nationwide, but soars to nearly 50 percent in some of those troubled areas.

      The plan sparked weeks of protests and strikes that shut down dozens of universities, prompted clashes between youths and police and snarled road, train and air travel.

      Unions had been threatening more demonstrations and walkouts just hours before the announcement from Chirac, and some students appeared unwilling to abandon their protest right away.

      “We must go forward carefully,” says Lise Prunier, an 18-year-old biology student at the University of Paris-Jussieu. “For the moment, our movement will continue.”

      Some of the unions trumpeted the retreat by Chirac and his prime minister.

      The labor law “is dead and buried,” says Jean-Claude Mailly of the Workers Force union. “The goal has been achieved.”

      Alain Olive, secretary-general of the UNSA union, says, “After more than two weeks of intense mobilization, the 12 syndicated groups of workers, university and high school students have won a great victory.”

      The new, four-point plan sent to parliament would bolster existing job contracts, rather than enact new ones. The government would offer more state support for companies that bring on young workers.

      Other provisions would increase internships in areas where jobs are relatively plentiful such as in restaurants, hotels and nursing or guide jobseekers in their careers.

      The “first job contract” would have allowed employers to fire workers under the age of 26 at any time during a two-year trial period without giving a reason.

— By Staff and news wire reports

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