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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

After weeks of debilitating protests and strikes, French President Jacques Chirac last month succumbed to pressure from students and unions and withdrew the controversial youth labor law that had set much of his country on edge.

George Mason University law professor Harry Hutchison warns that France’s refusal to implement the law will disproportionally harm poor youth, particularly 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 former South African President Nelson Mandela rose to political power, White South Africans realized 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 months, 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 it, as Villepin had sought.

Cynthia Estlund, a professor of labor, employment and property law at New York University, says the new law could have 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.”

– By staff and wire reports

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