Everybody who matters—business federations, the business press, economists, conservative governments, Tony Blair, the New York Times—says that Europe (and especially France) has to “reform.” “Reform” is a polite way of saying that somebody who isn’t “everybody” ought to (has to) get less of something. Last year, unemployment insurance was that “something” in Germany. French “reformers” have gone after every social benefit, including basic social security pensions and health insurance. Two particular targets have been early retirement and the thirty-five-hour work week, which are pillars of the French practice of job redistribution.
When the conventional wisdom is unanimous, as John Kenneth Galbraith warned, we have to be wary. How important is job redistribution to the welfare state as it now functions? What are the motives of the “reformers”? Are the proposed sacrifices necessary to the survival and development of the system or are they a way of taking from the weak to give to the strong?
Job redistribution grew belatedly into an important element of the French welfare state. At first, it was limited to getting two groups off the job market: working-class women with children, who received family allowances as an alternative to paid work, and fourteen-to-sixteen-year-olds, who had to stay in school. Growth was good. French workers worked long hours, and France imported labor. The turning point was the “silent depression” that started in 1974. As steel mills, coal mines, textile factories, and other heavy industries shrank, unemployment inched up. It was at 4 percent by the end of 1975, over 7 percent at the time of the 1981 elections, over 9 percent in 1984. Since then, measured unemployment has stayed in the 9 percent to 10 percent range, frequently higher and occasionally dipping a few tenths below 9 percent.
Ten percent unemployment, plus or minus a point, maintained for twenty-five years, has had corrosive effects. Job redistribution has been the main line of defense against these corrosive effects. Mass unemployment lengthens the waiting line for jobs. Only the best-educated young graduates in areas such as the sciences get a real job before they are twenty-five. Until then, they stay in school, piling up credentials, and getting more tense because of the heightened competition in school and in the job market. They may take apprenticeships or temporary contracts. To the French, a real job means a full-time one, with the protections of labor law, not an assignment scheduled to vanish in six months. Small wonder in this climate that 77 percent of a sample of young people said they would like a civil service job. Employers have their pick. They don’t want the young. And they don’t want people from the Paris working-class suburbs, people with names that sound Algerian or Arabic. Job discrimination and joblessness in general were factors in the background to the October 2005 ri...
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