Huge demonstrations have taken place recently in both France and in America that highlight the very different ways the two countries cope with globalization.
Whether you are Francophile or -phobe, the French demos should make you nervous. On the other hand, the American protests add a bit of brightness to a gloomy month.
First to France. Hundreds of thousands of students and workers have taken to the streets and shut down schools, trains, air service, and even the Eiffel Tower. Bands of masked youths, apparently from suburban slums, have burst into downtown Paris, smashing windows and setting cars alight.
The demonstrators’ grievance? They are protesting a new labor law that would make it easier to hire unemployed youth, including alienated Muslim immigrants who set slums ablaze in days of violent demonstrations last fall.
The law stems from French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s desperation to create jobs to sop up immigrant discontent – which could morph into Muslim radicalism. Moreover, unemployment is not just an immigrant issue; overall French joblessness lingers at about 10 percent, around 25 percent for 15- to 24-year-olds. Part of the problem is that French labor laws make it so hard to fire anyone that employers are reluctant to create new jobs (which often come with high benefit packages).
The new labor law would make it easier for employers to fire young workers during their first two years on the job. This would give youths the chance to enter the workforce. But French students want the same cradle-to-grave security enjoyed by their parents.
I’d like those benefits, too, like long vacations and free health care. Not to mention the 35-hour workweek, and the fact that, in 2004, the average French worker retired at 59. But France, like much of Europe, can no longer afford to maintain all of its elaborate social welfare scheme.
A shrinking workforce has to pay for the pensions and health care of an ever-larger share of the population that isn’t working. High French tax rates can’t be raised much more. Meantime, the French have not figured out how to absorb the tide of Muslim immigrants from North Africa; isolated in slums and alienated from the system, some will seek solace in Islamic extremism. The demonstrators in Paris have no answer for this dangerous problem, which also concerns us.
This brings me to the contrasting demonstrations that have sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of more than 10 American cities. Around 500,000 U.S. immigrants, both legal and illegal and mostly Hispanic, marched recently in downtown Los Angeles.
Unlike their counterparts in France, the Angelenos were demanding the right to keep on working – many at low-level jobs for low pay.
Specifically, they were protesting the passage by the House of Representatives of a tough immigration bill that would make it a criminal offense to live here as an illegal immigrant. The Senate Judiciary Committee has just passed a very different bill that would create a guest-worker system and allow illegals a path toward legitimate work status.
My purpose here is not to set out the ideal immigration bill – an issue that divides both political parties. Let us instead focus on the sharp differences between the ways the French and the Americans confront immigration and jobs.
In Los Angeles, the demonstrators were insisting on their right to join America’s political and economic system. Many were already legal, hardworking immigrants, who take low-level jobs other Americans don’t want and work their way up. Rather than hunker down in ethnic enclaves, or burn cars, they were making their opinions known to Californian politicians.
And the politicians were listening. This issue is hot. Many Americans fear the loss of jobs at every level to the forces of globalization, whether by outsourcing to China or from the willingness of immigrants to work for less pay.
But unlike in France – where an elitist prime minister sprung his controversial labor law on the public – the immigration bill will be fully aired before American voters. Americans are used to absorbing immigrants – this is, after all, an immigration society – and believe in the concept of working your way up the ladder. They just want the system to be fair.
In France, the students are marching to keep privileges the country can’t afford, and keep the labor system rigid, while immigrant youth are lashing out at a system they despise. Down that path lies danger.
In America, workers are concerned but realistic about globalization’s challenges, while immigrants want to join the system. Such realism doesn’t eliminate problems, but offers some chance to resolve them.
I love Paris, but I’d rather live in the United States.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.