Last month, Emmanuel Macron, a onetime investment banker who is now the Socialist government’s young minister of the economy, visited Lunel, a small town in southern France. He was taken to task in the street for the “loi travail,” the labor law — recently pushed through by his government — that he was in Lunel to promote. A trade unionist wearing a T-shirt challenged him: “You, you’ve got lots of cash, you buy yourself nice suits.” Without missing a beat, Mr. Macron responded, “The best way to afford a nice suit is to work.”
A video of the interaction has been practically running on a loop on YouTube ever since. To most people in France, this exchange says it all about the gap between Mr. Macron and the working classes. In his eyes, if you don’t have a suit, it’s because you don’t work.
In France these days, not only is it getting harder and harder to find a job, but even those people who have one are unlikely to be able to afford a nice suit. Work pays less and less, except for the elites represented by Mr. Macron. As in the United States, income inequality in France is growing.
The new labor law aims to make employment in France more “flexible.” Its main provision follows a single guiding idea: to facilitate companies’ ability to fire people, which, proponents of the law promise, will make the labor market “more fluid” and in the long run create more jobs. Unions have responded with major strikes at oil refineries, railroads and nuclear power plants, shaking the foundations of power. A sympathetic youth-led movement, Nuit Debout (Up All Night), has also sprung up — albeit disorganized and idealistic — calling into question the triumph of finance capitalism.
The overwhelming majority of the political class, big business, the news media and the intellectual elites have applauded the labor law. For them, the strikes offer yet more proof that France is “unreformable.”
Why is the law the subject of such debate? And how are two of the country’s main trade unions — both in a decades-long decline — managing to stay mobilized and carry out big strikes? Why have people gathered to discuss injustice in public plazas night after night since the end of March under Nuit Debout’s informal banner?
Even though no one knows precisely what effect the law will have, very few wage-earners in France, unionists or not, believe that making firing easier will create more jobs. Logically enough, they think it will create more firings. But more important, the French know recent history and can perceive trends.
The new law is not the first to favor greater flexibility. The past 30 years have seen the gradual deregulation of France’s labor market, and that evolution has been accompanied not by a sinking rate of unemployment but by its steady rise. The strikers can’t imagine why this time would be any different.
Their protests are focused on the part of the law allowing companies to set their own terms for workers’ vacation allowances and other benefits, rather than adhering to a national standard. The strikers fear that this measure will accelerate the disappearance of “bons boulots,” good jobs, and increase the number of precarious ones. Once again, nothing new there. The labor market in France has been offering less and less job security for decades. Today, 85 percent of new hires are temporary employees and the duration of their work contracts keeps shrinking — 70 percent of new contracts are for one month or less. How could a labor law that will encourage even more insecurity stimulate employment?
The government provides no satisfactory response to that question, except to point out that the current situation is not viable and that refusing to change is the worst possible option. For the last 30 years, the unemployment rate has typically fluctuated between 9 percent and 12 percent, with a brief dip in 2007 and 2008. The president, François Hollande, has said that persistent long-term unemployment has created a “social and economic emergency.” Overcoming a long-lasting structural crisis of this type is much more daunting than getting out of a cyclical one.
There are 5.7 million unemployed (including the partly unemployed) workers in France today, the equivalent of some 28 million Americans. Action is urgently required. But the great absence from the debate over the labor law in the government is any reference to the reality of the jobs that will supposedly be created. Most people fill that void with dread.
The current round of strikes will probably come to an end soon. And Nuit Debout has already largely disintegrated. But its American cousin Occupy Wall Street left a legacy, the idea of the “1 percent” and of the noxiousness of ever-growing social inequalities. What’s going on in France now is similarly clarifying trends: To work in the future, you’ll have to settle for being less well paid, and for having worse health insurance and lower unemployment benefits. As for your children, they’ll live in a world with much greater inequality than yours. That’s the new rule.
Sylvain Cypel, a former correspondent and editor for Le Monde, is at work on a book about immigration. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.