During Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign earlier this year, he prominently promised to do what no one before him had: revive the floundering French economy. Less than four months into his presidency, Macron is poised to enact some of the reforms necessary for that revival. But he’s getting some pretty significant pushback that should stand as a cautionary tale for the United States.
On Tuesday, thousands of French workers took to the streets in dozens of cities across the country, including Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Marseille, and Toulouse, to protest Macron’s planned reforms. In Paris, an estimated 60,000 marched, and police used tear gas and water cannons to control demonstrators. These rallies and marches were organized by the country’s labor unions, which have been powerful in France for a century, as well as the political party of self-professed communist and former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The proposed overhaul of France’s labor code would include making it easier for employers to fire employees (something prohibitively difficult in France today) and reduce the power of unions in a number of ways, giving employers more room to negotiate with their employees directly. Macron’s hope is that these changes would jumpstart the economy and lower the unemployment rate, which now sits at around 10 percent.
The French are known for their love of manifestations, or protests, a pastime that brings them out to the streets by the hundreds and thousands. Nothing gets their feet on the pavement faster than any sign, large or small, that their privileges as workers or students are being reduced. Those have become sacred, thus it’s little surprise that the upstart kid genius Macron is getting serious pushback against his attempt to overhaul the French code du travail.
It’s Unions and a Unionized Culture
France’s labor unions gained significant power in the inter-war period, and played a substantial role in the nearly constant political upheavals of the 1920s and ‘30s. If any change is made, or even proposed to the labor code, the unions come out in force.
But it’s not just about the unions. An extreme belief in workers’ rights has over the years seeped into French culture, such that the two are nearly inseparable. French workers of all socioeconomic levels consider a litany of perks part of their fundamental rights. This includes the 35-hour work week, two-hour lunch breaks, five-week annual vacation time, and virtually guaranteed job security. France has one of the earliest retirement ages in the world for many public-sector jobs and a mandatory retirement age (it was 67 but a 2008 law now gives the option of working until age 70.)
The French believe strongly that a person lives for leisure, not for work. They don’t understand what they see as an American obsession with working, getting ahead, competing, and maybe being an entrepreneur. For the French, you work to live, you don’t live to work. This doesn’t mean the French are lazy, but it has seriously affected how they approach their work and what is expected of them.
A personal anecdote neatly illustrates French work culture. When I was teaching at a French university in 2011, I once asked a university secretary with whom I had frequent (and frustrating) dealings whether some administrative task that I needed done had been completed. She told me, with an air of indifference to my problem and shock at my request, that she couldn’t possibly be expected to respond to every email that she got. If she did, she would have to write 30, maybe 40 emails a day (an exaggeration, most likely), which was absolutely unthinkable. No doubt it was, given that she arrived at work at 9 a.m., left for lunch for two hours every day, and was gone by 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m. But that, to her, was her right.
President Macron hasn’t shied away from pointing out this cultural problem, nor is he backing down. Just this weekend, he said he would not “yield anything, either to the lazy, the cynics or the extremes,” strongly insinuating that opponents of his reforms are worried that the new laws would require them to work harder, a comment for which he received criticism.
France’s Problems Are Also Our Own
Bashing France has long been an American favorite (remember Freedom Fries?), but rather than mock the French, we should view its labor disputes and work culture problems as a sobering and cautionary tale. If left alone, these problems will worsen and hobble France’s economy beyond repair. And the same could happen to America.
The progressive left in America has long tried to model itself after Europe’s labor laws, unions, protectionism, the welfare state, and above all, universal health care via a single-payer system. It believes, as much of France does, that society is, or at least ought to be, progressing toward a point where people don’t have to struggle to survive. Where the government somehow is able to provide endless social services, essentially subsidizing individual’s income. Where every man and woman is free to live in whatever way he or she likes.
This was at the root of President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic bill of rights that he proposed in his state of the union address in 1944. He claimed that to ensure that all Americans could equally pursue happiness, they had the right to things like housing, employment, and medical care. He believed that “necessitous men are not free men,” and that it was government’s job to make sure that no man had such needs.
This sentiment was echoed when Obamacare was first being rolled out. Advertisements focused on the idea that health care should be accessible for everyone so people can be artists or musicians without worrying about being responsible for their own finances and health.
Of Course People Don’t Want to Earn Their Way in Life
We would all love to live the quintessential French life that has attracted so many people over the years, full of wine-soaked lunches and long, luxurious summer vacations by the beach. But that leisurely French lifestyle is not sustainable on a mass scale. An economy cannot thrive if employers aren’t permitted to fire their employees and if businesses aren’t free to solve problems internally. An economy where employees aren’t permitted to work more than 35 hours a week can only limp along.
Macron’s economic policies were always going to be a huge problem in France because of the French work-life culture, and Macron knew it. He had already tried to enact similar reforms when he was President Francois Hollande’s economy minister, leading to historic low approval ratings for Hollande. Now Macron is getting his own taste of dropping approval (it currently rests at 36 percent).
Macron campaigned on reviving the French economy. But doing so involves some painful changes to France’s fundamental way of life that the country isn’t ready for. Sooner or later, however, those changes will be forced on France, and the illusion of the French life of leisure will crumble. If America isn’t careful, it could find itself falling into the same alluring trap.