Thursday, March 30, 2006

Europe Against Change?

When I left Amsterdam yesterday morning the big headline in morning paper De Volkskrant announced that Europe was in the streets against change.

"Europeanen protesteren tegen verandering" was the text all of the first page.

And my Dutch was enough to understand what that meant.

It was of course primarily concerning the French protests against the rather minor changes in labour law introduced by the French government, but the story tied them also to other protests in other European countries at the moment.

Most of yesterday, however, I spent in Paris, partly discussing these very issues.

There is little doubt that there is a deep-seated malaise in French society. It might not entirely be a coincidence that malaise is indeed a French word.

The reasons are deep-seated.

De Volkskrant speculated that we now have a situation in which the young generation in numerous European countries now fear that they will fare less well than their parents did. This then in stark contrast to what has been the case during a very long time.

Indeed, on the labour markers you can see signs of this. Youth unemployment is very high in a number of European economies, with it approaching a quarter in France at the moment.

To this should be added a number of more specific French factors.

A political class that it seen as too detached. A feelings that France is losing its position in Europe. A fear of globalisation that is constantly fed by the national debate on these issues. The ever-present issue of immigration and its consequences for society.

And the mood on some of these issues are different in France than in many other countries.

A recent global poll revealed that only 36% in France saw free markets as the best way of organizing an economy and handling the future. This was well below most other significant countries.

Indeed, the corresponding figures for the United States was 71%, for the UK 66% and for Germany 65%.

At the very top was actually China, where the figure was 77%.

So France is a country where attitudes to the market economy are more sceptical than even in China, and where liberalism - no to speak about so called neoliberalism - is a distinctly dirty word.

The changes that the de Villepin government want to do in the labour laws concerning young people are minor and eminently sensible. It would bring France in line with several other European Union countries.

Their future is now in doubt after the massive protests.

What we see in France illustrates that there is a profound malaise there, but we should also be aware that this is only a part of a wider malaise in the political debate across Europe.

Whether this will prevent further structural reforms or not is an open question.

The real world is still driving reforms.