Given the mainstream media’s general antipathy towards France and nearly unanimous endorsement of neoliberal corporate globalization, it’s no surprise that reporters covering the massive student protests in France would be unimpressed with pleas to protect workers’ rights.
The policy under fierce debate would allow many French employers more “flexibility” to hire and fire young workers without cause—something that, unsurprisingly, students and workers oppose. But they get little sympathy from U.S. pundits and journalists, who endorse the changes as the proper medicine for an ailing French economy.
In a March 21 editorial, the Los Angeles Times advised that the protesting students deserve “Fs in Economics 101,” since the law is necessary to “restrict generous job protections” that prevail under the current system. Such protections, the Times contends, are at the root of the country’s high unemployment rate; thus, it is “little wonder that French businesses are reluctant to take on the burden of hiring new employees.” Going one step further, the Times suggested a different strategy: “A smarter response would be for the students to demand that job guarantees be loosened for workers of all ages.”
The economic assumptions about France (and Western Europe as a whole) are consistent throughout much of the media coverage, and are hardly new (see “Europe Says No-to Pundits’ Advice,” Extra!, 9-10/05). A March 21 article in the New York Times referred matter-of-factly to the need for Western European countries to “loosen rigid labor laws and trim costly benefits,” then went on to chide those governments for hesitating in the face of widespread popular opposition: “Few have the political will to force those changes on their societies.” How, or why, an advanced democracy would “force” massively unpopular laws on its population remained unexplained.
Fox News host John Gibson—who once hoped that Paris would win its bid to host the Olympics, because then the city would have to deal with the threat of a terrorist attack (7/6/05)—lampooned the protests (3/28/06): “The rioters don’t want to work and the threat of firing if they’re lazy or won’t work is what they’re mad about.” Gibson added that “French youth are angry they won’t have the same chance at a lazy do-nothing job which they can’t get fired from—same as their parents.”
But other, more serious reports sounded similar notes. “The French have long enjoyed privileges all sorts of other people around the world do not have,” ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas explained on March 28. Moments later, reporter David Wright was making the same point to protesters. When one told him, “We can’t allow our bosses to lay off without any purpose,” Wright insisted: “But it is this way the world over.” CBS reporter Sheila MacVicar was blunt, declaring on the CBS Evening News (3/29/06) that “these students are not revolutionaries demanding change, but reactionaries insisting on the status quo.” The usual definition of “reactionary” is not one who defends the status quo, but one who attempts to turn back the clock—by repealing labor protections, for example.
MacVicar’s framing was the same as Time magazine’s, with a headline in its March 27 edition that read, “The Revenge of the Not-So-Radicals.” The magazine noted that protesters’ wishes to maintain workers’ rights might be “a noble sentiment, but lurking beneath it is something darker: a deep fear of change.” And New York Times reporter Elaine Sciolino (3/15/06) wrote that protests were motivated in part by “fear of change among France’s middle and working class. This is not about promoting grand revolutionary ideals.”
That assessment was matched by U.S. News & World Report, which headlined its short piece (4/3/06) about the protests, “Is Paris Burning? Yep—for All the Wrong Reasons.” Like other reporters for outlets that could not be more pro-establishment, Brian Duffy criticized the protesters for being insufficiently radical:
Listen to the kids in the streets, and there were brave comparisons between their hooliganism and the May 1968 protests that toppled de Gaulle. But take a second look, and it’s plain as the sign on the corner tabac that the rioters not only have nothing in common with the soixante-huitards but are their philosophical and intellectual opposites. . . . Today, the young running roughshod over Paris want only stasis. They have gone aux barricades in defense of the status quo.
The problem, wrote Duffy, is simple economics: The protesting students and trade unionists must “understand that the 35-hour workweek, the six weeks of paid annual leave, the jobs for life are as endangered a species as the dodo bird. None of the kids outside Napoleon’s tomb want to hear it, of course, but change happens.”
But while reporters and pundits are sure it’s a simple matter of economics, not everyone is convinced. As economist Mark Weisbrot argued recently (Knight Ridder, 3/30/06):
Their public pensions, free tuition at universities, longer vacations (4-5 weeks as compared with 2 weeks here), state-sponsored daycare and other benefits are said to be unaffordable in a “global economy.” But since these were affordable in years past, there is no economic logic that would make them less so today, with productivity having grown—no matter what happens in India or China.
The fact that there is so little debate over these issues in the mainstream media might be good for some overconfident pundits, since often what they’re arguing can seem a little peculiar. Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, for example, used the turmoil in France to rail against the American left (3/28/06): “When you hear far-left Americans use the terms ‘economic justice’ or ‘income inequality,’ you should know these are code words for socialism, a giant government that would guarantee each American a house, healthcare, nice wage, retirement benefits, the usual entitlement list.”
As if that weren’t supposed to sound bad enough, Fox’s leading self-styled populist put it a different way to Jeff Faux, founding president of the progressive Economic Policy Institute: “Wait, wait, wait. Let’s be honest here. If you’re a French worker, you get seven weeks vacation. You work 35 hours a week. Thirty-five hours a week! That’s your workweek.”
Faux’s response was direct: “And what’s wrong with that?” It’s a question many in the media should ponder, instead of reflexively bashing French protesters for their unreasonable demands.