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"Striking idiocy" of revolting youth

Theodore Dalrymple in today's Times makes some wise observations about the French protests, linking them to over-dependence on the State, and warns the British not to get too complacent.

THE SIGHT OF MILLIONS of Frenchmen, predominantly young, demonstrating in deep sympathy and solidarity with themselves, is one that will cause amusement and satisfaction on the English side of the Channel....

Of course, demonstrating in huge numbers is what the French do from time to time. We should never forget that to break a shop window for the good of humanity is one of the greatest pleasures known to Man. Trying to topple governments by shouting insults is also great fun.

We like to think of France as having a deplorably statist and centrally controlled economy, while the French like to think of Britain as a land of savage liberalism (in French parlance, the two words are as inseparable as Siamese twins), divided unequally between plutocrats and beggars. In fact, the two countries differ far less than is often supposed. While it is true that there remain some differences — despite Gordon Brown’s best efforts, the British labour market is still more flexible than the French — the similarities grow daily more striking (as it were).

Good to see that I am not the only one to make jokes like that.

The ultimate cause of the demonstrations and strikes in the two countries is the same: the State has made promises that it is increasingly unable to keep. It has pursued policies that were bound in the end to produce not just cracks but fissures that could no longer be papered over. The main difference is that while Dominque de Villepin is tentatively dragging France, albeit kicking and screaming, and with every likelihood of failure, in the right direction, Mr Brown is still stuck on the royal road to disaster, for which the British people, but not of course Mr Brown, will ultimately pay very dearly. When the crash comes, the social dislocation in Britain will make French disaffection seem positively genteel.

Whether they know it or not, the people on the streets in France were demonstrating to keep the youth of the banlieues — who recently so amused the world for an entire fortnight with their arsonist antics — exactly where they are, namely hopeless, unemployed and feeling betrayed. For unless the French labour market is liberalised, they will never find employment and therefore integration into French society. You have only to speak to a few small businessmen or artisans in France — the petits bourgeois so vehemently despised by the snobbish intellectuals — to find out why this should be so. The French labour regulations make employment of untried persons completely uneconomic for them.

It is often pointed out that French unemployment under the age of 26 is the highest in Europe, running at about 25 per cent. Moreover, in the banlieues it is 50 per cent. These banlieues are homes to millions of people, disproportionately young. It follows — does it not? — that there must be a considerable section of the young population in which unemployment is less than a quarter, actually much less. One would hardly have to be de Tocqueville to guess in which section of the young population the unemployment was less: the section from which the demonstrators, or at least their leaders and agents provocateurs, are drawn. In an increasingly desperate situation, the demonstrators are so afraid of the future that they want to hang on to their privileges and job security by hook or by crook, even if it means that the youth of the banlieues will eventually have to be kept in order by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, the much-feared riot police, the CRS. There is nothing idealistic or generous about the demonstrators, just as there wasn’t in 1968.

There are of course deeper but intangible problems that are even more difficult to solve than the inflexibility of the labour market. If you speak to small businessmen in France, they will tell you that the young in any case do not want to do the kind of work of which there is no shortage. At a time of such high unemployment, artisans have no one willing to be trained by them, even if they are willing to take the risk by taking them on. This is even though such artisans are so overwhelmed by work that a carpenter, for example, is booked up for more than a year in advance and can charge almost anything he likes.

We have no reason to condescend to the French, however, for the British are in fundamentally the same boat, with a few extra problems of our own. The vast and fraudulent expansion of tertiary education, which leaves students indebted for their own useless education, is merely a means by which the Government disguises youth unemployment and keeps young people off the streets. Contrary to government propaganda, unemployment is not low in Britain: but it is now called sickness.

Our economy is corruptly creating public service jobs — endless co-ordinators of facilitation and facilitators of co-ordination — but not many in the private sector, the only true measure of economic health and growth. Any fool can create public sector jobs, and Mr Brown has done so: but not even the most brilliant man can make them economically productive in the long term.

The expansion of the unproductive public sector at the expense of the wealth creating private sector has at last been receiving the attention it deserves in the quality press. Of course, in encouraging this expansion, Labour is increasing its voting base. But in the long term the economy will be the worse for it. I work in the private sector, and when I started work, the pay, relative to the public sector, was high enough to trade against the job security and comfortable pensions that the latter provided. This is no longer the case. Why, then, should talented people go into the wealth creating sector, when the risks are not balanced by the rewards? My response at one time might have been that working for the Government is stifling, that rules, both written and unwritten, jargon and political correctness make day to day working life intolerable. However, the dead hand of bureaucracy is encroaching on business too. As Martin Vander Weyer said in last week's Spectator, Chancellor Gordon Brown:

... hates the free market because he cannot control it...

The prosperous business communities of the south and east of England never needed Brown’s helping hand. But the north and the Celtic fringes could have benefited hugely from a resurgence of the private sector, whether in the form of small, craft-based enterprises or giant, foreign-owned factories. What they have had instead is an explosion of state and local government spending: through my North Yorkshire letter box this week came a council tax demand for double the amount I paid in 1997, accompanied by an invitation to contribute to a ‘Corporate Assessment self assessment’ exercise to help the county council examine how well it works ‘in partnership, to deliver improved outcomes across the board for our communities’. The result of this job-filling, paper-chasing extravaganza across the whole of mainland Britain north of Watford Gap is, according to an analysis by the Financial Times, that public sector growth has been racing away at 4 per cent, more than twice the feeble rate of private sector growth; in the north east, the differential is more than three times. Likewise, public sector wage inflation has been running at well over 4 per cent — though Brown claims he will halve it this year — and when he boasted of a net 170,000 increase in jobs in the past year, he failed to point out that 131,000 are in the public sector. In my part of the world, you can see the results in every large town and city: industrial wastelands and tatty discount shops alongside palatial new offices for quangos and benefits agencies.

Theodore Dalrymple puts it well in his summing up:

The British economy has all the brilliance of a fish rotting by moonlight, and eventually — to change the metaphor slightly — the bill will come in. And since so large a proportion of the population is now dependent, wholly or partly, on the State, the bill will be a large one, not only in financial terms but in social terms as well.