FRANCE

'French firms lack the flexibility required to lay off staff'

Jeb B., 50, has just been fired for the second time since his arrival in France, back in 1990. Yet, this Franco-American economist still thinks French companies should have more freedom to lay off staff.

Advertising

Jeb B., 50, has just been fired for the second time since his arrival in France, back in 1990. Yet, this Franco-American economist still thinks French companies should have more freedom to lay off staff.

Jeb’s story is the fourth in our series dedicated to the surge in unemployment, after those of Alexander ('A job at all cost'), Michel Tudeng ('I’m in a hell of a mess') and Sophie D. ('Fired in ten minutes').

A US-born French citizen, Jeb B. has been working in France since 1990. He has just been fired. 

I don’t quite know how I’ll cope financially given that it’s unlikely I’ll find a new job soon in the present economic climate. I’ve put a little money aside to cover expenses while I wait for compensation and the benefits I’ll be getting in May.

As a trained economist, I’d say there are problems inherent to the French labour market.

Our model here in France relies on a simplistic and populist vision whereby the bosses are always evil and we are the poor, hapless employees. When we’re fired, we grumble and curse at the injustice of it all, as we French are expected to do. But there is no justice in the workplace. Companies aren’t there for that; they’re around to make money. One shouldn’t be fooled, we’re all capitalists the minute we open a bank account. Even Besancenot [the leader of France’s new Anti-Capitalist Party] is a capitalist!

Here, workers are overprotected and very difficult to lay off. But the same rules that were designed to protect workers are now having a negative effect on the labour market.

As the world changes all the time, so companies need to reinvent themselves. Whenever a factory shuts down we see many protests and debates. Of course, it’s sad for the people who lose their jobs, but a factory can’t go on functioning with the same old production methods for ever. In any case, globalisation has created far more jobs in France than it has destroyed, particularly since France is such a huge exporter.

 

Compared to their US counterparts, French workers also suffer from a lack of mobility. This in turn affects investments, as companies are loath to hire workers they won’t then be able to shake off.

This is why I think the crisis will last longer here than in the US. Since it began across the Atlantic in September, the unemployment rate there has almost doubled, from 5% to 9%. But I think the effects of the Obama plan will start kicking in soon, whereas France will feel the slump for much longer. I’d say the jobless rate here could jump to as high as 15-16%.

Because they can shed their workers more easily, US firms also hire more freely, which is why the number of unemployed remains lower. On the other hand, statistics show that having more holidays means French workers tend to be more productive than their holiday-starved US counterparts.

However, it would be wrong to think that there is no such thing as unemployment benefits in the US. It’s just that the system is different. Whether you used to earn 200,000 euros a year or a minimum wage, you get the same allowance. The idea is to guarantee a minimum standard of living for the household, while encouraging people to find a new job fast. Here, earnings-based benefits are designed to help unemployed people hold on to the same lifestyle. As a result, you’ll never see a qualified worker applying for a waiter’s job – something that’s quite possible in the US!

Of course, no country is perfect, and all should be open to testing new solutions. I’m not suggesting that the American system is necessarily the best. I’m all for the protection of workers when it comes to health care and a system that helps the jobless find suitable employment.

At the end of the day, I came to France because I wanted to live here and because I believed in an ideal of social security. And I still do today. "