Are the French Rebelling Against Risk-Taking And Innovation?

Bruce Nussbaum

I'm trying to make sense out of a million French--led by the country's best-educated students--taking to the streets, holding strikes and battling the police to protest against a law that would allow businesses to fire young people 26 or under in their first two years of employment. The goal of the legislation is to make hiring and firing more flexible in France (where firing is so expensive and arduous that businesses don't hire so they don't have to fire). Keep in mind that in France, the unemployment rate is around 11% for everyone, 20% for people in their 20's and 40% for people in their 20s who are born to Arab or African parents.

To me, the whole, strange episode is about risk--the French are striking against risk. They don't want risk in their lives--they want stability and feel entitled to it. Guaranteed jobs are part of that entitlement. Which would be OK if there were enough jobs to be guaranteed and of course there aren't. To get jobs you need growth, not guarantees and France has not been able to generate enough growth in years to cut its terrible unemployment rate.

Which brings us to risk and innovation. My guess is you need to embrace risk in order to innovate. That is one of the key cultural aspects of innovation. If you can't or won't, you lower your national innovation productivity. At least that's a hypothesis that may fit what's going on in France.

Or not. Maybe the French innovate best in big systems and organizations and not as individuals or entrepreneurs. After all, the Minitel predated the Internet by a decade. The Airbus is French at heart. The nuclear, telecom and rocket industries are world-class. Is that it? Do the French need to avoid personal risk to take institutional risk? To feel individually safe to be organizationally risky?

Argh. Are there any French people out there who can explain these street protests to me in terms of risk, innovation or anything else?