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Europe: Protests Show Europeans' Resistance To Change

Demonstrations in Paris last month (epa) The French government this week bowed to weeks of demonstrations and scrapped plans to introduce a new youth labor law. The protests in France may have been the loudest, but people in other European countries have similar concerns about reforms that cut benefits or make jobs less secure.

PRAGUE, April 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For 15 years, Alice McGlone has paid into a pension fund believing she could retire at 60 from her local government job.

But planned changes mean she'll have to keep working till she's 65, or have less of a pension. And so she joined around a million public-sector workers across the United Kingdom last month on a one-day strike.

"These pensions are not huge, the average Unison [local authority employee's] pension is only 3,800 pounds [$6,600] a year," she says. "[These] are poorly paid jobs, and if your reward is that you're allowed to go a bit earlier I think it's worth striking to hold on to that."

It's not just the United Kingdom that has seen such job action. There have been strikes in other European countries recently -- a sign that many across the continent are concerned that reforms are taking away some of the old job certainties.

In Greece, thousands of bank workers went on a one-day strike against government pension reforms.

In Germany, workers staged the country's biggest public-sector strike in more than a decade over plans to extend working hours.

And, of course, in France, plans to make it easier for companies to fire young people brought thousands onto the streets, finally prompting the government U-turn on April 10.

Reexamining Labor Traditions

"In many European countries there's an awareness that in an increasingly tough and competitive economic environment things that have been traditions, particularly as regards labor markets, now have to be reexamined," says Helen Wallace, an expert at the European University Institute in Florence.

In France, those traditions mean benefits like long vacations, a shorter work week, and generous job protection. And while that's fine for those on permanent contracts, it makes firms reluctant to hire, and so contributes to high unemployment.

"Because it's so complicated to hire people, because you have so many contracts, and it's so complicated to fire them and you end up in the courts -- that's partly why there's such a high unemployment rate in France," says Aurore Wanlin, an expert with London's Center for European Reform. "[It's been] around 10 percent for over 20 years, and in particular for the young people, for the last 20 years unemployment rates for young people have been about 20 percent"

Thinking Long-Term

Proponents of reform say countries like France, Germany, and others have to make changes to keep their economies competitive and to bring down unemployment. Rigid labor laws need to be loosened, to make it less of a risk for firms to hire. And putting off such reforms, they argue, will send economies into decline

"You can't ask people to be happy that you're introducing flexibility and that you're going to make it easier for companies to fire them," Wanlin says. "In the short term you'll have more pain, there will be more people losing their jobs and you'll have resistance to that, that's normal. The problem is we have weak leadership who aren't explaining to people that, yes, there is short -term pain, but in the long term it will be better."

The trouble is, the French case has made it clear that to attempt reforms at this point in Europe would amount to "political suicide," according to Simon Serfaty, an expert with the Center for Security and International Studies in Washington. Most immediately, he says there's a lesson here for the man claiming victory in Italy's general election -- center-left leader Romano Prodi.

"The reaction [in France] showed how difficult it is to change such matters," Serfaty says. "France has always been very difficult, but it will prove to be true for Prodi as well if he wants to engage in the structural reforms that need to be pursued. The first lesson from the French experience is a reminder that it has become so very difficult to do what needs to be done."

(RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan contributed to this report)