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The French Make Law in the Streets, Here Congress Does It

By Peter Brown

During the Iraq war, much was made about how different France and the United States had become. There is no better example than the recent political eruptions in the two nations.

In France, they apparently are able to make law in the streets.

Here in the United States, it's still done in the halls of Congress.

That's the only conclusion available after the French political system caved to political pressure from massive demonstrations and shelved a plan to attack the nation's 20-plus percent youth unemployment rate.

Meanwhile, as advocates for immigration changes here that would legalize and perhaps grant citizenship to illegal immigrants continue to flood the streets, U.S. lawmakers - at least for now -- have been unwilling to bend to their will.

French President Jacques Chirac Monday said he would scrap the law that made it easier for employers to hire young people by giving firms the flexibility to fire those workers without cause for two years.

By caving to the protests, Chirac bowed to pressure to retain the French system of worker protections that has made double digit unemployment overall a way of life there.

The flexibility the change would have given French employers in dealing with workers age 26 or less would still have been less freedom than employers have in the United States - where the unemployment rate is 4.7 percent - to hire and fire.

The drive to give employers more flexibility was proposed to make the French better able to compete in a global economy. But the Chirac reversal means that once again, much like its brethren on the Continent, the French have opted to put a premium on their domestic desire to avoid change even at the prospect of future economic woes.

Meanwhile, as advocates for immigrants in America have assembled impressive numbers of people at their marches, the U.S. Senate last week went home unable to agree on what to do about immigration reform.

Now, one reason for the different reactions in Paris and Washington to the protests is the two nations' different political cultures. Labor unions, who fought the effort to give employers more flexibility, carry much greater clout there than here.

Historically, European demonstrators have been much more successful in quickly changing governmental policies than in the United States. Witness the inability of street demonstrators to stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq, or to force a pullout.

Even during Vietnam, the golden age of U.S. protests, it took almost a decade to force a pullout. Remember, George McGovern, the candidate of the demonstrators, was the biggest loser in U.S. presidential history.

Moreover, polls show the French people are much more committed to a government-regulated society that supplies a guaranteed social safety net but produces lower living standards for its people than enjoyed in the United States.

And, in fact, polls showed the French public agreed with the demonstrators that the change in the employment law was harmful to the status quo they cherish.

Public opinion in the United States on immigration, however, appears to be much less supportive of the street demonstrators. Americans do back stopping the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, and there is a consensus for such steps in Congress.

But the breakdown in efforts to legislate the changes sought by the demonstrators on U.S. streets - legalization and perhaps eventual citizenship for those here illegally - reflects a lack of consensus in the American electorate.

And that is the point the politicians in the United States well understand.

Demonstrating in America has been the province of those unhappy with the status quo, but lawmakers remember what Richard Nixon once called "the silent majority," who don't demonstrate but do vote.

It is unclear how many of those marching in U.S. streets are registered to vote - much less legally eligible to do so. As Congress begins its recess this week, you can be sure its members will be taking the temperature of those who do.

That is how laws are made and changed in the United States.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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