The French Unrest and the Labour Market

Morgan Stanley’s Eric Chaney has what I consider to be a very sensitive and perceptive analysis of the economic backdrop to the French urban unrest:

Turning to economic causes, many analysts have pointed to mass youth unemployment as the main cause of the political unrest in low-income suburbs. The numbers are striking: the French unemployment rate reached 21.3% in the 15-24 age bracket in 2004, vs. 13.4% for the OECD as a whole. However, the headline unemployment rate is misleading because, at the same time, the participation rate of the 15-24 age group is particularly low in France: 37.5%, vs. 49.9% in the OECD. Practically, this means that 7.8% of the population aged between 15 and 24 is unemployed in France, vs. 6.5% in the OECD. The difference is not that large. What makes France different from other countries is the very low participation rate of young people, not particularly massive unemployment. In other words, the young in France take fewer jobs than their counterparts in other developed countries……”

“That brings us to a more fundamental point: why is it so difficult to create jobs in France? I have discussed this point in a previous note (“Making France Work”, June 21, 2005). In my view, the causes of the job disease fit reasonably well with the “insider-outsider” model developed by labor economists, provided that it is extended to products and services markets. I will elaborate only on labor market issues, starting with the minimum wage, which I believe is the major hurdle to job creation for young and less skilled workers. However, highly regulated product and services markets, which allow various interest groups to keep markets closed to competition and thus reduce employment opportunities, are another important cause of the job disease……….”

“Originally, the minimum wage was introduced as a protection against excessive employers’ bargaining power (“monopsomy” cases). Over the years, it became a protection against competition from cheap labour. Many studies on French data have shown that a rise in the minimum wage is very negative for employment. Although estimates may differ, they converge qualitatively. For instance, Bernard Salanié (Columbia University) and Guy Laroque (CREST) estimated that a 1% rise in the minimum wage could cost 29,000 jobs (“Une décomposition du non-emploi en France”, Economie et Statistique N331, 2000-1). As a consequence, each minimum wage rise, often seen as a “social measure” in French media, would increase the proportion of people living only on social benefits. This point is particularly important for young and low qualified workers, whose parents are often also unqualified: they suffered twice from the generous increases in the minimum wage in terms of fewer job opportunities for them and their parents and, thus, a lower income for their household.