The right to assemble is a pillar of free society. But in France it's the only pillar its citizens seem to take seriously. So much so that any public debate of import gets conducted in the streets rather than through the ballot box or institutions of a purportedly mature democracy.
In less enlightened societies, as opposed to the birthplace of the Enlightenment, that's usually called mob rule. But the violent street demonstrations roiling France's cities today, and the unhappy career prospects of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, are the latest symptoms of an ailing democracy.
The troubles began with student unhappiness about a new "First Job Contract" law, adopted by the National Assembly two weeks ago. They grew into a protest movement once the unions joined in. A nationwide strike has been called for next Tuesday. The merit of the new law isn't the issue here. One can hate the new law as well as the tactics employed by the mobs to kill it. The bill is designed to reduce the youth jobless rate of 23%. But if France wants to reverse a 30-year pattern of low growth and high unemployment, it needs to tear down labor law barriers across the board, not just for people under the age of 26.
Reasonable people could have had a spirited debate about this policy. So why didn't they before the jobs contract became the law of the land? Parliaments and elections exist so complicated issues can be digested and decisions calmly taken. France went from little discussion to protests in central Paris, blockades at the Sorbonne and a rampage through a McDonald's restaurant. That's "civic discourse"?
The masses on the streets reply that this is the only way to fight a sclerotic political system, and the claim isn't without merit. MPs and the president face voters only every five years. The National Assembly is notoriously unresponsive to voter concerns, though the chicken-and-egg problem is that citizens don't bother even to try to sway their representatives. The jobs bill was pushed through using a special procedure that allowed for little debate or amendment. It is the brainchild of Mr. de Villepin, an official chosen by party rule and heir apparent to deeply unpopular Jacques Chirac.
The roots of the problem go back further. The French have never shied away from guillotining aloof rulers, from Louis XVI to, more figuratively, Charles de Gaulle. Lesser men have fallen to nationwide protests, and Mr. de Villepin may be next. All these small revolutions were inspired by the French Revolution, but France never managed to establish a political system both durable and flexible.
How instructive it would be to send Alexis de Tocqueville through France today. He'd find dependence on the state and the absence of individualism, symbolized by the low levels of private charity and civic engagement. He would not find the bounty of groups and lobbies of healthier democracies. "In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government," Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" asserts, "in the United States you are sure to find an association."
Yes, the banners of student groups add color to the street demonstrations. But look closer. The force with real bite is the public-sector employee unions. Blue-collar workers long ago abandoned the union movement, leaving civil servants who, like Charles de Gaulle once said of France's cosseted farmers, are desperate to hold on to their "mediocre but secure" posts.
The government workforce -- one-quarter of the population -- can terrorize the majority by stopping the trains or turning off the electricity. In other words, the state funds its own opposition, which torpedoes even modest efforts to modernize France. By marching with the public-sector unions to defend this status quo, the boys and girls of the Sorbonne are saying they want to be "mediocre but secure," too. What a dream for a 20-year-old. And a useful warning to Americans about the danger of giving public-sector unions too much power as well.
In its post-Revolutionary history, France has been characterized simultaneously by instability and immobility. In the 217 years that America has lived under a single Constitutional order, France has been ruled by 10 different regimes. Yet the France of de Gaulle's "Fifth Republic" has had fewer leaders -- five -- than the Soviet Union did by the time of its dissolution in 1991. Stability and dynamism are surely a better formula for a successful state. And the only proven way to get there is a stronger democracy.
Nicolas Sarkozy, a presidential candidate, wants to make the president more directly accountable by removing the rule against his speaking before the Assembly. Others are calling for a new constitution to replace the current one, which was designed in the troubled days of 1958. A real parliament would help. France's growing protests make the case for a constitutional rethink. When the thousands on the street assert the right to make laws for the millions, a country loses its right to call itself a "democratic republic."