Why our protesters are better than France's
The French job-law protests were about preserving privilege, while the U.S. immigration protests were about creating opportunities.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - The only protest march I ever participated in was in Amsterdam in 1987 or 1988. The premise was absurd: University students were opposing a government proposal (which was later-enacted) that they pay tuition if they failed to graduate within six years. (College was otherwise free.). I was studying at a Dutch university at the time, some friends were marching, and I thought it would be fun to join in.
In defense of privilege
As I remember, it was fun, an unlikely mix of anarchists, fraternity boys, and student government types - people who were too busy doing other stuff to graduate on time - gathering to waste a day on the streets of the big city.
That it was also a gathering of privileged people out to defend their privileges at the expense of others in their country (the taxpayers) was something I didn't think too hard about at the time.
I'd like to think that most of the university students clogging the streets of Paris over the past few weeks were of a similarly muddled yet benign mindset. But I fear that may be too generous.
The French protesters actually succeeded in killing off the government's plan to make it easier to fire workers under the age of 26, after all. And coming so soon after the suburban riots perpetrated by young immigrants with little chance of getting hired by French employers in the first place (youth joblessness in immigrant neighborhoods is said to top 50%), you had to be a bonehead not to see what the job-law protests really were about.
What they were about was this: Affluent French university students, who stand an excellent chance of getting jobs when they graduate, were protesting against a law that would have made those jobs slightly less secure.
Meanwhile, that same law almost certainly would have encouraged more French employers to take chances on less-qualified young folks like a lot of those young immigrants out in the burbs.
It doesn't get any starker than that: Privileged people fought successfully to maintain their privileges, at the expense of the less privileged.
It's the same story, more or less, with France's neighbors in Germany and Italy. Their postwar social and economic model isn't working anymore, but those who benefit from it are fighting as hard as they can to preserve their privileged status, and have so far mostly gotten their way. (The Germans, to be fair, are actually moving ahead with a change in job-security laws similar to the one just rescinded in France, but they've still got a long way to go.)
A sign of strength
Contrast this with the marches in many American cities against the House of Representatives' proposed immigration reform bill. Regardless of what you think we should do about our immigration laws (faithful readers of the site will be aware that I'm pretty confused), the basic message of the marchers was heartening.
These were immigrants with jobs, asking simply to be allowed to keep doing them. (Plus a few affluent college students who I guess you could argue were marching to protect the privilege of getting the lawns they will one day possess mowed cheaply. But they were a tiny minority.)
Yes, the waving of Mexican flags at some of the events raised a lot of outrage on talk radio, and maybe some of it was justified. Though I wonder, have these people ever seen a St. Patrick's or Columbus Day parade?
But the marches, and the political reaction to them - pushing the punitive version of immigration reform approved by the House in December off the table and clearing the way for a more nuanced reform - are signs of the strength of the American political and economic model, not its weakness.
I don't mean this to be an exercise in France-bashing. The French have better coffee, better bread, better cheese, a more efficient health care system, an arguably better energy policy, and vastly superior children's clothes.