The youth of France refer to themselves as the “throwaway generation,” in part because they perceive that their value to the labor market is simply disregarded by the government. Against this backdrop, young French workers recently took to the streets in riot to protest a newly enacted employment law that stripped employees under the age of twenty-six of many of their employment protections. The protests persisted after the French Constitutional Council held that the law did not violate France's constitution. The continued violent opposition ultimately forced French President Jacques Chirac to abandon the law, resulting in an embarrassing defeat for the government. Through unified action, French students, accompanied by union support, had forced the government to back away from a law that the youth perceived would limit their employment rights.
In the United States, Congress has passed similar legislation affording greater employment protections to older workers. The U.S. Supreme Court has also recently acted in General Dynamics Land Systems, Inc. v. Cline, to make clear that protection from age discrimination in employment was intended for older, rather than younger, employees. Even more recently, in Smith v. City of Jackson, the Court further restricted the employment protections of all employees on the basis of age. In response to this legislation and these Court decisions limiting their employment rights, however, American youth have remained silent — their complacency standing in stark contrast to the reaction of French youth. By failing to act, young American workers have permitted the erosion of their employment rights.
This article examines the structure and social context of employment law in France and the United States in an effort to explain the disparate reaction of the youth to similar labor laws and court decisions. The article provides a detailed analysis of relevant age-related legislation in each country, and examines the reasoning behind the recent French Constitutional Council and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The article concludes that the different reactions of youth in France and the United States can be explained by three factors: (1) the varying unemployment rates between the two countries; (2) the different role that unions play in France and the United States; and (3) the fact that the French government, as opposed to the United States government, has a recent history of acquiescing to the demands of youth. The article proposes that by finding a collective voice, American youth — through peaceful means — can act to ensure that their employment protections are not limited any further. Ambivalence is simply not an answer.
Joseph A. Seiner, Understanding the Unrest of France’s Younger Workers: The Price of American Ambivalence, 38 ARIZ. ST. L.J. 1053 (2006).
First published by Arizona State Law Journal, Volume 38 Issue 4.