The Learning Curve

“This is not a game. There is no phone-in here. There is no ‘text-a-number’.” Over the title music borrowed from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, Sir Alan Sugar’s words warn the participants in the BBC version of The Apprentice: “There is no panel of judges that’s gonna make the decision. I’m the one that decides who gets fired, and I’m the one who decides ultimately who gets hired.”

The dig at rival reality game shows such as Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? or X Factor is accompanied by aerial shots of London, making the capital look like Fritz Lang’s vision of Metropolis. Except, of course, this is anything but a critique of rampant industrialisation; rather, a manifestation of the belua ex machina that feeds on human lives. And as the black London cab takes the weekly loser back to the Underground City where we lesser mortals oil the cogs that keep Metropolis functioning, we cannot but help feel bitter towards them for trying to accede to the high-rises.

But is it not possible to imagine a different world? Is this what the French are daring to do? At the risk of sounding like one of the now defunct Carrie Bradshaw’s wishy-washy opening column gambits: does Western society really have to be anchored in a hire-and-fire culture?

On 28 of March, between one and three million people (the exact numbers are impossible to come by) demonstrated in the streets of France. They were voicing the opinion that this hire and fire modus operandi was precisely the kind of working world they did not want. These country-wide protests were the climax of a period of civil unrest that have seen some universities unable to teach a class for nigh on two months now, with striking students operating a strict blockade at faculty gates. The root of all this discontent is Dominique de Villepin’s introduction of the Contrat Premier Embauche (CPE), a first employment contract for under 26 year-olds and a self-professed attempt to curb France’s high unemployment rate amongst the youth.

De Villepin’s idea is to offer employers greater flexibility than the existing binary division between a fixed-term contract (Contrat à Durée Déterminée, CDD) or permanent contract (Contract à Durée Indéterminée, CDI). This latter option is, of course, what is famously but often erroneously referred to as a ‘job for life’. It appears to be somewhere within the ‘flexibility’ of the notion of ‘greater flexibility’ that the discord lies.

The opponents of this new plan claim that the flexibility in question simply allows employers to sack anyone without a bye nor leave within a two-year probation period. And many of de Villepin’s dissenters point to the fact that the problem is not the lack of different types of contracts, but the lack of jobs. From where will these jobs magically appear, they argue? Where, indeed, in the rule book of globalisation, does it state that the lack of job security is a necessity for the greater good of man? For that matter, how is it that the end of the welfare state, too, serves the greater good?

(By the same token, and in an attempt to be fair to France’s current executive, where does it say that Jacques Chirac’s defence of ‘economic patriotism’ will raise societal evolution to the ground? This is only an attempt to protect his people rather than multinationals based out with France. The US government, for instance, has been subsidising Boeing for years.)

On 28 March I found myself on place de la République here in Paris, watching the arrival of the biggest street demonstration in over a decade. For someone not quite used to such political vehemence from such a cross-section of the population, I can understand that it can look quite hairy as the pictures are broadcast around the world. However, it would take some convincing for me to adhere to CNN’s Kyra Phillips’ comments that the images arriving from Paris reminded her of militants confronting the tanks on Tiananmen Square.

This may well have seemed like a pro-democracy demonstration (de Villepin is, after all, unelected and he did push through the CPE with limited consultation), but the French are not demonstrating against a lack of liberalisation. Rather, they want to preserve the social privileges of which they are so proud. And the French police, no matter how hated they may be, were there ostensibly to stop the casseurs, or rioters, upsetting the carnivalesque nature of the otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

Indeed, an example of the sensationalised media-fuelled drama saw several news channels show a clip of a man on the ground, a crutch on his arm, being swept away by water cannons. Little wonder that these shocking images were broadcast almost on a loop. Except that these pictures were taken after the official demonstrations had finished when the casseurs had taken a hold of the square. And if you got to see the entire newsreel, you saw that the power of the water cannons was not strong enough to stop this man from standing up, without the use of his crutch, and throwing the can of beer from which he was drinking at the police.

Earlier however, as I stood around the corner from Habitat, there were a few confusing moments. Habitat on place de la République has inset windows which make great hiding places. Every half an hour or so, as a new contingent of the parade made it onto the square, the casseurs would begin to regroup. To counter this, the French riot police, the CRS would let a horde of panicking demonstrators run down the side streets, prompting me to take refuge against one of Habitat’s windows. But the stampedes were less a ‘run for your lives’ scenario and more a ‘run to grab the last table at one of the cafés along the Canal St Martin.’

I also witnessed one particular young gentleman being arrested twice within the space of an hour. I’m not sure who was being careless here, whether the police had let him off with a simple warning before the boy decided to go back for more or whether he’d simply escaped the clutches of the law. Either way, it’s a statistic that hardly smacks of the strictest martial law. From Tiananmen Square to place de la République? I don’t think so Kyra. No matter how good a media image a solitary figure cuts as he faces water cannons, it seems more akin to sensational journalism than accurate reporting. This was no place de la République massacre. There were no tanks. No civilians were shot dead by the army.

But this is not another political rant from an ex-pat who has chosen to live in this country because of the social values that were once at its very core (though I would be happy to discuss this further — a sufficient number of you simply need to bombard my editor with emails as a true demonstration of the democratic nature of the internet — people power in action). My mind being what it is — a mix between political analysis and trash TV — as I was dodging the makeshift projectiles bouncing off the police shields that day and taking refuge behind an indoor design store, I wondered whether this meant that it would be some time before The Apprentice made it onto French television screens.

On the one hand, we have a country willing to demonstrate massively against a ‘hire and fire’ contract; on the other we have countries such as the UK and the US where that mentality has become so commonplace it has filtered through to primetime TV without anyone really questioning the message of the catchphrase: You’re Fired! If I was to get technical, then this would be an example of Western capitalism’s availability as a signifying code. In the current climate in France this would probably end up an anathema. Unless the concept was tweaked…

For a start, the selection process that leads to The Apprentice‘s final 12 candidates would have to be reconceived as one of France’s national competitive exams. This means that the final candidates that make it through to the television stage of the competition would have to be hired no matter what. And this is where things would become interesting. It is often said in France that it is practically impossible to get rid of anyone who has a CDI. But it is possible to have them muté — or transferred, if you will — whether it be by lateral promotion or kicking them upstairs. Imagine the scene: the day after the first episode is aired, French employees are standing around the coffee machine, pointing at each other and saying “Vous êtes muté!”

Much of the force behind the catchphrase ‘you’re fired!; comes from the sense of power it seems to exude as it passes our lips. But because it’s what linguists call a performative utterance, it only works when someone who actually has any power says it. And yet herein lies its strength: it becomes funny when applied by people with no power to banal contexts. It becomes a fantasy, a means of escape from all the little things that plague our daily lives: the waiter slops down yet another cup of tepid tea: he’s fired. Your colleague listens to their iPod so loud you can’t hear the sound effects to your Tetris game: she’s fired. In a country fighting against this sort of whim, transferring people is about as close to terminating a contract in primetime television as you’re going to get. And I kid you not, it would produce the same sort of effect on the French viewing public.

The only problem left is finding a suitable French multi-millionaire entrepreneur to do the transferring. But what qualities must he have? I have only seen a couple of episodes of last seasons Donald Trump-version of the show, and therefore find it very difficult to see past his comb-over — it’s terribly distracting. But I have come to the conclusion that the host of the British-version of The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar, a businessman with an estimated fortune of £700 million, and the one everyone in the business world seems to refer to as ‘straight-talking’, is without prejudice. As the host of a game show this is important as you cannot be seen to have any favourites. But in fact, this is even more important when building a business empire. Never exclude anyone, never exclude any ideas. Narrow-mindedness is the enemy of money-making. This philosophy has seen Sir Alan give second chances to contestants the rest of the British nation wouldn’t have given a second of their time to.

Beyond the six-figure salary promised to the winner, Sir Alan is also an unwitting guru of cultivating life-skills in his apprentices. He is extremely faithful to his two advisors have been at his side for over 20 years and in turn they have been faithful to him. And Tim Campbell, last year’s winner, has just seen his year-long prize contract extended.

He is also deontologically driven, to an almost virtuous degree. Indeed, he attacked the girls’ team in episode one of this season’s series for using their sexuality to obtain free substandard fruit from suppliers. Worse, they ostentatiously flirted with customers to the point of running after punters offering ‘fresh and juicy melons, two for a pound’ with the fruit held at breast level. If you’ve got it flaunt it, I hear you say. Sex sells! But not in Sir Alan’s book of business. His argument was that this kind of behaviour would make it very difficult to go back into the market place the following day to trade. They might have thought it fun as a one off in front of the BBC cameras, but the dealers you had seduced the day before with physical charms rather than business attributes would not take you seriously when you turned up again the following morning. Businesses should be built today so as to trade tomorrow.

Sir Alan is an example to us all. The foundation of success, it would appear, is loyalty. At least loyalty to those who are going to ensure success in the long run. After all, for every one that gets hired, 13 get fired. But it’s all done out in the open. One thing Sir Alan cannot stand is backbiting: dissing your project manager on The Apprentice is a sure-fire way of getting the boot. And as de Villepin becomes more and more isolated over the CPE, I wonder if it is a wise move for Nicolas Sarkozy, his Interior Minister and arch-rival, to come out and publicly distance himself from his Prime Minister by saying that perhaps he needs to reconsider the whole deal.

We began with Romeo and Juliet and when it comes to this new episode in the de Villepin and Sarkozy power-struggle we could ask: from ancient grudge break to new mutiny? It definitely looks that way, but nobody likes a backbiter. Just ask the demonstrators place de la République. Amongst chants of “Sarko ***** ta mere”, ‘Sarkozy motherf*****r’, there were ironically few slogans directed at de Villepin himself. Someone should tell Sarkozy not to get mixed up in interpersonal pettiness because this is not a game, there is no phone-in here, there is no ‘text-a-number’, and ultimately it’s the people that decide who gets hired — and fired.