Yekaterinburg is Russia’s fifth largest city, about the size of Marseilles and Lyons combined. Assuming the French students have an open mind, they should be astonished, unsettled and perhaps a little ashamed of what they find there. The under-25s in Yekaterinburg dress much the same way and listen to some of the same music as those in Lyons and Marseilles, but they live in a world that couldn’t be more different. In today’s Russia, nothing is easy but everything is possible; in France, by contrast, everything is easy but nothing is possible.
There is zero job security in Yekaterinburg. France has a plethora of long-term, short-term, temporary and limited work contracts that are at the heart of the current dispute. Russia in theory has a civil code that lays down workers’ rights, but in practice you get hired the same way you get fired, at the snap of a finger. Précarité, the word that brings millions of young French people out into the streets, is the norm there. Forget about a pension big enough to retire on—you have 40 years to figure that out. Health care is more problematic, since getting sick puts you on the fast track to poverty. If you’re unlucky, your employer runs out of money to pay you. If you’re really unlucky, you get caught in the middle of an extortion racket. But if it all works out—as it increasingly does—you get to shape your own future in a way French kids would envy.
First of all, there’s plenty of work. Youth unemployment is about 23% in France, and almost 1 in 10 school leavers does not have a permanent job five years after taking the baccalaureate. In Yekaterinburg, being out of work is a luxury few can afford. The demand for energetic young people is so high that ads for the best jobs scroll along the bottom of prime-time programs on local TV. A free newspaper with job openings, the Urals Work Weekly, would be as thick as the yellow pages if such a phone book existed. Russia hasn’t yet discovered equal opportunity laws, so most jobs stipulate that only those under 30 or 35 need apply. Then there’s the range of opportunity. Want to become a sushi chef, a marketing consultant or a bank manager? No problem. No previous experience required. Nobody else in the country knows how to do those jobs either. Or why not set up your own business? There’s no shortage of people willing to lend you money. (But watch out for those extortionists.)
Tatiana Bildyug, to take but one example, is in her early 20s and switched from accountant at a uranium-processing factory to development director of a shopping mall. The pay’s not much better, but the job is a lot more dynamic and fun, she says. That sort of career move is typical of this generation, the first truly post-Soviet Russians. They are the best customers at Pavel V. Kukarskikh’s string of restaurants in town, and the only people he will consider hiring. “The young want to live well,” he says. “They have a taste for life. In 15 to 20 years they’ll be running the country, and that’s good.”
It could all go wrong, of course. Even if it does, Yekaterinburg’s youngsters are unlikely to copy the French and stage rallies demanding that the government provide long-term job security. Russians have already been there and done that. It was called communism, and after 74 years of failing to make it work, they dumped it. Once French student leaders have soaked up this atmosphere, I would expect them to be asking themselves some difficult questions. Viewed from Yekaterinburg, French kids are far better off than they realize.
You don’t go hungry if you’re unemployed. Everyone has access to a wealth of social and health benefits that Russians can only dream of. If anything, the French are too well off. A 2005 poll shows that 76% of French 15- to 30-year-olds aspire to civil-service jobs from which it’s virtually impossible to be fired. But if you don’t take risks when you’re young, when will you? Russia’s total precariousness is scary. But France’s total absence of it is almost as bad. It’s a recipe for stagnation. In 15 to 20 years, some of those millions of French students who are taking to the streets today will be running France. Only a foolhardy gambler would bet that they’ll do a better job than their Russian contemporaries.