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Definitely not ?68

Whenever students come out and protest in the streets of Paris, the trade unions are not far behind, and the government trembles.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2006 00:19 IST

Whenever students come out and protest in the streets of Paris, the trade unions are not far behind, and the government trembles. It can either signal the end of a political career or leave the government weakened. The May 1968 disturbances undermined the legitimacy of President Charles de Gaulle and he had to quit soon after. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin finds himself at the receiving end today. Despite the government having been forced to give in to the students’ demands and ‘replace’ the new labour law, the unrest is not quite over. It has cast a long shadow on the presidential aspirations of de Villepin. The only winners in this episode appear to be the trade unions and the ambitious Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Every student revolt invariably elicits comparisons with May 1968 that has remained emblematic of revolutionary zeal. But this time, there was no ideological conflict, no desire to change society, but merely a fight to retain the status quo and to resist reform aimed at making the job market more flexible.

Within a space of six months, but for different reasons each time, the French youth have taken to the streets. This time, more than one million people (though the unions claimed three times that number), marched nationwide on two occasions protesting against the new ‘first employment’ contract, now notorious merely by its initials, the CPE. In November last year, rioting wrecked the suburbs of Paris and many other French towns where the poorest immigrant communities live. The social unrest was blamed on racial discrimination, lack of job opportunities, especially for the school dropouts who do not manage to find work for any length of time. The unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent in France is among the highest in Europe. In these suburbs that have become symbolic of delinquency and deprivation, youth unemployment can reach as high as 40 per cent.

To create job prospects for such unemployed youth, Dominique de Villepin, the embattled prime minister drafted a new labour law to boost employment for the under-26-year olds. The idea was to get employers to recruit for a two-year trial period, during which the employer was allowed to end the contract without any explanation whatsoever. Since firing a worker in France is an extremely complicated, long winded and onerous matter that only dissuades small companies from hiring workers, the flexible contact was designed to get more people into work and shake up the stagnant labour market. For an unemployed youth, it should, in theory, make sense to have a temporary job for two years than to spend years tempting or to have no job at all. But that is not how the students interpreted it.

The main difference in the current demonstrations was that the protestors were not the unemployed ill-qualified youngsters of the poor suburbs who possibly are most in need of these kinds of trial contacts, but regular students, often graduates, as well as teachers and trade unionists. A poll conducted among the agitating students found that almost three-fourths aspired to have government jobs that guaranteed life-long security. Plagued by a sense of fear and insecurity, these youngsters are proof of a singular lack of ambition, of an attempt to jump straightaway into a safe and protected employment.

It is as if the first job you get would be yours for life. Students from the top business schools or engineering institutes however stayed away from the street protests, perfectly understanding the need for France to change and be far more competitive. Though the recent turbulence provided dramatic images for television channels, the clashes as a rule were restricted, brief and resulted in far less damage than the disturbances six months ago. The huge demonstrations across the country, the blocking of trains or the disrupting of exams even had a festive element to them. The Sorbonne University was occupied for the first time since 1968. Many students described the occupation as ‘inspiring’ and the atmosphere ‘electric’ as impromptu lectures and debates were organised with the help of sympathetic teachers.

A journalist from Le Monde colourfully described a political night-escapade of a gathering of almost 5,000 students. For almost seven hours, this group of radical Left militants and trade unionists in a spontaneous revolutionary euphoria walked merrily around the streets of Paris drinking wine and beer, shouting rebellious slogans, playing music and singing songs. Covering almost 25 km, they went to institutions that represented the power of the State.

For example, after having reached the National Assembly on the banks of the Seine, the imposing royal building that has housed the lower house of Parliament since 1830, dozens of students urinated on the palace to mark their rejection of this democratic system. Later, having lit a fire in front of the Sacré Coeur basilica, one of France’s most important Roman Catholic buildings, they sang the International.

Despite the continuing agitation in the street, the prime minister remained convinced of his strategy and the law was pushed through Parliament by decree without consulting the unions or allowing a full debate. It was forwarded to the Constitutional Council, France’s highest judicial authority that deemed it perfectly constitutional.

In order to save his prime minster from certain humiliation, the president decided to promulgate the law, with explicit instructions to the private sector not to apply it, till appropriate modifications were made to pacify the agitating parties.

The irony is that the ‘first employment’ contract was only a small part of a broader bill on equal opportunities. But the CPE hijacked the whole debate and the rest of the law went largely unnoticed. The CPE will now be replaced by a new measure specifically aimed at young people in difficulty. The State will provide financial assistance to employers who offer jobs to young people of less than 26 years, who are either untrained or those who come from underprivileged economic zones. The total cost of this measure will be a tidy sum of 150 million euros. There has thus been a subtle shift from the creation of jobs by the private sector to yet more subsidised jobs with the taxpayer’s money.

According to Laurence Parisot, the president of the French Business Federation (Medef), one of the few voices supporting the prime minister’s initiative, “it would be incorrect for the unions to consider the capitulation of the government as a victory. This entire experience has shaken the confidence of the country’s economic partners and foreign investors and brought to the fore the rigidity of the labour market.”

Now that the students, trade unions and the opposition parties have tasted victory, their morale is high and they have decided on their next step: force the government to scrap the CNE, a law similar to the CPE, which allows workers in firms with less than 20 employees to be sacked without justification. This measure was passed by Parliament last year without a murmur.

When a relatively minor proposal to reform the rigid labour market can provoke national outrage and paralyse the nation, it seems highly unlikely that the government will risk attempting anything else before the presidential elections next year. And even after that it will need a lot of political courage to change the status quo. At this rate, how long will the French State be able to protect the generous benefits for its workers? That remains to be seen.

First Published: Apr 17, 2006 00:19 IST