French students at the barricades: why 2006 is not 1968

20 March 2006


Images of the Sorbonne occupied and riots in the Latin Quarter evoke heady memories of revolution of bygone days, but are France’s youth simply playing tired old tunes?

A week of demonstrations culminated on Saturday 18 March in protest marches across Paris and in cities throughout France. Students, workers, pensioners and union members took to the streets on a crisp spring afternoon against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE, job scheme for young people). There was a huge show of popular support for the anti-CPE movement with three generations of French people marching side by side in the cortège. According to the unions, over 1.5 million people demonstrated, which represents a significant victory in the government-demonstrator brinkmanship that characterises French politics. The protesters know that history is on their side; six attempts at university and youth employment reform in the last twenty years have foundered in face of mass demonstrations.

Following Saturday’s peaceful demonstration a riot broke out between a couple of hundred marginal extreme left / anarchist groups and the police. Shops and cars were vandalised and set alight around Place de la Nation. Seven policemen and twelve demonstrators were injured in the clashes. The Latin Quarter was equally the scene of rioting as 500 students invaded Boulevard Saint Michel and had a sit-in in front of the Sorbonne chanting: “Liberate the Sorbonne!” and “Down with the state, the police and the employers!”

Despite all its airs of revolution, this is but a simulacrum of May ’68. None of the idealism and spontaneity of ’68 are to be found among the chants of a movement that is seeking to preserve the status quo. The focus of this mass discontent is the reform of the labour law creating a job contract aimed at young people aged under 26 years. The employment rate for young people hovers around 20%. For those in the disadvantaged suburbs it is as high as 40%. Following the riots of October-November 2005, there was a broad consensus that something had to be done for the youth of these under-privileged areas who are routinely discriminated against, even as second or third generation immigrants. Interestingly, the groups who were rioting then have not joined the student movement.

The CPE is a step in direction of reform and it is precisely for this reason that it has run into such difficulty. Essentially the contract seeks to introduce greater flexibility into the French labour market. This is one element of prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s ambitiously titled strategy, “the battle for employment”. Both sides of the French political divide have difficulty in accepting that it is no longer feasible to protect the job, and that the focus should be on protecting the worker.

The CPE includes a trial period of up to two years during which time the worker can be dismissed without the employer having to justify the dismissal. Nonetheless, it also provides substantial guarantees such as the right to training after the first month and a minimum two weeks’ notice for workers dismissed in the first month. The notification period increases according to the number of months worked. Dismissal without justification is the main point of contention for the anti-CPE movement, which claims that this will make young workers “disposable” and vulnerable to the whims of their bosses. This is disputable, however. It’s not uncommon for young people to take as long as ten years to integrate into the job market. Unpaid internships, even for highly qualified graduates, are often the norm in France. These young graduates are voting with their feet – 300,000 French people have succumbed to the allure of El Dorado across the channel tunnel.

The irony of these protests is that de Villepin has succeeded in uniting two quite different groups. Students and young people excluded from the job market “outsiders”) are joining forces with unions and civil servants (“insiders”) against reform. Unions fear that the CPE is merely the first step in an overhaul of the entire French labour market, which explains the groundswell of support in favour of the student protests.

De Villepin took inspiration for his reform from the Nordic concept of flexicurity - implying more flexible labour-market laws combined with greater protection for the worker in terms of training, unemployment benefits and monitoring of the unemployed. The key element of the Nordic model is the consensus-based, collective-bargaining system. France is light years away from this type of union-government relationship. The prime minister did not even consult unions or employers on the CPE, for which he has come under much criticism. Should the CPE be defeated, it will be a major political setback for de Villepin, as the failure of this reform will make it impossible for him to instigate any further reforms before the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections.  

For the lack of consultation alone, the demonstrators were justified in expressing their views in the only way open to them. They have made their point. Now the time has come to negotiate an exit strategy. A general strike is anticipated for next week if the government does not abandon its reform project. However, this would be a pyrrhic victory for France’s youth as the cost of non-reform is too great. Young people feel threatened by unjust reforms. But if the egalitarian French social system is to be maintained, the entire system will need to be modernised.

The youth of France should be protesting for more, not less, reform.

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