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Law and disorder in France

Patrice de Beer
20 March 2006

As hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated all over France last week against a new labour contract for those under age 26, national legislators were debating the first reading of a bill designed to regulate peer-to-peer internet networking – in fact, translating into French law a European directive dating from the 1990s. Nothing could have better illustrated the abyss between civil society and those who are supposed to represent it.

For those old enough to remember, the protests – which culminated on Saturday 18 March in rallies where student organisations and trade unions mobilised more than one million peaceful demonstrators – appeared to have a flavour of May 1968. Students occupied the emblematic Sorbonne, the heart of Paris universities, and police faced stone-throwing youths. This time around, though, the occupation was brief and the stone-throwers relatively few (mostly hooligans and extremist militants from the far-left and extreme-right).

Student protests are a classic feature of French politics. They shook President Charles de Gaulle’s legitimacy in 1968 and, at least three times in twenty years, have shaken Jacques Chirac’s power, forcing him to backtrack from anti-student or anti-youth legislation; in 1988, Chirac lost the presidential election and in 1997 his party suffered numerous defeats in legislative races. The same scenario seems to be shaping up today, with similar political consequences possible in 2007’s presidential (April-May) and legislative (June) elections.

France, in these dying years of Chirac’s reign, appears to limp from crisis to crisis, unable to cope with one before the next erupts. In October-November 2005, the country was aghast when youths of black and Arab immigrant origin in the French suburbs confronted the police and torched shops and cars in their thousands to protest against joblessness and social discrimination. In January-February 2006, the nation was shocked by the kidnapping and murder of a young French-Jewish salesman, Ilan Halimi, by a ruthless gang whose leader uttered bloodcurdling anti-Semitic slogans. Now it’s the students’ turn as France shows itself unable to advance beyond words to find long-term, concrete solutions to problems.

A choked system

French politicians seem to be enamoured with laws. Whenever a problem crops up, a bill is drafted, sometimes in emergency circumstances and often without legislators taking enough time to study the potential side effects. In 2005, the senate complained about all the approved bills waiting to be implemented. Of the thirty-three laws passed in 2004-05, seventeen had not been put into effect by 1 December 2005 because the necessary regulations had not yet been drafted by government ministries; for the same reason, thirteen were only partially implemented. As an example, four months after the August 2005 bill concerning small and medium businesses – the main job-creators at a time when unemployment is close to 10% – was approved, none of the fifty-three measures provided by it could be put into action.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde. Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

“France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

“The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine” (October 2005)

“France’s political sclerosis” (October 2005)

“Paris in flames: the limits of repression” (November 2005)

“France’s enarchy” (November 2005)

“Child’s play at the CIA” (January 2006)

“France’s immigration myths” (February 2006)

“China’s responsibility” (March 2006)

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Thus new regulations are piling up on top of each other, making it more and more complicated to implement them. The labour code now weighs several pounds and no streamlining is on the way. In the past six months, prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s government has created two new labour contracts which have supplemented, rather than replaced, earlier ones. Employers have to cope with a regulations jungle which, instead of making management easier, further tangles up their operations. This might explain the business community’s lack of enthusiasm for the new contrat première embauche (CPE, or “first employment contract”). The CPE doesn’t simplify employers’ work, its loose drafting may drag businesses into court – and it has created new, unwelcome social tensions.

What students contest in the new CPE – with the support of two-thirds of public opinion, according to the latest poll published by the CSA Institute for Le Parisien newspaper – is the lack of job security it will create for them during their first two years at work. The bill also appears to be contrary to national legislation, as well as to international conventions, because employers won’t have to provide their young employees with any reasons for firing them with only a few days’ notice.

This reinforces the point that laws are too often drafted to provide political answers to problems rather than technical solutions to them. This traditional pattern of French politics has been exacerbated by de Villepin’s personal style of governing. Without bothering to consult his own ministers (not to mention the government legislators he once called "assholes") before taking decisions, the prime minister’s first priority is to placate his main rival for the 2007 presidential election: the ambitious interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy (de Villepin alternately calls Sarkozy – his number two in government – “dwarf” or “fascist”.)

De Villepin relies on a bloated cabinet made up mostly of bureaucrats whose experience of life outside the corridors of power is even shallower than his own. In the present CPE crisis, de Villepin has failed to adequately feel the pulse of public opinion – just like in 1997, when he advocated dissolving parliament, bringing back to power a bewildered left under Lionel Jospin – and has not been able to garner enough support from his own camp.

When bills become an expediency and pile up without sense, when their passage through parliament becomes more important than implementing them, then the major tool of governing a country runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. This is even more serious at a time when voters, all over the world, have become weary, if not suspicious, of their own democratically elected representatives. And, finally, to show the ridiculousness of this situation, we only have to listen to Renaud Denoix de Saint-Marc, head of the Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, who recently told the conservative daily Le Figaro: “We have to stop the legislative inflation, which has worsened in the last fifteen years … We are thus suggesting the government draft a new organic law regulating the legislative process.” In short, a new law to stop the churning out of new laws.

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