|Although the demonstrations in recent weeks in France are very distinctively French, there is also a whiff of 'Seattle' about the central issue and thus I find it somewhat troubling that there appears to be no resonance of the campaigns in the English speaking world. Precariousness may sound like an intellectualized, sociological term but it's really dealinig with the concrete, personal everyday reality of what the North American left is more likely to refer to more abstractly as globalization or outsourcing. Globalization and outsourcing are things that happen to "the economy" or "jobs" precariousness is what happens to people.
"Once again, French students are leading the march - this time against an unpopular employment law - but these protests are also about the country's future on an increasingly globalised planet, writes Alex Duval Smith in Paris
Sunday March 19, 2006
IT WAS THE SAME bright spring sunshine and the same familiar elegant landmarks, but the hundreds of thousands of young demonstrators on the streets yesterday were a whole new generation. Almost 40 years since the great student protests of 1968, France's students are again manning barricades, café tables are being thrown at police riot shields, and tear gas hangs over the Left Bank.
France was again showing its revolutionary fibre and, in the republican tradition, it looked last night as though victory was close to being with the people.
As early as today beleaguered Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is expected to begin talks with trade unions to find an honourable climbdown from the Contrat de Première Embauche (CPE) - the controversial employment contract for under-26s that allows employers to dismiss workers in the first two years without reason - which was rushed into law on 8 March. Villepin may yet restore order by suggesting he might pave the way to withdraw or delay the new law, after a week in which the government and President Jacques Chirac have sent out signals that they want a way out. It's a move that could well put paid to Villepin's reported ambition to run for president in 2007.
The show of strength of the past few days - protests disrupting cities and towns across the country, the occupation of the Sorbonne and a blockade that has closed two-thirds of France's universities - culminated yesterday as what one estimate put at 1.5 million demonstrators. The figures for those protesting in Paris varied from 80,000 to 400,000, but it was a huge demand for political retreat.
As the cortege passed within a paving-stone's throw of the original Bastille, Villepin was said to be in his office struggling with his tactics.
'The street has won again,' said Antoine Pharipou, 21, a student of physical education, as rumours filtered through that de Villepin was signalling talks to avoid a general strike.
The Paris demonstration was largely good-natured, though as darkness fell small battles broke out between police and protesters. By 8pm police had made 28 arrests, mainly during one clash near Bastille when youngsters pelted riot police. Three gendarmes and 12 demonstrators were injured. Scattered violence was also reported in Marseille, Rennes and Lille, where police also charged and tear-gassed crowds.
In the past fortnight, France has seen the growth of a protest movement that many thought impossible in the individualistic world so often decried here. 'Our country has options,' said 22-year-old medical student Raphaelle Delpech, who had lipsticked the words 'CPE non' across her face for the Paris demonstration yesterday. 'Last week, it was announced that the French multinationals had made a profit in 2005 of €84 billion. It is a politician's trick to try to convince us that we need to make sacrifices so those companies can become even richer.'
The CPE was introduced to tackle France's chronic unemployment rate of 9.5 per cent, rising to 18 per cent among under-30s and 40 per cent among under-25s in some immigrant-dominated suburbs. After last autumn's suburban riots, Villepin put forward the CPE as a solution to a real crisis. Supporters of the CPE claim it gives more security than the short-term contracts, called CDDs, in use today. CDDs can last just for two or three months and be indefinitely renewed as long as employees are laid off for unpaid periods of 'rest'.
But a key problem in France is not excessive employment security but an education system that fails the country's needs. While university admissions have soared in the past 30 years, expectations have not declined in relation to the number of jobs available. Only 54 per cent of graduates aged 30 and 35 had found management positions in 2002, against 70 per cent in the 1970s. Shopkeeper Jean-Pierre Gourion, 60, said: 'Youngsters from the immigrants' suburbs are told to get degrees because it's a good thing to do. But we need plumbers and electricians. There are no jobs for these youngsters and their parents cannot give them financial cushions to set themselves up'.
Whether or not Villepin can calm his country, the protests are just the latest wave of discontent in France. It started in May last year when the country rejected the draft EU constitution in a referendum. Then, in October, the high-rise suburbs of France revolted against their miserable social conditions. President Jacques Chirac's right-wing government faces an inglorious twilight in the run-up to the presidential elections in May 2007.
And the left is already asking how it will drag France into the globalised world. But for now, admitted Jean-Paul Tripogney, of the Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes, things could not look better: 'Trade unions have lost themselves in efforts to protect the rights of the employed. We had forgotten the young and the unemployed. If the CPE is withdrawn and the protest movement ends it doesn't matter. The government has given the Left a fantastic gift.'
The Socialist Party, which still has not chosen its presidential candidate, has the upper hand, and looks likely to set precarious social conditions at the centre of their campaign. Yesterday, the Socialist party's first secretary, François Hollande, said: 'The crisis started in the suburbs in November. Even though both movements have not converged, they each reveal a sense of increasing segregation, discrimination and lack of security. What we are seeing is the beginning of a French solidarity movement against the dismantlement of the republican pact.'
The pact, which is difficult to define, has France acting as a locomotive in the world - not, as the country feels it has become, a carriage in a runaway train driven by a world which only cares about profit. To work, the locomotive has to be driven by a headstrong, often paternalistic, president who does not take advice on route-planning.
But the train is currently on a side-track; the politicians are all focused on the elections. First, interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy inadvertently coaxed the 'louts' of the suburbs - as he called them - into weeks of rioting. Now his rival, Villepin, made clumsy by excessive ambition, has brought France to the streets.
If Villepin's presidential ambitions are irretrievable, it leaves Sarkozy as front-runner for the right. He has been prudently silent during the CPE controversy. It is still too soon to say whether his prospects have been damaged by the crisis or whether the French electorate considers him so distant from Chirac and Villepin that he will emerge unscathed.
The protests may have evoked memories of the exhilarating youth movement 38 years ago. But in those days France felt good about itself. Ten million workers could afford to go on strike for their ideals. One new factor in the protests of 2006 is the presence of 'les lycéens' - 16 and 17-year-olds, often from the immigrant suburbs. They may provide the generational and geographical bridge that the protesters need.
On Friday, the Boulevard Saint Michel was briefly blocked by 20 teenagers from Seine-Saint-Denis. 'We've come in from Le Raincy,' said one hooded young man. 'We shut down our school at the beginning of this week.Today, our demonstration was broken up by the riot police who used teargas. That's why we decided to get on the train and come to Paris.'
As the good-spirited, balloon-waving, dancing, largely white demonstrators marched through Paris yesterday it was difficult not to save a thought for the miserable, unemployment-ridden high-rise suburbs for which the CPE had been conceived. They burnt for six weeks last autumn and the fires were not put out by political concessions but by the heavy intervention of the riot police.
There may be a malaise in France that includes both the universities and the suburbs. The revolutionary fibre of 1789 may still be there. But it does not work for everyone.
A history of protest
May 1968: Protesters against the Vietnam War join forces with students opposed to a plan to devolve universities. Action by Maoist, Trotskyists and anarchists at the University of Nanterre, near Paris, spreads to the rest of France, culminating in national general strike action by 10 million workers. Four demonstrators die during clashes.
1976: France's longest student strike lasts from March until May. The issue changes to university education which the students see as professionalising further education and increasing selection.
1983: Socialist Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy scraps university entrance selection, leading to protests by extreme right-wing students at top universities.
1986: Prime Minister Jacques Chirac attempts to reintroduce selection. Hundreds of thousands of students take to the streets. One, Malik Oussekine, dies in a clash with police leading to the creation of SOS Racisme, anti-racism group.
1995: Students protest against education budget cuts and rumours of a plan to replace grants with student loans.
2003: Students and teachers join trade union action to safeguard state pensions and fight decentralisation.
October 2005: Urban violence erupts in French high-rise suburbs after the deaths during a police chase of two teenagers at Clichy-sous-Bois outside Paris. Three thousand arrests.