FEAR AND FURY

Print edition : April 21, 2006

The streets of France are reverberating with protests against a new law that, it is feared, will heighten job insecurity.

VAIJU NARAVANE in Paris

President Jacques Chirac (foreground) with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The protests started after de Villepin announced plans for the New Employment Contract.-PATRICK KOVARIK/AP

DAY after day, for more than eight weeks, three quarters of France's 84 universities have resounded not with the thud of books, the scrape of chalk on blackboard or the drone of professorial voices, but with the clash of cymbals, the roll of drums and the chanting of slogans. University walls are plastered with posters jeering at Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and deriding a new piece of legislation that would, the students say, usher in an era of unprecedented job insecurity. Notices summon students to yet another General Assembly to vote on continuing the agitation - a fight to the finish, to victory, they promise.

The protests are not limited to the universities. Salaried workers, schoolchildren, pensioners, the unemployed, trades unions, housewives and grandmothers and almost the entire French left-wing Opposition have been out in the streets ever since the present crisis began on January 16, when de Villepin announced his plans to create a New Employment Contract, or CPE, for persons under 26 that would give employers sweeping powers to fire new recruits at any time without explanation during a two-year trial period.

Three days after the Prime Minister's announcement, on January 19, a dozen student bodies demanded that he withdraw the proposal. The Prime Minister refused, and the protest began gathering momentum. On February 7, an estimated 400,000 people gathered on the streets of big and small French towns. But the government carried on regardless, forcibly pushing the hated legislation through Parliament by a decree under Article 49.3 of the Constitution which allows the bypassing of parliamentary debate. On March 10, the protests turned violent with students occupying Sorbonne University. They were evicted by truncheon-wielding anti-riot Special Forces. From that point onwards, the protests went from strength to strength until Black Tuesday - March 28, when an estimated three million people protested, and "anti-social elements" fought pitched battles with the police, set fire to cars and smashed shop windows with the express intention of creating panic and mayhem. Once again, barely six months after the violent street riots that rocked the poor, underprivileged, mainly North African and black immigrant suburbs of Paris and other large, prosperous cities, France was making headlines across the world.

It is tempting indeed to draw parallels with the student riots of 1968, when a barricaded Sorbonne became synonymous with worldwide youth protests. But the two situations could not be more different. In 1968, France was a land of milk and honey. There was an unprecedented consumerist boom fuelled by full employment. What the students wanted was a more just and free society. It was an attempt to overthrow the heavy yoke of paternalism embodied by the authoritarian, ageing patriarch Charles de Gaulle. In an era of economic prosperity and hope, the 1968 student agitation was a heady mix of Marxist politics and new-found sexual freedom that gave rise to such memorable slogans as "It is forbidden to forbid!" Students in 1968 wanted to become the principal actors in building a new equitable and just society.

The demonstrations this time are born not of hope and reckless courage but of fear. With unemployment among the youth as high as 25 per cent of the active population, any attempt to tamper with existing labour laws that give some protection to the worker brings forth howls of protest. For over a decade, France has been plagued by high unemployment and low consumer spending, extremely low job creation and a huge national debt. The growth rate has fluctuated between 1 and 1.5 per cent, while runaway inflation with the introduction of the Euro has genuinely eaten into purchasing power.

The French have been badly shaken by the phenomenon known as "delocalisation", whereby companies shut down their plants in France and uproot their operations in order to implant themselves in emerging economies where labour costs are a fraction of what they are here. Several highly profitable companies have either delocalised to cheaper, less-taxed economies such as Poland or drastically downsized "in order to keep the competitive edge" - an argument that leaves the average Frenchman angry and bewildered.

GENDARMES ARREST A STUDENT on the Gare de Lyon rail tracks. Hundreds of students blocked the rail tracks to protest against the new jobs contract in Paris on March 30.-REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE/AP

Over the last five decades of almost continuous prosperity, the French have internalised the idea of `acquis sociaux' or hard-won "social rights" - such as a five-week paid vacation, a twice-yearly bonus, extremely generous unemployment allowances, health care and pension benefits and a 35-hour working week. But the French population is ageing fast and with increased longevity, the ratio of active persons to pensioners is no longer favourable to future generations. Young people today are paying into the pension funds of sprightly octogenarians without the slightest guarantee that they will be able to enjoy the same level of comfort when they themselves retire. Health care costs are spiralling out of control and the much-vaunted French social model is teetering on the brink of collapse. In addition, global capital, whose single guiding principle is that of profitability, is completely at odds with the idea of worker protection and social justice.

The signs of decline have been there for a long time, but President Jacques Chirac's leadership has been marked by political inaction and a lack of vision. Chirac was elected to his second term on promises to reduce disparities and repair what he termed the "social fracture". But during his 11-year reign, absolute poverty has increased and disparities between the rich and the poor have widened beyond belief.

The country's employers' federation and right-wing politicians have repeatedly said that what the French need is a good dose of liberal medication. "We have to overhaul completely our labour laws, make them more flexible, more responsive to the needs of the market. Employers must have the right to fire employees when it is necessary to do so for the health of the company as a whole. In a globalised economy, companies have to keep the competitive edge or go under. Our present labour laws are so rigid and pro-employee that French businessmen have to operate in an increasingly mobile capital-driven global economy with one hand tied behind their backs. We must change or present model if we are to stimulate growth and pull out of recession," said Laurence Parisot, the first woman head of Medef, the French employers' federation.

Increasingly, French employers have veered away from binding long-term contracts under which it is almost impossible to fire an employee once he or she has successfully completed the three-to-six-month trial period. Instead, they issue short-term contracts and hire temporary staff from "temping" agencies. Employers have also hit upon the highly dubious but vastly money-saving practice of taking on unpaid or underpaid interns to fill regular job positions. In some companies, one intern follows another in an endless parade of often highly qualified free labour, with the result that young people have been hugely penalised in the job market. It is not unusual to find 30-year-olds with double master's degrees staying on at their parents' home because they are unable to find stable full-time employment.

Student leader Bruno Julliard explained: "With a temporary or short-term contract, it is difficult to make any plans at all. Banks won't give you a loan, house owners won't rent you their flats. What do you do? Hang on to your parents' coat tails until you're 50?"

It is with a view to putting an end to this perennial precariousness among young job-seekers that Prime Minister de Villepin decided to introduce a new employment contract. He wished to encourage employers to hire more, giving them a trial period of two years in which to decide whether or not a candidate was good enough to be retained for a permanent post. His method of operation, however, was ill-planned and hasty, dictated as it was by his own political ambitions and the presidential election next year. The backlash was immediate.

De Villepin was named Prime Minister last May after the French rejected the proposed European Union Constitution, which was thought to be too liberal and considered a threat to the famous French "social model". He has been one of Chirac's most loyal supporters and a close adviser; he ran the presidential office for over five years until his nomination as the head of government. The obvious choice would have been the hugely popular Nicholas Sarkozy, France's ultra-liberal Interior Minister. But Sarkozy had stolen the leadership of President Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party from under the ageing leader's very nose and there was no question of ever naming him Prime Minister. His protege, an arrogant career diplomat belonging to France's increasingly disliked elite breed of bureaucrats spawned by the National School of Administration, became the only possible choice.

De Villepin is believed to harbour presidential ambitions and his calculations from the start of his prime ministerial term have focussed on how to reduce the lead Sarkozy had established in public opinion. He quite rightly realised that if he was able to reduce substantially the country's persistently high unemployment figures, he could dent Sarkozy's pre-eminence and present himself as a credible presidential alternative.

A Demonstration in Lille in northern France on March 30.-PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

The so-called reform was therefore undertaken in haste, cooked up in secret in the Prime Minister's Office, and sprung upon the nation without prior consultations or negotiations with any of those concerned - student bodies or trade unions. The debate in Parliament was circumvented by using special powers under Article 49.3, and the law was passed by decree.

Little wonder then that the French feel cheated and are determined to defy the new law. A further complication was introduced on March 31 by President Chirac, who in his long-awaited address to the nation said he would promulgate the law on the CPE which had just received the blessing of the country's Constitutional Council, but with two major modifications: the trial period would be reduced by half from two years to one, and employers would have to give a reason for their decision to fire the concerned employee.

The President has embarked on a highly dangerous exercise of tightrope-walking. Constitutional experts are baffled by his remarks - the CPE has been passed, so will the President seek another law that will further modify the articles governing it? While he has not completely disavowed his Prime Minister, neither has he turned a completely deaf ear to the street. The result is unhappiness all around.

The unions, the left-wing Opposition and student bodies have said that they will fight on. The final outcome of this evolving and complex situation is difficult to foretell.

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