French Youth Protests Victorious

F. Daniel Apr 16, 2006

frenchprotestStudent-Worker Movement Derails Government Jobs Plan, Humiliates Right

PARIS, FRANCE—After months of protests and two days of general strikes, on April 10 the rightwing government buckled and announced that it was replacing the CPE (First Employment Contract) with subsidies, tax breaks and other short-term contracts it claimed would spur youth hiring.

Left in place, however, were other aspects of the “Equality of Chance Law” that was introduced by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Jan. 16 and which lowered the work age (for “apprenticeships”) from 16 to 14 and legalized night work for teenagers as young as 15.

The CPE would have instituted temporary contracts for everyone under 26 whereby they could be summarily fired for the first two years. Although the CPE was non-renewable with the same company, a person under 26 could have a succession of contracts with different employers.

At least one-fourth of universities were shut down by student protests, with another half partially closed. One-quarter of high schools were also closed. Some occupied institutions, like the Sorbonne and the College de France, were forcibly retaken by special police forces.

Demonstrations since Feb. 7 rallied record numbers, with up to 3 million in the streets on March 28 and April 4. General assemblies of protesting groups and spontaneous demonstrations took place daily.

Especially in April, tactics diversified to include blockading and occupying roads, rail lines, postal centers, government offices and corporate centers.

While some unions and protest leaders hailed the government reversal as a victory and called for the mobilizations to end, others cautioned that the shift was intended to squelch the movement and that similar measures increasing job insecurity were still in place. The government’s decision came a week before an April 17 deadline set by the unions.

Many student, labor and left organizations are still mobilized, and many universities and schools are still on strike. They are demanding that the government withdraw the entire CPE as well its precedent, the CNE, introduced last summer. This law allows businesses with fewer than 20 employees to fire workers – of any age – without cause for up to two years.

Hired to Be Fired

The issue is whether or not France will embrace neoliberal measures that establish a “flexible” word code and move toward American-style capitalism. Both the CPE and the CNE are intended as precedents for “easy-hire, easyfire” contracts for all workers.

Villepin and the association of employers argued that making firing easier would encourage the creation of jobs and reduce France’s unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. Labor Minister Jean- Louis Borloo claimed April 7 that the CNE had led to the creation of more than 100,000 new jobs since its introduction last September. But the national statistics office said the real figure was as few as 20,000 jobs.

As for the CPE, right-wing analysts contended that it didn’t go far enough toward replacing the long-term contract, enshrined in France’s work code. Although economic growth is slow, consumer confidence low and unemployment high, the 40 top companies in France registered record profits in 2005, and the stock market is reaching new highs.

Hence, one of the slogans was: “Do they take us for stupid?” Many students argue that the real goal is to do away with the right to employment for the purpose of increasing corporate profits. For youth, the movement is serving as a kind of “training,” both in action and political consciousness.

The Makings of a Movement

The enormity of the youth movement surprised both the government and unions. But it builds upon several recent trends.

High-school student protests against educational reforms in 2004 and 2005 saw large demonstrations and occupations that resulted in many arrests.

Last year, the nonpartisan campaign against the European Constitution politicized (or repoliticized) many others. Almost 55 percent of French voters rejected the constitution in a referendum in May, despite support from all the major parties. Many voters were convinced that shifting power to Brussels would reinforce the privatization and liberalization of the economy.

Then came the spontaneous uprisings last fall among youth in the projects, stemming from the same social conditions. Thus a law that would increase the economic difficulties of the youth sparked the explosion of protests, uniting elements of all of these struggles.

It’s in the suburban projects, home to those of northern and sub-Saharan African descent, where some of the most militant high school and university occupations are occurring. Suburbs in Paris and other cities also saw a strong mobilization in the high school movements in 2005.

Some racially mixed youth from the suburbs participated in the mass demonstrations as “unorganized” groups of 50 or 100, often running through the march. Some large groups also entered unblocked schools and disrupted classes.

Some racial violence has also occurred, where young minorities who have little opportunity for higher education have targeted white university students, hitting them and stealing cellphones.

There has also been spontaneous property destruction by protesters, including torching and overturning cars. But the violence has been much more restrained than the American press would have it, and there have been many reports of police provocateurs inciting violence.

Arbitrary arrests and police violence have been extreme at times. One victim of police violence is still in a coma. The police have arrested more than 4,000, with 1,270 summoned for trail and 68 already sentenced to prison.

The Ghost of ‘68

One student said the protests were like May 1968, but with an important difference. “Then, students knew they could finish school and get a steady job. Now, they know they’ll have a hard time.”

Some commentators have sniped that these students only want a job whereas the older generation wanted to change the world. However, the protests have intensified debates about “social models” that understand the current system is unacceptable, but which do not rely on ready-made answers about the socialist path to follow.

The fresh memory of relatively high social standards and job security provokes an outcry when these are whittled away in the name of “globalization.” Not so used to job insecurity as workers in other countries, the French will not accept it without protest.

The ruling elite know that the more insecurity there is, the less workers are apt to protest – for they can’t afford to miss work, and are often happy to have a job at all, even an insecure one.

Due to this insecurity, it may be difficult to sustain a mass movement, and it will probably continue as smaller, diversified actions.

Similar laws have been passed in other European countries without contestation. But France’s role historically has been that of a spark. Other governments are afraid of it spreading, and since the French protests began, termed a “Global Warning” by the Guardian of London, there have been rumblings elsewhere.

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