If you were a non-French speaker in Paris at the moment, there are two French words you would surely have learnt by now grève (strike) and manifestation (protest). What started as a couple of hundred students protesting in front of the Fontaine Saint Michel when I first arrived here a few months ago, escalated to two million people of all ages protesting across the country.
The object of the strikes and protests was the CPE (contrat première embauche), a proposal put forward by Dominique de Villepin’s Government as a solution to France’s ever-increasing unemployment problems. The CPE was a two-year work contract for people under 26, allowing an employer to legally fire someone without giving a reason. (The parallels with Australia’s newly implemented Industrial Relations legislation are striking, especially in terms of the rationale presented by both Governments making it easier to sack people as a way to make job creation more attractive to small businesses.)
On Monday 10 April, de Villepin finally bowed to the concerted pressure of the protesters and unions, announcing that the CPE would be scrapped and a new package introduced in the next few days that would offer State support to employers who hire disadvantaged young people.
On the surface, de Villepin’s proposed CPE sounded discriminatory but, why are French people putting their date of birth on their CV? Obviously, an employer can figure out someone’s approximate age by the content of their CV, but the fact that a person’s age is expected on applications (along with marital status, number of dependent children and, until recently, a photograph) is really quite perplexing, especially in such a supposedly Left-wing country.
The CPE was billed as drastic medicine for a serious problem. The unemployment rate for young people in France, especially those from poorer areas with lower levels of education, currently hovers around a phenomenal rate of 23 per cent. It’s not that jobs don’t exist in France, but it is a fact that it’s extremely complicated and expensive for employers to hire somebody, and even more so to fire them.
The Government’s theory was that the CPE would convince employers to hire young people who have little or no experience without the of fear winding up in court if they had to fire them. The general consensus from locals I have spoken to is that they would love to be fired from their job. The unemployment ‘pension’ rate here, if someone is fired, is equivalent to a full salary plus health care benefits for up to two years, after which, if you still haven’t found another job, the salary can continue at a lower rate. Not to mention the monetary compensation to be gained if one takes the company to court, most of which are said to be run by unionists — no prizes for guessing who’s almost guaranteed to win each time! (Such are the unquestioned articles of faith for most Parisians.)
After months of unrelenting protests and industrial action it became clear to de Villepin that the CPE was not wanted, and perhaps that it wasn’t the best way to deal with a complex unemployment problem. The protests were becoming more frequent and longer, turning into a tourist spectacle. And then there were the gangs of bored kids, seizing the opportunity to come along to the protests, knowing that a violent ending was expected and happy to oblige.
The news representation of the violence was also revealing. There were often live broadcasts from CNN and the French news channels airing simultaneously. On the one hand, CNN had cameras everywhere, showing billowing clouds of teargas, underage kids being beaten and arrested, and if they could also get footage of burning cars, then that was great! All this was complemented by a running commentary likening the scenes (in a strangely gloating way) to a war zone.
The French broadcasts, on the other hand, had more of the feel of a live political debate, intercut with wide shots of what was happening in the streets. There was a clear aversion to showing close-up footage of the riots so as not to attract any more people to them.
Given that Paris is the type of city that will protest and go on strike at the drop of a hat, the Government is in a precarious position now that de Villepin has backed down. Meanwhile, his bitter rival and current Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is rubbing his hands with glee. De Villepin’s embarrassing defeat is being widely interpreted as quashing any hopes he had of being the Right’s candidate at next year’s presidential elections leaving Sarkozy as the frontrunner.
Despite the teargas and the inconvenience, I must say that it is refreshing to be surrounded by young people who have such a broad interest in politics and who are not willing to just sit back and let these sorts of laws get passed. They are very adept at getting media attention, but Parisians are equally accustomed to their tactics. During the height of les manifestations, it wasn’t unusual to be able to walk through the centre of Place de la Bastille during peak hour (usually a suicidal thing to do) thanks to the protesters who had set up camp there and were lying down on the road blocking every entrance. Nor was it surprising to find the monitors in the Metro saying, ‘Disruption to RER line B: due to protesters on the tracks at Gare du Nord, connections will be suspended at ‘
It’s clear that millions of people here don’t want de Villepin’s CPE, but neither do they want current unemployment rates to continue. The demonstrations were obviously effective but they weren’t really constructive. Nonetheless, the student body are not ready to cease all further action until the final resolution is announced in the next few days.
With his popularity rating down to 25 per cent (according to the Left-leaning newspaper, Libération), all eyes will be on Dominique de Villepin over the next few days to see if he can salvage anything at all out of this political train-wreck.
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