After the Barricades


As France’s latest political crisis, the Clearstream Scandal, spirals out of control engulfing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in what some commentators are calling the ‘French Watergate’ the barricades erected around the Sorbonne during the months of protests against the CPE (the Government’s proposed youth employment law) have come crashing down.

Just over a week ago, I walked almost skipped through Place de la Sorbonne for the first time in many weeks. People were again sitting in the cafés and hanging out in the area. The general vibe was one of relaxation and happiness as the Place, like many Parisian gardens and parks, had been transformed from barren to buzzing.

The windows of the shops on either corner of the Place smashed by police as they put barricades up, and latter tagged with the phrase Police partout, justice nullepart (‘Police everywhere, justice nowhere’) have had their glass replaced.

The flowers that had been placed in front of the barricades, like wreaths mourning the death of an icon, have been swept up and only red paint stains remain on the stones and walls. The glass-repair vans that were stationed on Boulevard Saint Michel, like tow trucks waiting by dangerous roads in bad weather, have also packed up and moved on.

But none of this is a sign that les manifestations over the issue of youth unemployment are coming to an end.

The recent political events only served to reinforce a general distrust for the Government among students and under-26-year-olds. The popularity of the current Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Government has now hit record lows, with a recent survey in Le Monde (23 April) showing 29 per cent of people as satisfied with President Jacques Chirac, and only 24 per cent satisfied with Prime Minister de Villepin (and the figures are even worse in the 18–24 age-bracket where only 21 per cent support the Government).

With university classes started again, the student bodies are meeting to discuss future days of action against the Government’s latest proposals, until a suitable agreement can be reached (if at all). It seems the only proposal floating around besides the CPE idea which was for a two-year probationary contract for anyone under 26, during which they could be dismissed without the employer needing to give any reason is for a one-year contract, where the employer can still fire an employee under the age of 26 at any time and the only difference is that they need to give a reason. Have a guess what the reaction to that proposal will be.

The student unions are making it clear that they are ready to protest against almost anything that is to be put forward. And now, after their success in blocking the CPE, they know the power is in the streets. The big problem is that, although the student leaders and their allies in the union movement are campaigning hard against the Government’s ideas, they’re not putting forward alternative suggestions themselves. The air surrounding the protests is an almost absurdist ‘give us anything at all, as long as it’s what we want but we don’t know what we want.’

And playing out over all of this are the manoeuvres of the main players in the lead up to the 2007 race for the Presidency. Even before the latest opinion polls came out, rumours of Chirac attempting to run for a third term were already being quashed due to reasons of his age and health problems. After his rock-bottom poll results, the probability of an embarrassing defeat would seem another good reason for him to reconsider.

Meanwhile, de Villepin’s already diminished chances of being the UMP’s presidential candidate next year have taken a catastrophic turn for the worse with ‘L’affaire Clearstream’ in which he is accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against his main rival, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. On Tuesday, de Villepin appeared on French radio, saying ‘I have been unjustly accused. I am shocked, I am angry about the campaign of rumours and slander of recent days.’

While refusing to resign (just yet), de Villepin recently reminded the country that he has always denied having presidential ambitions.

And Sarkozy is loving it.

On 23 April, the Interior Minister (and President of UMP) gave a controversial speech about his proposed tightening of France’s immigration laws, During the speech, he said, Si certains n’aiment pas la France, qu’ils ne se gênent pas pour la quitter (‘If certain people don’t love France, it wouldn’t hurt for them to leave’). This not only paraphrases a slogan of the French far-Right Party, the National Front, but also echoes Australian Treasurer Peter Costello’s speech at the Sydney Institute in February, where he said of prospective citizens, ‘Before becoming an Australian you will be asked to subscribe to certain values. If you have strong objection to those values don’t come to Australia.’

Sarkozy went on to accuse Ségolène Royal, Socialist Party member and serious contender to be France’s first female President, of going round in circles and having no ideas. And he then laughed off the possiblity of another Socialist, Lionel Jospin, even having a chance at running in next year’s elections.

The speech, in general, was quite fractured. Sarkozy agreed that the CPE was a mistake, after saying that laws should not be changed just because they displease a minority when it was, by no means, a minority who opposed the CPE. And his comments about ‘love France or get out’ seemed to suggest that for Sarkozy those who were against the CPE were against France.

Perhaps Sarkozy’s current political dominance has made him light-headed. Maybe he’s started throwing random comments out there to appeal to as many target groups as possible (Right-wingers, Left-wingers, pro-CPE, anti-CPE, anyone with a claim on national pride).

Sarkozy’s proposed law (which has already sparked a manifestation of 5000 people in Paris on Saturday) would restrict the number of immigrants allowed into the country. It would favour highly skilled workers over unskilled ones, but would also make it difficult for the families of immigrants to settle in France. And it stipulates that newcomers should learn French language and culture to be allowed into the country (this time mirroring the suggestion by Parliamentary Secretary to the Australian Minister for Immigration, Andrew Robb, about whether prospective Australian citizens should be fluent in English).

After the reaction on the weekend, Sarkozy insisted on Tuesday that his proposal is fair and would improve race relations in the country. After all, when immigrants make up a big part of the unemployment statistics, the natural thing to do is to cut off the flow of people entering the country, right? But everyone knows that the jobs are there, it’s just that employers are reluctant to hire people due to the financial risk involved in firing them.

Sarkozy says it’s time to get tough on immigrants (while making reference to last year’s riots in the suburbs), and attracting only people who want to integrate. But last November’s riots were exactly about people wanting to work and intergrate, and being frustrated at the current employment laws that don’t allow them to do either.

How many years will it take of blaming certain demographics for unemployment before the root of the problem is addressed?

With elections looming, all that’s really on offer at the moment is a band-aid fix.

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