France takes to the streets
Protests that saw up to a million people on the streets of French cities last weekend could spell the end of prime minister Dominique de Villepin's presidential ambitions, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of major French cities last weekend to protest against a proposed change to the country's employment laws that would make it easier for employers to hire and fire young workers, with an estimated 80,000 people demonstrating in Paris, 130,000 in the southern port city of Marseilles and 25,000 in Toulouse.
According to the organisers, one and a half million people joined the demonstrations across France on Saturday, the Ministry of the Interior putting the true figure at 503,000.
The demonstrations, supported by the major French trade unions and bringing together young people with older workers and families for a joint day of protest, passed off generally peacefully in a good-humoured, carnival atmosphere under bright spring sunshine.
However, later in the day things turned violent, with hundreds of masked youths throwing bottles at police, smashing shop windows and burning cars in central Paris. The authorities responded with tear gas, and there were over a hundred arrests.
Last weekend's demonstrations across France came at the end of weeks of protest by students against the proposed changes to French employment laws, which have seen half the country's universities closed by protests, and riot police storming the Sorbonne in Paris last Thursday to clear students occupying the premises.
The proposed changes, contained in a new form of standard employment contract called the contrat première embauche (first job contract), or CPE, are intended to make it easier for employers to hire young people under 26 by extending the probationary period for new employees to two years from the present three months.
During this two-year period, young people under 26 employed under CPEs could be dismissed at any time, without the employer having to prove gross incompetence or negligence against them. Present French employment law protects workers against such dismissal, making it almost impossible for employers to fire permanent employees and discouraging them from hiring them.
According to the government of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has personally identified himself with the proposed new employment contract, the changes are necessary in order to bring down France's stubbornly high unemployment rate of almost 10 per cent, rising to 25 per cent or more among young people under 26.
The CPE, part of a package of measures designed to reduce youth unemployment by encouraging employers to take on younger workers, comes after the weeks of rioting in the suburbs surrounding larger French cities last November, during which gangs of youths burned thousands of cars in arson attacks across France, along with schools and other public buildings.
In the wake of these events the government took on emergency powers for the first time since the Algerian war in the 1950s, and many communities in the French suburbs got used to living under temporary curfews.
Last year's riots, the worst in a generation, drew international attention to the simmering problems of the French suburbs, or banlieue, home to mostly immigrant communities where unemployment can reach 50 per cent and young people in particular express feelings of being left to their own devices, unwanted and ignored by larger French society.
However, if the introduction of the CPE was designed to relieve the problems of the French suburbs, protests against it have come from the mostly middle-class students of France's universities, joined last weekend by the country's major trade unions.
This development will be unwelcome to the government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, which has been looking for support from mainstream French society for its attempts to introduce greater flexibility into the French labour market and bring down youth unemployment.
The protests by French students since the introduction of the PME, now joined by mass protests from the wider population, have also threatened the authority and presidential ambitions of de Villepin, appointed by French President Jacques Chirac 10 months ago and seen as a front-runner for the 2007 French presidential elections.
If de Villepin is forced to withdraw the CPE and concede defeat on labour-market reform, then his credibility in the presidential elections will be seriously damaged, opening the road for Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy, a personal rival of de Villepin's and the centre-right favourite.
According to a poll carried out by the newspaper Le Parisien last weekend, 68 per cent of the French population is in favour of the withdrawal of the CPE, and the leaders of France's trade unions and rectors of its universities have warned the government of further trouble to come if the proposed reform is not withdrawn.
Meanwhile, commentators both in France and abroad have been pointing to the ominous lessons to be drawn from this latest attempt to reform the French employment market if the proposed CPE contract is withdrawn.
For the second time in almost as many months world attention has been drawn to the problems overtaking French society and institutions, with the government either unable or unwilling to introduce reforms and the population determined to block any reform affecting current privileges.
As the respected commentator Eric Le Boucher put it in the French newspaper Le Monde this week, while the present reform is "ill-conceived and poorly explained" this does not mean that reform is not urgently required.
De Villepin's defeat will mean that any further attempt at reform is doomed before the 2007 presidential elections, Le Boucher wrote, the prime minister thereby succeeding only in giving ammunition to the lobby in favour of further stagnation and feeding the complacency of those in protected public-sector jobs.
"How to judge a government that only discovers the problem of youth unemployment at the 13th hour," Le Boucher asked. "Who would not be worried at living in a country that sees 300,000 young French people, whether highly qualified or not qualified at all, leave each year for London because there it is not forbidden to succeed?"