Paris strikes: more 1984 than 1968

Beneath the fiery street protests there lurks a mood of deep conservatism.

Gerard Feehily

Topics Politics

Tuesday evening in Paris, Place de la République, and yet another demo is winding down. As riot police herd the last stragglers on to the avenues to earthy Latin insults about paternity issues and sexual inclination, a young woman runs past me carrying a placard that says ‘Forwards to the General Dream’. It’s a pun on the French word rêve (dream) and grève (strike), but she looks perfectly serious, and indeed, there’s a general dream in the air this spring as the country goes striking.

Walls are daubed with the old slogan, ‘Under the paving stones, the beach’, while magazines carry photos of lovers mooching before a wall of glowering riot police, of students lobbing paving stones in attitudes reminiscent of that last big splash in French history, May 1968. All this iconography suggests that revolution might not be a bad thing. But wait – what sort of revolution, and is it a dream?

Ostensibly, this is all about the CPE (Contrat de Première Embauche), or First Job Contract. Supposed to tackle a 23 per cent youth unemployment rate, it loosens up the traditional work contract by extending an initial three-month trial period – after which employees must be offered a contract of indefinite duration (CDI) – to two years. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin argues it will encourage employers, reluctant to hire a famously unsackable work force, to take greater risks and, as a thumbs-up to last year’s rioting suburbs – where unemployment can hit 40 per cent – to hire youths with shaky qualifications.

Opposition to the CPE, however, has come from those more traditional sources of French unrest, the lycées and universities, giving rise to a middle-class movement, which, far from expressing solidarity with youths from impoverished sink estates, now accuses them of hanging on the fringes of demos to relieve them of their mobile phones and indulge in car wrecking.

Youth opposition to the CPE was spontaneous at first, but is now mainly run by the trade unions, who, completely silent during last year’s explosion in the sink estates, are now during demos helpfully handing over kids in shell-suits with spray cans to the police. They operate on the buzzword, la précarité, or the precariousness of the labour market in an increasingly globalised world – which sounds a lot like the buzzword of the right, l’insécurité, or a desire for more law and order. With a dwindling membership that derives mainly from the public sector, where contracts are still the best in Europe, the unions have no direct interest in the movement, beyond claiming a prime-ministerial scalp in order to re-establish some of their lost ascendancy.

Indeed, on last Thursday’s march, most lycéens I spoke to seemed aware that the CPE codifies working conditions that already exist. Many talked of older siblings who, after five years of university studies, are stuck in an endless round of underpaid traineeships. Another teenager admitted that in the days of outsourcing and short-term contracts a stable job was a tall order. ‘The unions are crap’, he said. ‘France is getting like America anyway. People work, and for what? For a pension fund in Texas?’

These are valid questions that neither the unions, nor the left, clinging to the postwar consensus of heavy state intervention in the economy, seem able to answer. Feeding off fears about a future of permanent galère (an expression denoting life in the galleys) in dead-end jobs, the mood is conservative. A recent poll in L’Express magazine underlines this, claiming that 75 per cent of under-25s aspire to a job in the state sector. Work in the labyrinthine French administration might be permanent, with long holidays and early retirement, but as low paid pen-pushing it hardly makes for an exciting life. More 1984 than 1968.

The only radical ideas seem to be coming from the patrician French right, unfortunately, which looks to New Labour in Britain and Americans neo-cons for ideas to revive the stagnant French economy. But the right isn’t sticking to its so-called principles either. In having decided to tough the street protests out, Villepin might have been taking a gamble in a country where reforming prime ministers are usually guided back to the wings by the presidential’s shepherd’s hook, but has failed to reckon with the political ambitions of his Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Having initially backed Villepin, even suggesting that the reform didn’t go far enough, Sarkozy has recently found common cause with left-wing critics in publicly urging Villepin to dilute the CPE. Whether he does so out of regard for the great toiling masses or to sink Villepin’s political ambitions in order to further his own is a delicate question. There are presidential elections next, after all, and both are likely candidates. Meanwhile President Chirac, wary of the street, wary of Sarkozy, and known as someone who would lay down his friends for his life, is taking his distance too.

With nothing going on but election manoeuvres, the end result is stasis, which is perhaps, as the young woman’s placard suggests, what everyone wants. But if France goes back to sleep, and its once radical movements aren’t capable of coming up with a vocabulary adequate to the new world we live in, one has to wonder whether the next wake-up call will be sooner rather than later.

Gerard Feehily is a writer living in Paris.

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Topics Politics


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