France's Lost Generation The Faces Behind the Protests

Behind the scenes of mass protest in France are high school students who fear a dismal future, university students who see their opportunities shrinking and McJobbers who are struggling to make ends meet as they are pushed from one company to the next.

By Francois Krug in Paris


These days, Paris's Latin Quarter looks more like Baghdad’s Green Zone than the traditional home of France's thinkers and writers. The neighborhood has become a no-go zone. The streets surrounding the Sorbonne University are empty and blocked with steel barricades. Students and teachers have given way to policemen in riot gear who stand ready to repel assaults with water cannons and tear gas.

The Sorbonne has long been a reminder of the power of youth protests in the country since the May 1968 upheaval that shook the government of then-president Charles de Gaulle to its core. More than three decades later, it has again become a lightning rod for social upheaval. On March 10, more than 200 students occupied the Sorbonne to protest labor reforms recently pushed through parliament by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. The government promptly sent in the riot police to drive the rebellious students out. Officials had won the battle, but the Sorbonne protests sparked a nationwide political war that pitted university and high school students fearful for their future prospects against the government. The protest turned into a national revolt that quickly created disruptions at more than 80 of the country's universities and hundreds of high schools. This Tuesday, the country experienced its second general strike in seven days

When Villepin announced in March he would loosen French labor laws to make it easier to hire and fire young workers, disillusioned youth erupted in anger -- evoking memories of 1968 and last autumn's riots in the banlieue suburbs of Paris. To curb the staggering youth unemployment rate, which rose to 22 percent in March, Villepin created the "contrat première embauche," or first-time employment contract. Previously, it had been extraordinarily difficult for French firms to fire employees who had been with a company six months or longer, but CPE allows workers 26 or under to be fired without notice or reason within their first two years on the job. Villepin had hoped the new legislation would give employers greater incentives to hire young people. 

For a few weeks, the government staunchly defended CPE, but as the protests mounted, President Chirac intervened on Friday, announcing he would sign the law, but he order changes to be made to its most controversial clauses. The probationary period would be reduced to one year and employers would need to state a reason for firing workers.

Chirac's reassurances, however, have done little to assuage French youth. The Sorbonne has now been closed for three weeks, and all of its students are gone but one.

The lone counter-protester

Alexandre Duclos sits on a camping chair right outside the sealed-off Sorbonne Square. For a week now, the 23-year-old philosophy student, who is working to obtain his doctorate, has been holding a hunger strike in an attempt to reopen the university here on the sidewalk. "France has become a police state," he says in a weary voice. "This government is deaf and blind. Look at what they did in the suburbs (during the November riots) and what’s happening now. Their only answer to people’s sufferings is to send in the army. This country is sick.”

Counterprotester Alexandre Duclos: "This country is sick!"
Francois Krug

Counterprotester Alexandre Duclos: "This country is sick!"

Duclos has turned his abstract philosophy into reality by starting a protest of his own. But once the student movement is over, he will be forced to confront harsher realities -- on the job market. "I haven't thought about it yet," he admits. "Actually, I don’t care." Asked about his dream job, he hesitates. “I guess I'd like to be a street philosopher," he finally answers, without any trace of irony.

As it turns out, Duclos has found an unintentional job as a tour guide.

An Italian woman stops by. She is disappointed by the neighborhood’s tranquility. "Nothing’s happening here, where should I go?," she asks him. “What are you looking for?” he asks. “Students, protests, action!” Duclos directs her to nearby Censier University.

The occupied campus

Further south in the Latin Quarter, student protesters still control Censier University. They have been enforcing their own rules on the campus for five weeks now and access is barred to strangers. Courses have been cancelled and replaced with political debates, documentary film screenings and plays. Every other day, students vote on whether to continue the strike and the occupation of the university.

This may look at first like a reenactment of the glory days of 1968. But there's a marked difference: the '68ers' had dreams, but today's students only have fears. "We don’t want a revolution, we want jobs," explains Mathilde, a 21-year-old Italian studies major. "Baby-boomers could choose their jobs and keep them for life." Truth be told, their parents did have it easier: In 1968, only 6 percent of French university graduates were still jobless after finishing school. That rate has since swollen to a discouraging 29 percent. And for the first time since the end of World War II, young workers are earning less than their parents did at the same age.

“We’re supposed to build the future, but our generation is being sacrificed,” says Romain, a 21-year-old communications student who, like many others at Censier, declines to give his last name. "I'm speaking as part of a collective movement, not as an individual.”

There are no classes being held right now at Jussieu University in Paris's Latin Quarter -- just protests. 
Francois Krug

There are no classes being held right now at Jussieu University in Paris's Latin Quarter -- just protests. 

For many French students, giving up job protections that have long served as the cornerstone of French labor policy is unthinkable. “With CPE, the government is blackmailing us," says Nadège, a 20-year-old media and cinema studies student. "What they’re saying is: If you want a job, you have to accept  the fact that you may be fired at any time without complaining.” Nadège works part-time in a warehouse, wrapping DVD boxes, and she has a better sense of the job market than most of her friends at the university. "I’m ready to accept reforms, but not this one," she explains. "But when you protest against reform in this country, the government describes you as a conservative. Our generation isn’t conservative or revolutionary. We simply refuse to be singled out like this. This is a social protest, not a cultural revolution.”

The high school students

The CPE legislation has also outraged high school students, who have served as an important part of the anti-CPE protest movement. The high school arm is being led by the Union Nationale Lycéenne (UNL), the country's national high school student union.

UNL's tiny office looks like a student's bedroom -- empty soda cans, paper packaging from fast food and piles of leaflets and newspapers are strewn about all over the desks and floor. But the office, hidden in a rundown building in the Pigalle neighborhood far north of the Latin Quarter, also serves as the control room of the high school protest movement

“Sorry for the mess,” Floréale Mangin says, apologizing to visitors. “We’ve had a pretty busy day.” Early in the morning, UNL members were arrested while blockading Paris's city freeway. In the afternoon, others invaded a train station and stopped traffic for two hours. And Mangin, one of the union’s leaders, is now getting ready for a night of meetings and phone calls to prepare for the next wave of demonstrations.

Floréale Mangin: "We won't negotiate until they fully back down."
Francois Krug

Floréale Mangin: "We won't negotiate until they fully back down."

At 17, she has already mastered the French rules of protest. Rule No. 1, she says, is to use any means necessary to put pressure on the government -- including disrupting the lives of normal people with traffic jams and train delays. “Making noise is the only way to get heard,” Mangin explains in a soft-toned voice. Rule No. 2: When the government seems ready to bend, demand even more. Mangin remains unmoved by Chirac's plan to water down the CPE: "We won't negotiate until they fully back down."

Mangin is part of a new generation of protesters. Unlike the 1968 revolutionaries, these rebels are highly pragmatic. "We're not the children of the '68ers,'" she says, "Our movement is different. We are dealing with education and unemployment -- real issues, not ideals. This is a social protest, not a cultural revolution."

But there is more to this than the usual social protest. It is also a political war between generations. Young high school and college students are challenging politicians who are older than their parents and sometimes old enough to be their grandparents. Chirac is 73 and 85 percent of the representatives at the Assemblée Nationale are over 45.

“They don’t live in the same world as we do, how can they decide what is good for us and build our future against our will?" Mangin asks. As a teenager, she has already honed her political skills, but she is not a full citizen yet. She will first be eligible to vote in 2007, just in time for crucial presidential and general elections.

20 and unemployed

Eugène Simsek is taking a cigarette break outside the local office of the government’s job agency in the working-class neighborhood of Clignancourt, on the northern outskirts of Paris. The 20-year-old unemployed worker has just printed out the latest job postings and is giving them a careful read. “Restaurants, only restaurants,” he mumbles. “I’m tired of restaurants!”

Eugène Simsek: "The contract is unfair, but it's no worse than the other ones."
Francois Krug

Eugène Simsek: "The contract is unfair, but it's no worse than the other ones."

The documents in Simsek’s hands would infuriate student protesters. They are proposals for jobs that adhere to an earlier version of CPE that was created for small businesses last year without much protest. Economists are still doubtful that the reforms will have much of an impact on the economy. Major employers are worried about the current uproar and most haven't adopted the controversial contracts yet. But if Simsek’s case is any indication, Villepin may be right -- at least in certain respects. The new legislation could help Simsek to find a new job.

And the fact that it wouldn't give Simsek any job security doesn't seem to bother him. Since he left school two years ago, Simsek has gotten by with a handful of McJobs -- working as a bartender, a waiter and as a call-center operator. Last year, he finally signed an unlimited-length contract and became a salesman for a window-making company. His employer had hired him under the contract because of generous tax incentives, but it then turned around and laid him off on the last week of his three-month probationary period. Simsek has been jobless for two months now.

Villepin's legislation is expected to provide a boost to people like Simsek, who have limited education and experience and remain hopelessly unemployed. Unfortunately, as the government and the media focus their attention on the university students, people like Simsek remain the unheard voices of the French revolt. For them, unsteady jobs are not a threat. They are already a reality.

“Villepin’s contract is unfair," he says, "But it’s no worse than the other ones. I’m ready to sign it. I can’t refuse proposals. Right now, I have no hope of getting a steady job.”

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