Total Blockade Student Riots Shake France to the Core

It's youth against the establishment in France as university students battle a planned labor market reform. Just as in 1968, the revolt threatens to paralyze the entire nation. With a sluggish economy, though, France desperately needs labor market improvements.

The demonstrations on Saturday began largely peacefully. Over a million people took to the streets of France to voice their disapproval of labor market reforms pushed through parliament and set to go into force in April. Though much bile was reserved for the man most responsible for bringing about the reform -- Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin -- the demonstrators were largely peaceful. At the beginning at least.

By the time the last protesters had gone home, the streets in parts of Paris were once again trashed with cars still smoldering, shops burned out and dozens of protesters receiving treatment in local hospitals. Some 59 were arrested in the French capital -- with police seen beating youths before the famed Sorbonne University in Paris before throwing them into vans. On Sunday, France's labor unions began threatening a general strike and others warned that clashes between French youth and police would only get worse should de Villepin refuse to accommodate the students' concerns.

At first glance, the demonstrations recall what happens whenever the Grande Nation tries to catch up with social change. The government enacts a reform, protestors take to the streets to voice their opposition, and in the end the government backs down from its position. But this time it may turn out differently. This time, it looks as though Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin may have little other choice than to push through the contentious legislation, even in the face of fierce opposition.

While the focus remains on the huge protests marching down, and occasionally laying waste to, Parisian boulevards, the conflict has long since moved away from being merely a dispute over a relatively insignificant liberalization of France's rigid labor laws. Much of the political reaction to the protests can be read as pre-election positioning -- the presidential election is scheduled for next year. But the wave of unrest that has enveloped the country reveals just how deeply France has become bogged down in its current economic and moral crisis.

Within an astonishingly short period of time, a nation that until recently had prided itself on being a major European power and had even dared to stand up to the powerful Americans on the international stage has suddenly begun questioning its own pride. The country is now plagued by a deep sense of self-doubt. First came the voting public's rejection of the EU constitution in May 2005. Then the suburbs of major French cities erupted in violence last autumn -- two events that shook the entire political class. The eternal bickering over delays in the reform process is suddenly dead serious -- as are fears of an uncertain French future.

A major historical shift is in the air and memories of the May 1968 riots have been awakened. So far though, the current would-be revolution is still more of a festival than a true revolt. Before elite French police units stormed the venerable Sorbonne University the week before last, the roughly 300 students who had occupied the building seemed to be having an enormously good time. They climbed onto the roof of the school to gaze at the stars, drank champagne from the dean's office and someone even put on an impromptu piano concert. But it was a far cry from 1968. Then, too, the revolt began with the occupation of the Sorbonne. But this time around, the students only managed a three-night occupation.

Since then, the scene on the streets surrounding the Sorbonne has become increasingly absurd. Heavily armored police officers defend the university against student onslaughts while hundreds of well-equipped special police commandos have entrenched themselves behind barricades, fighting skirmishes with militants at night.

Ever since 1968, these upheavals have become a ritual in the struggle between political forces -- and the protestors have never shied away from using violence to vent their rage. In 1994, then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur attempted to lower the minimum wage for young workers. But he gave up in response to the ensuing protests, and the law never went into force. Last year, smaller-scale youth protests torpedoed a planned reform to the French high school final examination system. Now, the French are standing behind the students once again. More than two-thirds of respondents to a recent poll say that they support the university and high school students -- and reject de Villepin's planned reform.

When he assumed office almost 10 months ago, de Villepin -- an aristocratic-looking man with perennially unkempt gray hair -- made it his first priority to reduce unemployment. Indeed, he had hoped that success on the job market would provide him enough leverage to edge out the popular Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy as his party's presidential candidate next year. With a cornerstone of his job market reform now in doubt, so too is his own political future.

Villepin drafted the legislation almost entirely on his own, working only with his closest advisors. The surprise approach he used to introduce the reform was also his idea. In an attempt to avoid confrontation with the public, Villepin rammed the law through parliament with little debate and without consulting France's powerful unions.

The point of the law, of course, is to help exactly those young people now taking to the streets. It should encourage employers to hire young people, especially poorly trained youths from troubled neighborhoods. First-time jobholders under 26, the decree says, could be sacked without reason during the first two years of their employment contract, thereby lessening the risks for employers. But the student movement, together with the left, sees the legislation as the beginning of the end of workers' protections against being fired, and the groups plan to fight until the government gives in.

Villepin's strategy, in other words, has failed. And if he is unable to prevail in the current power struggle, he will likely be forced to abandon his ambitions of capturing the country's highest-ranking office. Indeed, even his own party had all but abandoned Villepin until the middle of last week. To avoid being associated with Villepin's PR disaster, friends and rivals alike kept a low profile, and even the employers' federation has been noticeably reticent.

Only when the storm had swelled to such threatening proportions last week that an ouster of the government could no longer be ruled out did Villepin finally receive some support. French National Assembly president Jean-Louis Debré warned: "If we now overturn the law because of these demonstrations, there will no longer be a republic, and there will no longer be a democracy." Speaking from a brief visit to Berlin last week, President Jacques Chirac likewise chimed in, letting it be known that he was fully behind his prime minister.

Sarkozy, for his part, has been walking a tightrope. On vacation in the Antilles at the beginning of the protests, he had been trying to keep a low profile -- though he was forced to abandon his holiday after three days and was allegedly coordinating the French special forces' actions against the students in the Sorbonne while still en route. But given his own presidential aspirations, he cannot be displeased by de Villepin's troubles. He has stressed his support for the embattled prime minister, but has been sure to make it clear that he would have done everything differently. Rather than passing mini-exceptions to existing regulations, Sarkozy has said that he would prefer a far-reaching reform that would make labor law more flexible.

The socialists, on the other hand, finally have an issue to campaign on. Having struggled in recent years to put together an effective opposition, de Villepin's law could be beneficial. Ségolène Royal, the left wing's likely presidential contender, announced that employers in her départements would no longer receive government funding if they signed what she called "cheap contracts." The trade unions, too, have been quick to support the protests.

The result is that both sides have a lot to lose by giving in. And both sides have promised repeatedly not to budge. On Sunday, in an interview with Citato, a French monthly magazine aimed at high school students, de Villepin said "I am convinced (the new law) will work, create new jobs…. We must give (it) a chance." France could be facing weeks of political gridlock.

But the protests are about more than just a new law regulating the job market. A sense of crisis in France has been palpable for months, and a doomsday mood is descending on the country. A glance into the bookstores reveals a number of books about the decline and collapse of the Grande Nation, including a current bestseller called "La France qui tombe" ("France is Falling"). In a book about what he dubs the "Gallic illusions," former conservative member of parliament Pierre Lellouche reaches the devastating conclusion that the French built themselves a dream world right in the middle of Europe, a social paradise in which everyone has a 35-hour work week and there are 6 million jobs in the public sector. The French, he writes, are "riding in first class, even though they have only purchased a second-class ticket."

By joining the protests, many Frenchmen are expressing a widespread feeling of social uncertainty. "Précarité" -- a difficult situation -- has become a key expression in France's ongoing crisis, a term that marks the end of the old certainties many have come to cherish. Suddenly the French are afraid -- afraid of losing their jobs, their pensions and their social net.

Such despondency is further reinforced by gloomy economic figures. Unemployment has hovered around 9 percent for decades, and among the nation's youth it is fully 23 percent. The economy grew by a meager 1.4 percent in 2005, while government debt climbed to 66.4 percent of the gross domestic product -- a figure above the 60 percent allowed under Maastricht criteria.

Even hyper-educated academics are often unable to find work after finishing school and bounce from one internship to the next, says sociology professor Louis Chauvel of Sciences Po University in Paris. "We have reached a dramatic point as far as our young people are concerned," he says. In his gloomy vision of the future, Chauvel believes that "France can no longer be reformed. We have a total blockade."

Indeed, it is because of this blockade that politicians want to liberalize the labor market. French labor laws are among Europe's strictest, and practically every dismissal ends up before a labor court.

Last fall's scenes of burning cars and riots in the suburbs brought the country's social problems to the forefront, problems that socialists and Gaullists alike had allowed to build up over the decades without ever seriously searching for solutions. The next shock came in February, when a youth gang from a previously quiet suburb kidnapped a young Jewish man merely because the gang's leader believed "that Jews are rich." When the gang's ransom demands were not met, the victim was tortured and killed.

The incident set off a bitter debate over anti-Semitism in the suburbs and poor integration of immigrants. It showed that the republican ideal of equality in France has long been nothing but a façade.

Villepin's controversial first-time employment contract was primarily intended to help the underprivileged. But for young academics, says Léo Roche, a 22-year-old history student at the Sorbonne, "this contract means nothing but inequality and uncertainty."

He opposes it, just as he opposes anything coming from the current administration. Roche is an experienced protestor. He took part in demonstrations against the G-8 summit in Evian three years ago, and he is a member of the Attac movement and a committed pacifist. He sits on a worn wooden bench in a university lecture hall in the 5th arrondissement. In the wake of the riots, 200 Sorbonne students have come together here to take stock and plan their next moves. It takes them an hour to appoint someone to run the meeting, an hour spent discussing the voting procedure, the mode of discussion and exactly which gestures are to be used to indicate agreement -- everything, it seems, has remained the same.

But there is one important difference. These rebels don't come across as the nation's bright young hope, but instead as poor copies of those they plan to fight. Toward the end of the meeting, they vote on whether they should condemn acts of violence against security forces. 90 are in favor, 112 against. The majority agrees with a highly agitated young man named Aurélien, who says: "Even if some are afraid of violence, we cannot allow ourselves to be separated from a part of the movement. This is exactly what the government wants"

His statement draws enthusiastic applause.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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