At Large

March Madness in Paris

In their chronic insecurity, the French take to the Jacobin streets.

By 3.30.06

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PARIS -- It won't be remembered as the seizure of the Bastille, or the days of July, 1830, or the days of June, 1848, or the Paris Commune of 1871, or any of the other anniversaries marking the tumultuous history of French revolutions, coups d'etat, strikes, and other upheavals that brought down monarchies and collapsed governments. But on March 28, an estimated one million students and workers flowed into the streets of 250 French cities. That is far fewer than the 10 million students and workers who shut down France in the days of May, 1968, an event which is frequently compared to the current disturbances. The events of March 28 will be no doubt remembered, but perhaps not in the way the student protagonists envisioned.

As events unfolded in Paris, sporadic violence erupted in the streets on Tuesday, particularly in the Place de la Republique, but was contained by the intimidating presence of thousands of French CRS (internal police) who encircled the "casseurs" (smashers) and fired paint balls, apparently an innovation in crowd control technology that allows police to identify in advance those slated for arrest. One demonstrator whom I could see appeared to get a shot of tear gas in the face, but otherwise arrests were accomplished without incident and very professionally. Interested spectators of the currently volatile French political situation would be well advised to avoid venues under CRS quarantine.

The protesters aimed to derail the "first employment contract," a measure which would permit employers to hire workers under the age of 26 on a temporary, two-year basis after which they could be dismissed, or hired, permanently. The government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin views this as a way around France's costly labor markets, which require virtual lifetime employment for new entrants to the labor force. With unemployment among the young near 23 percent, one would think that this modest gesture to open up jobs for recent college graduates would be greeted as a friendly assist on the way to a career. But no. French student demonstrators, some of whom come from France's elite universities and are hard-wired into the commanding heights of the French public bureaucracy, think the new law sanctions legalized insecurity for life, "slavery" according to one demonstrator's sign, or worse: "It's like facing the guillotine for two years." I replied to this young lady that she had far too long a memory for her years, thus ending a budding relationship.

To those who frequently visit France as I do, the most lasting impression I take away from the events of March 28 is the seemingly unshakeable hatred, distrust, and cynicism of these young people towards the free market system. That is hardly new in the French political culture and has always found a home among Jacobins and 19th century utopians colluding in unusual ways. But to believe that a two-year provisional labor contract will lead to insecurity requires the suspension of all economic logic. It assumes that employers hire people in order to fire them; that thousands of euros invested in training an employee can be simply tossed aside in an ongoing cycle of hire and fire. "My life is full of risks," complained one student at the Place d'Italie, the staging point for the march uptown to the Place de la Republique. "What kind of life is an insecure life," he added.

When French political, educational, and media elites -- on both the left and the right -- repeatedly characterize flexible labor practices as "brutish jungle economics," or "AngloSaxon turbo capitalism," it's small wonder that a generation of brainwashed students have come to associate "les patronats" (bosses) as a French reincarnation of Dickens' Scrooge.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE CLIMATE of mistrust is constantly reinforced by the French media, particularly the three major, government-owned television channels. Channel Five's nightly panel of experts features, as a representative of the student union group (UNEF), a stylishly dressed and well- coiffed Parisian radical, Ms. Julie Coudry, who has logged in at least ten years since her student days; a professor of economics from the Sorbonne with lots of time on his hands since his university has been occupied by students for the past three weeks; and a representative of France's second largest trade union, M. Francois Chereque. Also present is a representative of MEDEF, France's largest association of employers who supports labor reforms, but is treated with slightly less respect than the network would accord to al-Qaeda. Left off the panel is a virtually unknown group (unknown because it's under-reported) calling themselves "Students for the Liberty to Study." They audaciously proclaim a right to attend colleges that are now disrupted. They represent students who want to take exams and start careers. They won't be heard on Channel 5, nor on any mainstream, government-owned media outlet.

The discussion proceeds in the normal polite, free form, but no-holds-barred French manner until Professor Nicholas Barre had the temerity to suggest that there are other successful welfare states, citing Scandinavia and the Netherlands, none of which provides any employment guarantees. The discussion quickly shifts to other subjects. Professor Barre clearly understands what he just introduced into the conversation -- a dissent from the French model of solidarity.

Bookstores in France are full of bestselling volumes exploring the French malaise, the decline of France, and various other end of the world scenarios -- at least for France. Few, if any, of these writers have the courage to discuss what's wrong with France, and offer up shop-warn remedies that skirt the most fundamental issues. Yes, the unelected Senate should be abolished. French governance is indeed hamstrung due to the ambiguous division of powers between the President and the Prime Minister. More power should devolve on local governments so that not all contentious issues are forced onto Parisian governmental elites.

France today, however, is far beyond the point of jiggling with processes and institutional reform. France is now the first country in the modern world to consciously adopt referenda democracy as its means of making collective decisions. Referenda in France don't necessarily take place in the voting booth; they can also take place in the streets where results are measured not only by numbers but by the intensity of those demonstrating for the cause.

The March 28 manifestations are a lesson about what is to come in France. It was not widely reported (I saw a half-inch column in Le Monde) that the leading student union mobilizing the students (UNEF) was voted out of its leadership position by a confederation of student groups. Some of those student groups opposed the anti-youth contract position of the organization that wrongly portrayed itself as the leading voice of progressive students.

But what matters is what happens in the streets.Vive la France!

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