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April 10, 2006

FRANCE: WHY THE STUDENTS WON

This morning in Paris, the conservative government of President Jacques Chirac (left, with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin behind him) Chiracvillepin caved in and announced that the special labor contract for under-26 workers that had sent millions of students and union members into the streets in protest was dead. The "CPE" (Contrat Premier Embauche or first-job contract) will be "replaced" by a new plan to provide subsidies to employers to encourage the hiring of young people in a country where youth unemployment is at 24% (and even higher -- upwards of 50% -- in the ghettos.)

What was behind this profound social crisis that had shaken France (where I lived for a decade) for over two months?

As usual, the U.S. press understood little about the conflict. Over and over again, one heard the students referred to by TV's bubbleheads (from CBS to CNN) as "reactionaries" because they opposed the new law. But what the CPE law had done was to eliminate for under-26 workers the rights previously guaranteed to all French workers not to be fired without cause. Under the CPE, younger workers could be canned  at any moment from the moment of their hiring up the two years' duration of these youth employment contracts without the employers' being required to justify the firing, if the fired worker chose to haul the employer before labor tribunals. Calling the student-union defense of preserving acquired workers' rights "reactionary" is equivalent to labeling as "reactionary" any American who wants to preserve the Social Security system. It is a perversion of language -- for it was the CPE law itself which was quite reactionary.

The good folks at FAIRFrench_general_strike_crowd (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have released an excellent study of conservative media bias in US media during coverage of the French crisis. And U.S. TV kept showing pictures of the rioting by a handful of delinquents from the ghettos who attached themselves to the huge peaceful demonstrations -- even though they represtned only a few hundred people, compared to the upwards of 2 million students and workers who poured into the streets of 150 French cities and towns on two occasions in the last two weeks. (Photo upper right, anti-CPE demonstrators fill the streets of Marseille.)

But what was really behind the disputed CPE labor law was a sordid quarrel between the two leading contenders for the conservatives' presidential nomination in 2007. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the man behind the CPE, has always had the reputation as a "social Gaullist," part of the much-diminished wing of the former Gaullist political movement of which Chirac's UMP political party is the heritor. The Sarko_gesturing_speech_1 "social Gaullists" were firm believers in the French welfare state. But there are very few "social Gaullists" left in the conservatives' ranks, and the right's leading contender for their 2007 presidential nomination -- current law-and-order Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (left), who is also the UMP party's elected chairman -- is hard-right on economics, and has made a staple of his presidential campaign a radical "rupture," as he repeatedly puts it, with the French social model of a welfare statewith guaranteed income and health care that includes completion of the privatization of all enterprises in which the state has part or total ownership (a privatization campaign begun under the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand in the early 1980s.)

With the CPE, de Villepin hoped to give himself a conservative face-lift to boost his chances with the UMP party's members, who will select their 2007 presidential nominee. And, indeed, several polls taken during the crisis showed that the CPE labor contract was supported by some two-thirds of the conservative party's membership.

But de Villepin's strategy backfired with the larger electorate -- poll after poll showed that the CPE was opposed, not just by students and union members, but by 2/3 of all the French. Economists of both right and left were nearly unanimous in saying that the CPE would have little impact on youth unemployment, it's ostensible purpose.

De Villepin's problem is that he has never been elected to any public office and has never had to face the voters on his own. De Villepin (left) spent most of his career as a Devillepin_2 diplomat in France's foreign ministry before becoming, as Secretary-General of the Elysee Palace, President Chirac's chief of staff. De Villepin's tin ear for the electorate was amply demonstrated in 1995, when he persuaded Chirac to dissolve parliament and thus call early elections, figuring that the factionalized Socialist Party would be caught short and that the conservatives would reinforce their majority. Of course, the opposite happened -- those early elections saw a sweeping legislative victory for the Socialists that brought Lionel Jospin to the premiership. As the author of that disaster, de Villepin has been generally detested for years by the parliamentary conservatives in Chirac's party and by the party's apparatchiks.

Now Villepin has once again confirmed that he is electorally tone-deaf by refusing for months to abrogate the CPE labor contract despite the entire country's opposition to it. His stubbornness provoked the most massive street demonstrations France had seen for decades, the shutting down of over 69 universities and of some 1200 high schools, by student blockades (and just before exam-time, too). Moreover, the protests were starting to seriously hurt the French economy -- the students were engaging in lightening blockages of factories, rail lines, highways, and center cities. One of the most audacious came when students blockaded the national food distribution center at Nantes. More blockages had been promised for the future, especially tomorrow (Tuesday), when the student coalitions and student unions had called for another huge national demonstration (a call they're maintaining to emphasize their victory and to keep pressure on the political classes to come up with real programs to fight youth unemployment.)

Under pressure from employers worried about the protests' economic effects as well as from  the French in the street, and from the conservatives own parliamentary majority (where the closer-to-the-ground deputies in the National Assembly feared for their own seats), Villepin had to back down. But both he and Chirac (who maintained his public support for Villepin throughout the crisis) have come out of this social conflict with hugely diminished popularity. A poll released this past weekend by Le Monde showed that 86% of the French said that Villepin had been "weakened" by the crisis over the CPE -- and 85% said the same of Chirac. Moreover, a poll for the newsweekly l'Express last week showed that Villepin's approval rating had dropped 14 points in a month, to only 26%. His presidential rival for '07, Sarkozy, on the other hand, has not suffered too much -- his popularity is holding at a 53% approval rating.

It's hard to see Villepin coming back from this very personal disaster. Disavowed by a majority of his own party's legislators, disliked by a huge majority in the country, the aristocratic prime minister will have difficulty in climbing out of the hole he dug for himself. All the more so because his government's cave-in signifies that not just France's young people but the entire country were held hostage to his personal ambition and his attempted political face-lift, for nought. The country is unlikely to forgive him.

Posted by Direland at 12:13 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: bbn | Aug 11, 2006 3:33:40 AM

If to take a brief excurse into history we will see that people who went out to protect their rights in France won in most cases.
http://www.all-translations.com/services/french-translation.html

Posted by: Sue, French translator | Jun 27, 2006 8:22:49 AM

Another sidebar on the (un)employment issue is the common comparison with France's UK neighbours, who seem to perform so much better in the employment stakes. What seems to be little noticed is that they have a mechanism for moving large numbers of long-term unemployed into the different categories, so they receive "Social Benefits" rather than "Unemployment Benefits". This means that the UK unemployment figures (especially youth unemployment) is largely masked and it is probably impossible to assess what their true employment level is. As a result, it is a moot point whether France is doing so badly in comparison. However, that doesn't stop politicians from both sides of the politacl divide salivating over the "Blair model" (which, after all, is a slightly socialised version of the "Thatcher model".

Posted by: LenClark | May 13, 2006 6:53:03 AM

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