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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 6, 2006

French street protests are a national sport

By K.A. Dilday

Students in this February protest against the new jobs law shouted slogans during a demonstration in Toulouse, southwestern France.

REMY GABALDA | Associated Press

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PARIS The streets of France were packed again this week with protesters opposed to a controversial new law that makes it easier to fire young people from their jobs. More than 1 million people poured into the streets across the country including 80,000 here scuffling with police, snarling airports and roads and prompting hundreds of arrests.

The protests have been seen by some as evidence of French idealism and by others as symbolic of French entitlement. They may be both.

But they are also, simply, French. In France, street protests are ends in themselves; the French have deep faith in the voice of the streets, even if it isn't always wise. Strikes, student demonstrations and immigrant rallies are all common. Protesting, people say, is the national sport.

On my largely residential street in the 9th Arrondissement, an economically mixed neighborhood, workers from the gas company have been protesting privatization outside the local office for most of the past week. They stand in small clusters during the day and at nightfall they are gone, leaving behind cigarette butts and a confetti of colored fliers. They return each morning to resume their smoking and protesting.

University students have been demonstrating in much the same way for more than a month now, but the protests have been gaining strength.

When I visited the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales, one of France's most prestigious academic institutes, I saw that the stone plaque that bears the seal of the university had been defaced; in front of the first "E" in the motto "Evolution of Human Beings," someone had taped an "R."

But what exactly is this revolution of young human beings about? It is ostensibly directed against the "First Job Contract," which supporters say will free up the labor market. The law (which took effect Sunday, but is not yet applied) allows employers to bypass strict French laws that make it difficult to fire workers once they're on the books; the idea, supported by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, is that companies haven't been hiring young people because they're too hard to fire. The law allows people who are 26 or younger to be fired at any time, for any reason, within two years.

The students say it isn't fair to single them out and that there are already special contracts that limit their term of employment. They don't buy de Villepin's assurances that jobs will be easier to get as a result of the new law, and they complain that they already have a hard time finding a job in France.

But they're only telling part of the story. It is also important to note that many French young people or at least many of the students who are protesting opt not to work and therefore are not part of the "workforce" that will be affected by the law.

In fact, only 37.5 percent of French 15- to 24-year-olds participate in the workforce, a percentage that includes anyone who has a job or is unemployed and seeking one. By contrast, the portion of the workforce for the same age group is 61.1 percent in the United States, 67.4 percent in Britain and 44.8 percent in Japan.

Part of the reason is that education is very important in France. There is a track to success, and it begins with a baccalaureate degree, which is necessary before proceeding to one of the handful of prestigious schools that ensure a prestigious career.

But there is a group of young people that enters the labor market at an early age. It is the youth from the "banlieues," the coded way of describing young people of North African descent, most of whom are Muslim and black. Fewer of these kids go on to a university, so they begin looking for jobs while young.

Among this group, unemployment runs at more than 40 percent, almost twice what it is for youth in general. Yet my interviews with them suggest that they aren't as adamantly opposed to de Villepin's jobs law (although they're happy to go out and participate in the demonstrations).

For them, the status quo that the university students are fighting for isn't so appealing, and anything that might actually allow them to taste fully the fruits of the republic is welcome.

De Villepin has repeatedly said that the jobs law will help the youth in the banlieues. Azouz Begag, the minister for the promotion of equal opportunity and one of the highest-ranking people of North African descent in French politics in several decades, agrees, and he has made pleas for support of the new law in newspapers and on television.

The marches have become magnets for the country's youth, who seem to consider them the evening's social activity regardless of how they feel about the new law.

As usual, the union workers and adults left when they completed the route and the youth remained: the impassioned university students who believe in the power of the streets, and the youth of the banlieues who seem to believe only in the life of the moment.

Under rainy skies, the two groups began a strangely tense dance, united in their dislike of the police that encircled them, alienated in their vision of the future. It is a divide that no new law or contract is likely to bridge.

K.A. Dilday is a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.