Today was the big day to see if the mobilisation against the CPE would build up after Thursday's student demonstrations, and it was a big success, with bigger crowds in all cities and a growing number of places touched.
Villepin, the Prime Minister, is in a very precarious position. He has basically bet his job, and his chances as a presidential candidate in 2007, on this new law, and on successfully fighting off these protests. So far, it's not working, with his popularity dropping by 7% this week (after another 7% last week) to 37/61 (including 25% "extremely unfavorable", up 10% in one week).
Basically, the CPE ("Contrat Première Embauche", or "First Hire Contract") is an unlimited duration work contract for under-26-year olds, with a specific 2-year trial period, during which the young worker can be fired without cause. It is this trial period which is being fought, as people fear (rightly) that employers will abuse the clause and use it as a way to get labor more compliant and more "flexible". The banlieues youth, which are the supposed target of this new contract (meant to help thme find jobs), are especially wary as they fear that they will be fired just for being Black or Arab without any need for elaborate excuses.
In any case, the law has now gone through Parliament, and is now only awaiting the opinion of the Constitutional Court before being implemented.
Here's a review of who the main players are and what they are doing:
- Chirac, as usual, is clueless. Until Monday, he was saying "it's the government's problem, let Villepin handle it". Since Monday, he has felt the need to support his prime minister, but everybody knows that Chirac has always capitulated against students (he did in 1986, in 1994, in 1995), and he is not known to have any specific personal involvement in this law. However, he cannot afford the humiliation of losing another Prime Minister so quickly after the last one (replaced after the loss in the European referendum last May), and thus he has been supporting his Prime Minister in public recently, and calling for "dialogue";
- Villepin, the Prime Minister, has bet the house on this law. He pushed it very quickly through parliament, using various procedural tricks to avoid a full debate, and counting on the holiday period to get it through while students were not around. He did not try to negotiate with unions or even with the MPs in his majority, basically going for broke on his own. This week, he has been alternating between demonstrations of toughness ("Balladur (who gave in on a similar contract in 1994) had no balls. I do, and I'll fight to the end. It's like during WWI in the trenches. We must not let anything go") and tiredness ("beyond 1.5 m demonstrators, we cannot hold"). Today, there are new attempts to open dialogue again, but it's not clear that it has any chance of success;
- Sarkozy, the main rival of Villepin on the right for the presidential election next year - the front runner, he is also minister for the interior and head of the main party of the right, the UMP - alternates between glee that Villepin is about to humiliate himself ("the French are against it, the Ministers are against it, MPs are against. Villepin is isolated, and if the demonstrations are strong, he will be forced to capitulate") and worry that the fallout will catch him, along with the whole right-wing majority. He is also particularly worried about a potential hook up between students and banlieues kids (which is now well under way), and by risks of violence. Both he (as minister for the interior) and Villepin have given strict insturctions to the police to keep their calm; Chirac is also very keen not to repeat what happened in 1986, when a student was killed during student demonstrations when he was Prime Minister - that death was widely credited for his defeat in the presidential election in 1988. Sarkozy is both trying to avoid any major incident (the kind of face off you are probably seeing on TV today is really nothing by French standards and means little so far) and to be dragged down by the whole situation, so he has been mostly silent altogether.
- many in the majority are deeply reluctant, fearing a major break up with youth (several have noted that the simultaneity with the internet copyright debate is terrible - see this diary -, and say that they are receiving unprecedented numbers of emails about that topic from "internautes"). They feel obliged to support Villepin ("like the rope supports the hanging man" said one) and hold ranks, but several have already expressed deep misgivings and asked Villepin to drop the text.
- there is, as usual, infighting between the left and the hardleft to try to control the movement, but it seems to be self-organised to a large extent, and beyond the grasp of organised political movements. The left has been vocal in its opposition of the plan, but it's not sure that it will be able to benefit from the student movement;
- more generally, there is a feeling that the French youth are deeply unhappy with a number of things (there are many, many different grievances that have come up and given strength to the overall protests), and in particular the fear that they are being sacrificed (once more) by society;
- there appears to be growing support from the banlieues for the movement. some have tried to caricature it as an "elites" fighting for their privileges against the lower classes youth, but these are saying that they don't see how more precarity will help them. This is still fluid, but an increasing number of high schools are joining the movement. Le Monde stated that 32 of Paris' 100 high schools were closed on Thursday by protests; the Financial Times had an article yesterday flagging that the banieue youth were mostly supportive of the protests:
Hostility to the contract from people in the poor suburbs is a blow to Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, who claimed last weekend that the measure was designed to help "the young people in most difficulty".
Mr de Villepin seemed to be telling the student protesters in central Paris not to worry. As graduates of prestigious universities, such as the Sorbonne, they are not the intended recipients of the new contract. Instead, it is meant for the poorly-educated immigrant children in "les banlieues", who rioted and set fire to thousands of cars and buildings across France last year.
But this argument is being undermined by an increasing number of people in the suburbs repeating the same criticisms as the student demonstrators. The only difference is that people in the poor outer-city ghettos say they have the added worry of racial discrimination.
Edilson Monteiro, an 18-year-old school drop-out from Montfermeil, says: "Before the `first job contract', there were enough difficulties for people from the banlieues, with the difference in our clothes, our language and our culture, but now they are making things even more insecure.
"Young people are very worried about entering the world of work. Now if I make a mistake or upset the boss, he can just get rid of me without any reason," says Edilson, whose mother brought him to the local job centre after he quit as a construction sales agent.
Now he plans to retrain as a cook's assistant in a six-month paid training scheme, which if he passes, will lead to a full-time contract. He would refuse a "first job contract" if offered one. "Two years is too long. I'm with the demonstrators on that."
Many people have a deep distrust of company bosses, and suspect they are looking for any excuse to fire black or Arab workers.
- Trade unions, which had waited to see if the student protests had any energy in them, are now fully supportive, and participated fully in the organisation of today's big demonstrations. Villepin is trying to save his law by announcing "negotiated adjustments", but all unions have stated flatly that they would negotiate only after the 2-year trial period and the right to fire people without cause were dropped. They see Villepin upping that stakes, and are looking forward to him falling from even higher...
The movement is now becoming a major social moment, and the current government is unlikely to stay unscathed. In a sense, the question is whether Villepin will try to force his way through come what may, or if he will compromise, and whether he will take Sarkozy and Chirac with him, or if he will be destroyed alone.
His chances of surviving the crisis appear slim today, and there's a good chance that the right could be nastily tainted. The big worry is that this brings a full year of disorder, which could play into Le Pen's hands. The situation is very fluid and the stakes are getting steadily higher.
The good news is that collective protests and resistance work.
An important note: you may have seen numbers saying that 25% or so of French youth are unemployed, and wondered why they are protesting anything that could give them a chance to get a job. That number is highly deceptive, as the Financial Times acknowledged today:
YOUTH AT WORK
The proportion of French youths without work is more in line with other countries than suggested by official figures that put French youth unemployment at more than 22 per cent, compared with 11, 12 and 13 per cent in the UK, US and Germany, writes Simon Briscoe, Statistics Editor.
FT research suggests that 7.8 per cent of under-25s are out of work in France. This is only slightly above 7.4 per cent in the UK and 6.5 per cent in Germany.
The discrepancy reflects the fact that France has a much smaller youth labour force than other countries because a greater proportion go on to higher education after the age of 16, delaying their entry to the labour market.
To be clear, the oft-quoted figure is an unemployment number, i.e. the ratio of unemployed to "active", i.e. those that either work or are looking for work. It is NOT the ratio of unemployed to the overall youth population, as the following grpah makes clear:
That's what 15-24 year-olds do in France:
60% are studying;
27% work (of which, 44% full time, 22% on limited duration contracts, 12% on apprenticeships)
8% are unemployed
6% are otherwise inactive
left: employment rate (youth employed to total youth population
right: youth unemployed to total youth population
Compared to other European countries, France has a much lower employment rate than others, but the ratio of unemployed to overall youth population is not very different (I don't have the numbers for the US at hand, maybe someone can provide them in the comments and I'll update).
The headline unemployment figure is tha ratio of the second column to the sum of the two columns, and thus does not look too good for France - but that's mostly because so many are not "active" and are still studying. Whether this is a way to avoid the labor market or a real desire to study I won't opine upon, but the fact is that saying that 25% of French youth are unemployed is simply false.
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