Sunday, March 19, 2006

French Students, Workers Protest.

Granted the French are always demonstrating for one thing or another... but yesterday's demonstration was a big one, even by French standards. There was over one million people demonstrating against the the new job law.
This mess started a few weeks ago when some students began to protest for the abolition of a new law known as the "First Employment Contract" (CPE in French - the French love acronyms!) that would allow employers to lay off young workers (26 and less) without cause for a period of two years. The government argues that the plan is necessary to reduce the high rate of unemployment among the country's youth.
And indeed they may have a point but the way they have handled the situation has been so catastrophic that it does not even matter today.
As almost always, the government was unwilling to conduct formal negociations, or even give the appearance of negociations before they voted the law. In fact, they used emergency powers to push the law through the lower house last month. That was a stupid move.
Their worst mistake though is probably to allow the lay-off 'without cause'. This may not only end up being unconstitutional, but it is also politically damaging, especially since it was not necessary. It is not like employers would be shy of giving any cause (like 'does not fit the profile', 'does not meet expectations') for laying off so why did it matter?
Interestingly, the French didn't have a strong opinion on the law until the students succeeded in creating an open-ended standoff between them and the government. The government would not budge and as a result 68% of the French (according to a Parisien poll) said they want the jobs law to be rescinded and only 27% want it to go forward.
Yesterday's demonstration which included unions and families shows that the movement is now becoming a major social moment. It is now unlikely that the current government will stay unscathed. The question is really whether Villepin will take Sarkozy down with him. The major worry is that if the protest continue to give an impression of disorder, Le Pen may gain some votes. The unions have given the government a sort of utlimatum and warn of a possible general strike next week. It is also a way for them to regain a major role which they lost. It is an opportunistic move but it is also a test.
However, the elections are one year ahead and a lot can happen before then. Besides, if people don't necessarily forgive, they forget. The next few days and weeks are going to be interesting. Villepin is no Thatcher though...

One last note - it is interesting how a lot of the American media seems to have no clue when they report the news. (the only good report I have found so far is on NPR). The conservative but even the moderate press points out the continuing problem of reforming France, but that is hardly the issue here. Yes, there is fear of change, like anywhere else, but for one thing having a clueless president (Chirac) does not help calming fear. However the real problem is the inability of politicians to "sell" reform and do it by taking the rest of the country into account, or at least by giving the appearance of it. The Villepin government is no worse than any other, they just wanted to rush things too fast, so they could have some things on the table in next year's presidential elections. So their problem is their unwillingness to find a bipartisan method to make reform.
But, as we all know, that is hardly just a French problem.


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