TCS Daily


The French Mistake

By Nidra Poller - March 21, 2006 12:00 AM

PARIS -- As the mobilization against a new employment contract, the CPE, gathers steam, another movement, strikingly similar to the November riots, is jumping on the bandwagon and swinging into the front lines. The hallowed French tradition of street protest meets up, in the famed Quartier Latin, with the new-wave firebrands who torch cars, burn books, and throw heavy metal objects at the police. And the students are so bedazzled with their own image in the media mirror that they don't have a clue about the dangerous side effects of their mobilization. In fact, the confrontation between riot police and enraged casseurs (smashers) fits perfectly into the oppressor-oppressed discourse they have been eagerly consuming for the past six years.

What is this CPE, Contrat Première Embauche, that provokes the wrath of young citizens? It is a timid step in the direction of a slight degree of flexibility in the labor market. The idea is to encourage employers to hire young people under 26 with a contract that includes a two-year trial period during which they can be let go without the cumbersome, prohibitive procedures that make it impossible for companies, especially small businesses, to hire and fire in response to market variations. The CPE is a tiny step in the direction of flexibility with a corresponding slim hope of stimulating economic growth. The situation is drastic. France is suffering from longstanding double-digit unemployment. Figures for jobless youth stand around 23 percent, and as high as 40 percent for unskilled youths. These statistics require sophisticated validation and interpretation. But the economic crisis is visible to the naked eye.

French multinationals prosper... but three-quarters of their highly profitable economic activity takes place outside of France, while small business struggles to provide the economic bread and butter. In a society that lives on abstractions, it is easy to confuse an enterprising young woman with five employees and the president of Total. Capitalists, all, they deserve to be thrown into the trashcans of history. In the flaming imagination of this year's crop of latter day revolutionaries the CPE will reduce workers to serfdom.

The bottom line is they don't want it and they are determined to march up and down the boulevards until the government gives up. Countless universities have been shut down by a minority of activists, with utter disregard for the premises and for fellow students who might be for or against the CPE but are definitely for completing this year of studies. A few university presidents have begged the government to withdraw the unpopular measure...in the interest of peace in our time. But a conference of university presidents, convened to discuss the issue, declined to take stand for or against the CPE. The first VP of the conference is meeting with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to encourage dialogue.

Students opposed to the lockouts claim the movement is infiltrated by a motley crowd of anarchists, Communists, far left activists, and all-purpose troublemakers. Lockout decisions are made at "General Assemblies", which in fact represent a small minority of the students in those universities and lycées. The anti-lockout forces are trying to mobilize, but don't seem to appeal to the media that prefer to focus on the agitation in the streets.

While the smashers bring up the rear of demonstrations, fighting riot police for hours, destroying property, burning cars, the Socialist party dances with the demonstrators and demands the immediate withdrawal of the CPE. Having failed to block the measure in the Parliament, the Socialists hope to bring it down with the battering ram of the French street, and reap the benefits in the 2007 presidential elections.

It is easy to understand the frustration of French people of all ages, caught in the grip of globalized capitalism and failed socialism, but it would be foolhardy to applaud the rear guard battle now fought in the streets and in the media. These exhilarated young people marching by the tens of thousands, foolishly convinced of their own importance, shouting through bullhorns, carrying crudely painted signs, wearing silly costumes, displaying cardboard determination and utter ignorance about economic realities, bring to mind another image that has been ever-present on prime time news for weeks: chickens. Chickens running wild, captured by technicians in protective white garb and dumped into huge trashcans. Free-range chickens crammed together in coops to avoid contamination by the horrible H5N1, cackling and fluttering in each other's beaks. Plucked chicken carcasses that no one wants to buy.

Students, like chickens, may be convinced they are on their way to a better life when in fact they are heading for the incinerator...so to speak. Flush with the success of last week's demonstration, gearing up for the big one on March 18, the students, accompanied by a small labor union contingent, were out in force on March 16. Around 6 p.m. the marchers dispersed at Sèvres Babylone in the chic 7th arrondissement. And the smashers, the hooligans, the racaille went into action. They ran into the little park, gathered rocks, and attacked the police. The battle raged for two hours. The smashers threw Molotov cocktails, urban fixtures, whatever they could uproot. They torched a newspaper stand. And when the police got the upper hand, the action shifted to Place de la Sorbonne, with increased violence.

Cafés were smashed, an empty bookstore—la Librairie de la Sorbonne—was gutted and burned, shop windows were smashed, cars were torched, rioters grabbed fire extinguishers, sprayed the police with foam, and then threw the extinguishers at them. At least 70 policemen were injured, close to 200 smashers were arrested, and the next morning the Place de la Sorbonne was filled with TV crews, journalists, students, and of course riot police who gradually emptied the square and set up a security barrier.

A distinguished studious looking gentlemen with white hair, interviewed by a foreign TV crew, explained that the only legitimate violence is the violence of the street; the people were united against the government, the protest movement had united students from the privileged classes and students from the banlieue, and that was proof of the virtue of their cause. A cluster of students majoring in history and political science echoed his discourse. They deplored the brutality of the smashers but placed the blame on the riot police. Proud to be French, proud of their revolutionary history, they are confident that the street will prevail. Do they understand that the street, so empowered, might one day prevail against them? No. What if the street decides that women shouldn't work? That won't happen; we're not in Iran. Do these political science students believe that the will of 500,000 demonstrators in a country of 62 million is more democratic than an elected government? Yes, the government is discredited. And how will they separate themselves from the smashers, when the worldwide TV was focused on the gutted burned bookstore? We're we and they are them.

But you can't control the eyes of the world, can you? And what if the CRS were not there to protect you and the Sorbonne from the smashers? The ranks of the smashers could grow and outvote you...on the street?

This is inconceivable. They are the street, and no other street can even enter the corner of their imagination.

Why do so many of the demonstrators wear keffiehs? They wear bright new keffiehs when they harangue the crowd at mass meetings, spray paint graffiti on crude signs, march and holler from one end to the other of the demonstrations and, they wear keffieh wrapped jihad style when they fight the forces of order. A student in history shrugs his shoulders. It's folklore. They don't really know what it means.

Hours before the Place de la Sorbonne became a war zone, TV cameras zoomed in on a young woman wearing a red keffieh. She belted out her rant against the CPE: Who do they think they are? Trying to impose that throwaway contract on us? We won't back down! there's nothing to discuss! We want that measure withdrawn NOW! We won't take no for an answer! We are not Kleenex!

One wonders what kind of job contract she would have in the land of the keffieh?

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6 Comments

villepin's mistake!
I don't know where you take your informations, but I am french, and I study in a "lycée" (high school) and about "general assemblies" every student can take part to it! So even if it represents just a minority (which is perfectly wrong) it's the pro-CPE students fault they just have to come and debate whith the other and take part to the vote! The governement ask us if we prefer the bad (precarity) or the worst (unemployement) but I and a majority of french young people think that we desserve the good and even the best! It's our future they are preparing and even if they are sure it's a good solution, they can't make our hapiness without our agreement. We want to be able to have a house and for that we need money which means a stable job!

Tocqueville knew better...
I am deeply convinced that any permanent, regular administrative system whose aim will be to provide for the needs of the poor will breed more miseries than it can cure, will deprave the population that it wants to help and comfort, will in time reduce the rich to being no more than the tenant-farmers of the poor, will dry up the sources of savings, will stop the accumulation of capital, will retard the development of trade, will benumb human industry and activity, and will culminate by bringing about a violent revolution in the State...

Alexis De Tocqueville, Memoir on Pauperism (1835)

This is not mistake, this one is real recation
This is reaction against gobalization, and this one is natural. All over world young are reacting very angerily against gobalization. you must remember whenever any change in techonology occoured same kind reaction happened. Just rember when first railway started in U.K. OR WEAVING MACHINARY OPENED IN MANCHESTER SAME REACTION WERE HAPPENED IN u.k.so no one be panic, this one is natural reaction all over world people alway oppose to changes. and when changes run in full speed people accept that changes.

Foolish nat the not so witty
You claim that you "deserve the good and even the best". This is irrelevant, because the "good and the best" is simply not possible in France, given its labor laws. All that is possible is the lesser of unpleasant choices. Holding out for the best simply ensures that in the long run you will have nothing.

As for happiness, this is even more foolish. Happiness depends upon the individual and finding satisfaction in life, it is not and cannot be handed out by government.

Grow up.

The good and even the best
"The good and even the best" has to be earned. When getting "the good and even the best" becomes a right to which everyone is entitled by law, then we have what Tocqueville predicted: it " will dry up the sources of savings, will stop the accumulation of capital, will retard the development of trade, will benumb human industry and activity."

Good old Alexis should be studied at every lyceé.

Huzzah!
As I'm a bit of a Francophobe, a position the French recently taught me was proper, I hope the students succeed. Anything that cripples French industry and retards their progress can't be all bad.

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