Adam Ash

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Euro Diary: Shades of '68 in France?

Protests Heat Up as France Feels the Chill of Change – by ELAINE SCIOLINO

PARIS, March 16 — Once again, students are on the barricades in France , evoking comparisons to the uprising of May 1968. But this is not a revolt. It is not 1968 revisited.

Certainly, students are taking to the streets and shutting down universities, and tear gas penetrated the heart of Paris. Today, hundreds of thousands of protesters, most of them students, filled the streets and marched in cities throughout France. With teachers, workers, labor union leaders, the jobless, even retirees beginning to join in, an even larger nationwide protest is planned for Saturday.

And the images of cheering students occupying the 17th-century Sorbonne, the birthplace of the 1968 revolt, last Friday night called forth memories of that exhilarating, romantic leftist youth movement 38 springs ago.

But the students' goal this time is far more modest. They want the abolition of a new law, the First Employment Contract, which aims to increase hiring by allowing employers to fire new workers without cause in their first two years.

"We're not back there in '68," said Nadjet Boubakeur, a 26-year-old history major at a public university here and a leader of the student movement UNEF. "Our revolt is not to get more. It's to keep what we have."

Nonetheless, the demonstrations coincide with a time when the French government seems to be in free fall. In the face of the unrest, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers have been reduced to pleading for dialogue. The government also seemed ineffectual during last fall's riots, and was battered last May when French voters rejected the French Constitution.

In contrast to the fall riots, which were centered in immigrant-heavy, working-class suburbs, these protests are a mostly middle-class phenomenon that seems to be spreading.

In Paris today, demonstrators paralyzed traffic for hours as they marched toward government offices. In the upscale Seventh Arrondissement, a small group of masked protesters hurled rocks at anti-riot police officers from a small park in front of the chic Bon Marché department store, just a few blocks from the prime minister's office.

In Rennes, police used tear gas against youths who set garbage cans on fire and vandalized cars. In Bordeaux, protesters disrupted rail traffic. In Nancy, youths threw stones at the police, injuring one officer. In Toulouse, the university was closed after clashes between students who wanted it shut and others who wanted it to stay open.

Large protests were also held in Marseille, Montpellier, Lyon, Lille, Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, Angers, Nantes and Strasbourg.

It is a moment of street theater and fierce debate, with sweeping commentaries about watersheds and crossroads and references to the unrest that shook Paris in May 1968. That was a time of student dreams and of student revolt aimed at transforming an authoritarian, elitist system. It pushed 10 million workers to go on strike in France and came close to forcing Gen. Charles de Gaulle from power.

"Sixty-eight was a mass revolutionary movement to create a socialist society," said Henri Weber, now a member of the European Parliament, who was a Communist leader of the 1968 revolt and whose photo protesting in front of the Sorbonne even appeared in Paris Match. "We had an idealistic vision."

The current problem stems from a flawed educational system that churns out young people who lack the necessary skills to get jobs, combined with rigid labor laws that discourage job formation because they require hugely expensive benefits and job-security packages that make it nearly impossible for employers to fire anyone.

The headquarters of UNEF, the student organization, in a gritty section of northeast Paris reflects the disparate nature of the movement. The walls are lined with posters advocating causes like new schools, an end to the war in Iraq, a boycott of McDonald's, a ban on smoking. The air is filled with smoke.

The motto on their fliers protesting the new labor law is hardly a call to action. "Against Precariousness," it reads.

But the students have succeeded in creating an open-ended standoff between the government and a large swath of the people in which both sides seem to be driven by fear.

The government seems to fear its people; the people seem to fear change.

France likes to think of itself as revolutionary. But it is run like a big corporation with a powerful president at the head. Any change in the distribution of power can set off a crisis. Parliament is seen as too weak to serve as a check to that power. Protests are one of the only ways to get the government's attention.

"This is a moment of fear, anxiety and malaise in France that touches all ages and classes," said Anne Muxel, director of the research center at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po. "The students are afraid that they have fewer opportunities than their parents. But their parents are also afraid of unemployment, of the future. The result is that society is politicized, but in a negative way."

According to a survey that will appear Friday in Le Parisien, 68 percent of those French polled want the jobs law to be rescinded; only 27 percent want it to go forward.

Today, as students stepped up their street protests, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has presidential ambitions but whose approval rating has plummeted in recent weeks, called himself "open to dialogue" to "improve" the employment plan under the constraints of the law.

The opposition Socialists have joined forces with those condemning the law, with François Hollande, the party head, dismissing Mr. de Villepin's words as platitudes.

President Chirac is seen as a spent force, even by some in his inner circle.

"The protests are a symptom of a great malaise with no chance for change before the presidential election," said Alain Duhamel, a leading political commentator. "The majority of the French are passionate in their distrust of market forces and in their refusal to embrace flexibility. And the majority of the young are convinced that they will not live as well as their parents."

The students have vowed to continue their struggle until the government backs down.

Those marching voiced a variety of complaints about the new labor law. "This contract is like living beneath a guillotine," said Charlotte Billaud, 21, a political science student in the third year of her five-year program at the Sorbonne. "When you can be fired without reason, you do not dare criticize your boss or join a union."

In addition to members of the largest French unions, professors and retirees took part in the protests. "I teach students so they can have a future, but I am also here for myself," said Jean Albert, 55, a professor of dramatic arts at Nanterre University. "These employment terms are the first breach of the social contract protecting employees."

If there is a historical resonance, it is not with 1968 as much as with 1994, when the prime minister at the time, Édouard Balladur, clashed with students over a minimum wage law.

Then, like now, there were street demonstrations throughout France, tear gas, damage to property, injuries, accusations that the measure was discriminatory.

Politics played a role. Mr. Balladur, like Mr. de Villepin today, had his eyes on the presidency, and he chose to back down on the law. Weakened, he was eliminated in the first round of the 1995 election.

A cartoon of Mr. de Villepin this week in the left-leaning newspaper Libération showed him looking in the mirror and seeing the face of Mr. Balladur.


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