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Taking to the streets to protest pro-business labor law
Revolt spreads across France

March 24, 2006 | Page 16

JESSIE KINDIG reports from France on the revolt against the conservative government's proposed labor law.

FRANCE IS being rocked by one of the biggest social upheavals since the student rebellion and workers' general strike of May 1968.

Students and workers are again in the front ranks of a huge struggle that erupted across the country in the past month-and-a-half to counter a proposed pro-business law that would destroy the rights of young workers.

The mass mobilization reached a new high point last week with two nationwide days of action involving millions of people. Students are on strike at two-thirds of French universities.

And as Socialist Worker went to press, the country's main trade unions were calling a daylong general strike for March 28 after the government refused to retreat on its proposal. "If nothing moves," Bernard Thibault, head of the General Labor Confederation (CGT), said last weekend in issuing an ultimatum for the government to withdraw the law, "we will propose preparing a day of general work stoppages in the coming days. Conditions are such that it should be a success."

Since February, university and high school students have been staging protests against the government of conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, for its proposed Contract of First Employment (known by its French acronym CPE), which takes aim at workers under age 26.

The CPE would create a two-year "trial period" under which newly hired young workers could be fired without cause or a grievance process. The job insecurity caused by the CPE would make it much easier for employers to clamp down on union activity and force young workers to accept low wages and longer hours.

Activists call the CPE a pro-business surface solution to the real crisis of unemployment. The jobless statistics, particularly for young people, are grim: Nearly 25 percent of people under age 25 are unemployed, and this youth jobless rate has been at or above 20 percent for an entire generation.

In the ghettoized suburbs of major cities, home to workers and the poor, unemployment is often much higher. For example, in some of the predominantly immigrant suburbs around Paris, which erupted in rioting against racism last November, unemployment is over 50 percent.

In the fight against the proposed CPE, students make up the most visible and active ranks. As of mid-March, 63 out of France's 84 universities were out on strike or staging mass demonstrations; strikes have been called at 180 high schools as well. Mass assemblies of students--sometimes drawing as many as 1,500 people--have been held in schools across the country to debate the CPE.

On March 16, a national day of student protest, 500,000 students marched all over France, chanting, "Villepin, t'es foutu, la jeunesse est dans la rue!" (Villepin, you're beaten, the youth are in the streets).

In Paris, the famous Sorbonne was occupied by several hundred students for three days--the first occupation since the famous rebellion of May 1968. Defended by barricades made of tables and chairs and solidarity protests organized out of the surrounding neighborhood, the students held out for three days before being tear-gassed out of the building by riot police.

Afterward, police erected a metal wall to prevent students from reoccupying the Sorbonne buildings. Student protesters covered the wall in graffiti such as: "Police everywhere: Justice nowhere."

In Poitiers, 4,000 students held a mass meeting in the local rugby stadium before voting for an indefinite strike; in Toulouse, where the university continued operating throughout the events of 1968, the students voted overwhelmingly to strike. In an unprecedented development, several university administrations have called for the government to retreat, and faculty unions have voted to join the strike.

The CPE is the main focus for protesters, but wider questions are being taken up. For example, at a student strike delegates' assembly in Dijon last weekend, according to the newspaper Libération, speakers called into question the laws on education and immigration, and discussed calling for "the resignation of the government" and "the requisition of the goods in the supermarkets to support the movement." They also discussed spreading their movement into the suburbs, where poor, mostly Arab youth have little access to higher education.

But this struggle is not of students alone. Workers and their unions are mobilizing, rightly seeing the CPE as an attack on all workers' rights and a gamble by the government to push its pro-business agenda further ahead.

On March 18, some 1.5 million workers and students mobilized for 150 protests around the country. In Paris, chants of "Etudiantes, salariès, tous ensemble pour solidaire!" (Students and workers, together for solidarity) rang out from a demonstration numbering at least 250,000.

"Last week, it was announced that the French multinationals had made a profit in 2005 of 84 billion euros," Raphaelle Delpech, a 22-year-old medical student who took part in the Paris protest, told a reporter. "It is a politician's trick to try to convince us that we need to make sacrifices so those companies can become even richer."

Union leaders issued their threat of a daylong general strike in the following week if de Villepin didn't withdraw the proposal.

Following the demonstration, riot police clashed with the protesters into the night.

Some of the violence hyped by the media has been caused by the far right. According to the newspaper Le Monde, members of the neo-Nazi National Front's youth group attacked at the end of a student demonstration near the Sorbonne on March 16, vandalizing restaurants and businesses and setting cars on fire.

The movement has the support of most people in France, and the size of the majority continues to grow as the protests continue. A survey by Libération found that 68 percent want the government to retract the CPE--up 13 percent from a survey conducted earlier in the month.

De Villepin, whose hopes for winning the 2007 presidential election could be dashed by the current crisis, has refused to retreat on the CPE. He staunchly defends the measure, claiming that the act would lessen unemployment by making it safer for employers to hire workers they wouldn't have to keep. The prime minister's poll numbers are dropping, and even a few members of the conservative parties that lead the governing coalition are abandoning him.

The U.S. media have been adamant that this movement against the CPE is nothing like the one in 1968 that led to a mass general strike and threw the French state into crisis. While it is true that the aims of the demonstrations today are more narrow, the atmosphere is eerily similar to the events 38 years ago.

Throughout mid-March, the Latin Quarter in the heart of Paris--home of the Sorbonne--has resembled more of an occupied zone than a university district. Police wagons line the main thoroughfares, the Place de la Sorbonne and streets around the university are blocked off with metal gates, and groups of policemen in full riot gear mix uneasily with knots of tourists and protesting students.

Broken glass litters the street from near-nightly street battles between youth, the extreme right and police. Meanwhile--in a direct echo of 1968--the walls are covered with political graffiti against Villepin and the CPE, but also reflecting wider political issues.

The anti-CPE protests are tapping into widespread discontent with pro-business policies and a range of reactionary measures put in place by the French government.

This anger became clear in 2002 with the resounding "no" vote against a European Union constitution supported by French business and much of the political establishment, including leaders of the Socialist Party. Likewise, last November, rioting by first-generation, largely North African youth against government racism and the hopelessness of their futures highlighted the simmering frustration that has erupted once again in the student rebellion.

The movement is still accelerating, and the stakes are high. A victory could put a stop to the conservative government's drive to attack unions, pension rights and social welfare spending--and politicize a new generation of young activists prepared to take the initiative in fighting for their demands.

John Mullen and Sherry Wolf contributed to this report.

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