Why French Youth Are Rioting -- Again

Paris is burning, again. Well, not really -- no need to exaggerate like U.S. media did during the riots last year -- it's really just a few smoking cars and piles of garbage here and there, with tear gas and water cannons thrown in for good measure.

But it's not in the suburbs this time -- protests are happening at the Sorbonne, and at Place de la Nation, and in major cities across France. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million people were mobilized Saturday afternoon against a new youth labor contract that would, among other things, allow employees -- that are 18 to 26 years old -- to be fired without cause during the first two years of employment.

In Paris alone, between 80,000 and 350,000 people marched through the streets, with students and labor unions united against what they see as a proposition for substandard labor protections, job insecurity and inequality reminiscent of American labor conditions.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has promoted the contrat premiere embauche (CPE), or First Employment Contract, as allowing employers to take a chance on someone with less education or job skills instead of waiting interminably for the ideal candidate to come along and giving that person a contrat a duree indetermine, or unlimited duration contract. Of course, rolling back hard-won labor protections is not an easy sell, and the potential for abuse has the proposal's numerous critics worried and angry.

While supporters say the CPE is justified as a measure to help poor youth from the suburbs out of poverty, critics say that vindictive or racially motivated firings would be hard to guard against, since they can be officially without cause.

Another worry is that the contract will become a favorite among employers, contributing to unemployment for older, unskilled workers as they are replaced by easy-to-fire young people, who in turn fear losing their jobs to others just before the end of the two-year trial period.

But in the face of dynamic, if brutal and unequal Anglo-American capitalism, flexibilite has become a buzzword in the French political debate. The center-right government in particular argues that the current system, in which firing an employee is difficult compared to at-will employment policies in the United States, is hardly conducive to promoting economic growth and competitiveness in the global economy. Of course, that kind of competitiveness is a priority for unloved bosses, not for employees and their families.

On the other hand, with general unemployment over 9 percent, and 22 percent for nonstudent jobseekers under 25 (between 40 percent and 50 percent in the most distressed areas), the government is trying desperately to get those numbers down before the presidential election next year. Withdrawing the proposal in the face of university shutdowns and intermittent violence would be a major setback for the presidential hopeful and current Prime Minister de Villepin, and government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope suggested that dialog to improve the contract is an option.

Of course, with both sides hardening their positions, including two-thirds of the population in favor of withdrawal and President Jacque Chirac's declaration of unconditional support for de Villepin, a mutually acceptable resolution to this political crisis is increasingly farfetched.

There have been scattered anti-protest rallies favoring reopening universities, some of which have been closed for several weeks, while the major unions are threatening strikes later this week and refusing to negotiate unless the length of the contract and no-cause firings are put back on the table.

The prime minister has reiterated his refusal to withdraw the proposal, but on Monday he met with business leaders and students in Paris.

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