March Malaise

The maddening immaturity of the French protesters—and politicians.

Young French protesters

PARIS—The split-level McDonald’s at the Place d’Italie was packed Tuesday. Having abandoned their schools to march in the streets, and with an hour still to go before the demonstration began, the teenagers of Paris were streaming in and waiting in a cheerful crush to buy their Royales.

They were boys and girls, black and white, a few in veils, but they had all plastered themselves with the same stickers: a yellow one with an obscene cartoon under the headline “La Méthode Villepin,” in which the French prime minister is giving “youth” the finger, and a red-and-white decal emblazoned with the letters “MJS,” for Mouvement des Jeunes Socialistes. Outside, police officers frisked a boy against the window. Inside, a group of slight, giggling girls reached the counter and ordered. They had decorated their faces with red greasepaint: NON across their foreheads, and CPE, in a circle with a line through it, on their cheeks.

The CPE was, nominally, what this march was all about, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. This Contrat Première Embauche, or “first employment contract,” which Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin introduced in February, makes it easier for large companies to dismiss people under the age of 26 who have been employed for less than two years. It is intended to make hiring young people a less frightening prospect for employers, who pay high social security charges on every worker and face an onerous and expensive process if they want to fire someone. The CPE is thereby supposed to reduce the youth unemployment rate, which is currently a whopping 23 percent for those under 26.

Leaving aside the possibility that the CPE might actually help achieve its goal—and leaving aside, too, the question on every Anglo-Saxon capitalist’s lips: Why is the government telling companies who they can hire and fire in the first place?—the curious fact remains that the change is not very big. Contracts of 18 months or less were already allowed in certain cases, such as seasonal employment, and even the hallowed lifetime guarantee of a CDI, the “indefinite length contract,” allows a trial period of six months.

So, while the balloons floating above the plaza on Tuesday afternoon all bore anti-CPE slogans, it was hard to believe that it was the CPE alone that had driven so many people onto the streets. The crowd in the Place d’Italie was rapidly turning into a solid mass, as more and more demonstrators emerged from the metro station. It was shaping up to be the biggest anti-CPE march of several so far, with Parisian turnout somewhere between the police estimate of 92,000 and the organizers’ figure of 700,000. French newspapers put turnout across France at about 2 million.

There appeared to be three kinds of demonstrators. Some, like the group dancing around a bongo drum at the Place de la République, or the dreadlocked kids swigging beer and smoking joints as they ambled through the Place de la Bastille, had apparently come for a big day out. Then there were the casseurs, troublemakers in from the suburbs, looking for opportunities for mayhem. The morning news had reported that police would be monitoring inbound trains to keep the casseurs out of the city center; this would presumably involve targeting black and Arab young men.

The third and largest group was comprised of people out for the cause—or causes. Members of ACT UP Paris marched with signs pointing out that “AIDS is still with us.” A Marxist group sold Che Guevara T-shirts. And everywhere, on stickers, signs, and T-shirts, and shouted through bullhorns, the demonstrators declared themselves to be “contre la précarité!

Against precariousness, instability, uncertainty. I’m trying for the kindest translation here, but even so, the sentiment is hard (for an Anglo-Saxon capitalist) to take seriously. Except, if more than a million French citizens take to the streets to demand that the government protect them from uncertainty, something must be seriously wrong, even if it’s not the CPE.

A bistro on the other side of the Place d’Italie from the McDonald’s was packed with an older, but no less boisterous, crowd. There I fell into conversation with a couple in their 50s, Sonia and François, and their friend Fanny, a master’s degree student at the Sorbonne. Sonia, who has a university degree and had worked in the theater, now works under the table in a restaurant, because, she said, the only legal job she could find was as a night nurse. François has a job in data processing but says that, if he were a young person today, he would immigrate to Canada, because there are no jobs in France.

They voiced various objections to the CPE: It victimizes young people. It’s a first step to undoing other labor protections. The prime minister rammed it through without discussion. If young people don’t have permanent contracts, they will find it difficult to obtain apartment leases and bank loans. The police were letting the casseurs run amok to make all the demonstrators look bad.

Fanny, who is studying Spanish and has thought of becoming a translator, objects to the CPE because it targets young people. But she quickly added, “I’m not a politician, I’m not an economist.” This echoed something a boy outside the McDonald’s had told me, when I asked him what he thought should be done about unemployment. “It’s the leaders’ responsibility,” he said. He wore a sticker that said, “Rêve Générale,” a play on “Grève Générale.” It means, instead of “general strike,” “general dream.”

This was dreamland all right. There was something childish about the protesters, and not just because so many of them were young. The CPE had to be withdrawn, and though they had no particular alternative to suggest, they planned to stamp their feet until it happened. The leaders could figure out how to cope with economic reality—never mind that the CPE was their small attempt to do so.

Business owners I have talked to in recent days, as well as columnists and interviewees filling the French press, have ideas. Many of the best ones center around reducing employers’ social charges, which fund social security and pensions. Francis, who runs a five-man building-inspection business, told me that he pays between 700 and 800 euros in social charges to the government for every 1,000 euros of salary. “Small companies are carrying the weight of France on their back,” he said.

But politicians, like the demonstrators, seem curiously short on suggestions. Members of the opposition Socialist Party, for the most part, pledge not to give a centimeter on labor protections. Even within the ruling UMP, which passes for right-of-center in France, support for the CPE is pretty weak. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is vying with de Villepin for a shot at the presidency next year, is now calling for compromise and dialogue on the subject, leaving the prime minister to twist in the wind.

The parent who gives in to a child’s tantrum is largely to blame when the screams are louder the next time around. The CPE itself was born of mob rule; it was November’s suburban car-torching extravaganza that moved youth unemployment to the front of the agenda. That’s not a good reason to let the mob rule again.