PARIS — IT'S been a French rite of spring for decades: When the birds start chirping and the trees begin budding, students and workers pour into the streets to demand and protest, as if to remind people of their existence.
This year, springtime in Paris promises to be especially hot because the future is looking particularly grim for millions of French.
After Air France's debilitating strike last fall over a job-cutting plan and French fishermen's violent protests in February, students and labor unions are mobilizing for a huge demonstration on March 17 to show their rejection of an economic horizon that looks increasingly bleak.
Ostensibly, the demonstration uniting France's major labor unions and student groups is in opposition to a government plan to allow companies to hire youths at less than minimum wage. But behind the specific issue stands high unemployment - 12 percent overall, but 25 percent for those under 26 years of age - and falling economic conditions for large swathes of French society.
``Since last fall there has been a growing awakening in France to a frightening deterioration not just in current living conditions but in prospects for the future,'' says Jean-Pierre Page of CGT, France's largest union. ``That awakening is leading people to act.''
Surveys show three-fourths of young people expecting at some point to join the unemployed. And a similar number of the French in general say they anticipate an ``explosion'' of discontent in coming months - with most of them claiming to be ready to join in the protest.
It is just such an ``explosion'' that worries French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, aides say. Mr. Balladur, who was an aide to former Prime Minister Georges Pompidou during the strikes in May 1968 that brought France to a standstill, says that France today suffers from the same kind of ``blockage'' that forced the pressure valve to burst a quarter-century ago.
No broad movement
Yet many analysts discount such concerns. While protests are likely to spring up over specific issues, they argue, the conditions for a broad social movement do not exist.
One difference is that the 1960s were years of rapid economic growth when people could join a movement without worries over the consequences for themselves. ``May '68 was about a better distribution of the fruits of economic growth,'' says Pascal Perrineau, head of the Center for the Study of French Political Life here. ``Today's preoccupations are not at all the same.''
Comparisons of the March 17 protest to those against the Algerian war 30 years ago, when France's unions also united for a march, give too much importance to the role of unions today, Mr. Perrineau adds.
``The rate of unionization in France is around 7 to 8 percent, one of the lowest in the Western world,'' he says. That makes union unity less ominous now - but it also means weaker channels for controlling discontent.
Where many analysts agree with Balladur is that French society does suffer from ``blockages'' in addressing economic challenges. Unlike 1968, they say, when workers were demanding change, today it is those who reaped the benefits of three decades of postwar prosperity who fear losing out in any reforms - and are thus blocking action.
The battle over a ``youth minimum wage'' is a case in point. The government proposed it as one measure for attacking high youth unemployment, but students were the first to take to the streets in protest. Now their parents are joining them because they see their assumptions about the family's future crumbling.
``With this measure the government is touching a particularly important symbol of the last 60 years of social gains,'' says Anne Guesdon, spokeswoman for the powerful CFDT union. ``It's not a question of refusing change, but of halting the deterioration that has already taken place.''
What troubles political leaders is the absence of any ``political perspective'' to the disenchantment. ``People may explode in angry reaction to conditions, but they aren't demanding solutions or alternatives because they see no one capable of proposing them,'' says Ivan Renar, a Communist senator from Lille.
But it may also be because the ``solutions'' look unpalatable. Emile Quinet, a professor at the National School of Bridges and Roads, argues that the unemployment problem could be addressed by deregulating the labor market, improving training, and reforming social assistance - but such ideas butt up against ``our mentality turned toward protection.''
France's springtime protesters are in the uncomfortable position of rejecting their government's actions and soliciting the same government for protection from a world where economic conditions are not those of the sons and daughters of May 1968.