French Bellwether

THE French students whose voices and banners have swelled the streets of Paris for two weeks have won a minor victory. Prime Minister Edouard Balladur on Monday suspended for seven days the new special lower minimum wage for persons under 25 years old - a policy that has blown up in his face since it was announced last month.

Yet while Mr. Balladur's backtrack may quiet the streets of Paris and reduce the uneasy sense the French feel at watching 200,000 students block traffic and scuffle with police, it does not solve the overall problem of one out of four French youth unemployed. Nor will it help reverse the rising cost of social subsidies in an economy with a $1.5 trillion national debt.

The lower youth wage is the latest in a series of government attempts to deal with a welfare state and mentality, and a lowering of standard-of-living expectations across French society. Attempts this year to cut back on Air France and school salaries and to allow low-priced imports of fish and farm goods also caused unrest. The Balladur government, eyeing national elections in March 1995, backed off these get-tough efforts, too. The latest ``suspension'' of the youth wage is a face-saving move; it is likely Balladur will eventually abandon it entirely.

The French students do act as a kind of social bellwether, not only for France, but for Europe as well. Unlike the 1968 student protests in Paris, however, to which the latest riots have been wrongly compared, these students are not challenging establishment power structures or French imperialism in Algiers. The crisis is not ideological. The students do not want to trash wealth and capitalism; they want to participate, get their share.

Nor is the climate in France or Europe like that of 1968 - a time that brought the Prague Spring, a time when a more expansive sense of positive change and possibility was in the air. Rather, today it is just the opposite. The disillusionment among the French, along with the sense of economic constriction, is thick.

Moreover, while student demonstrations are a political rite of passage for many, and one can respect their efforts, it is disturbing to hear of some students who feel no interest in jobs, but simply want to use the protest as an occasion for violence and theft. They are anarchists without a cause.

They too are part of Europe's bellwether.

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