Why French youths protest an age of insecurity

"Utopia or nothing."

The slogan spray-painted on a wall opposite the Sorbonne University in Paris recalls the insurrectionary days of May '68, when students occupied their universities, fought pitched battles with riot police, and dreamed of overthrowing the French state in a cultural lifestyle revolution.

For today's student demonstrators, though, "utopia" has nothing to do with the visions of free love, revolution, and liberation from the bourgeois state that inspired their parents' generation. For most of them "utopia" simply means a steady job.

"This is the opposite of May '68," says François Dubet, a sociologist specializing in youth issues at Bordeaux University. "Then, kids were certain they would enter society, even if they didn't like that society. Today young people have the impression society has no room for them."

Tuesday's protest - including strikes expected to interrupt air, train, and subway services in the capital - is the sixth staged by students in recent weeks to demand the withdrawal of a new labor law. Unions said Monday that more than 135 demonstrations were planned nationwide.

The "First Job Contract," known by its French acronym CPE, would allow employers to fire recruits under age 26 without giving a reason during their first two years on the job.

"Our fear is that life is not going to be better for us than it was for our parents," explains Vincent Camroux, a young student leader helping to organize the demonstrations. "We don't have the same assurances they did that tomorrow things will be better."

Business flexibility versus job security

The government hopes companies would be more willing to take on young people, and thus make a dent in the 23 percent youth-unemployment rate, if they knew it would be easier to fire them.

French employers have long been demanding more flexible labor laws, arguing that the lengthy and expensive procedures often required to fire workers makes it hard for them to remain internationally competitive.

The protesters, backed by the unions and the opposition Socialist party, see the CPE - due to come into force next month - as an attack on hallowed job-protection rights that underpin France's generous model of social security. They also complain that the measure unfairly discriminates against youths.

"Young people do not want to be the variables to be adjusted by a society in crisis," says Erwan Lecoeur, a political analyst at the Observatory of Public Debate, a Paris think tank. "And they feel they are losing what their parents won" in the way of labor rights over the past 40 years.

French youths' attraction to a secure job with a predictable future - once the norm in France - has been measured by recent polls.

One survey last year found 76 percent of young French citizens keen on working in the public sector - in the post office, on the railways, or as a teacher, for example - mainly for the job security such careers offer.

Average age to land a steady job: 33

But not everyone is so unadventurous. Mr. Camroux, for example, a second-year law student at the Sorbonne, says he is quite ready for the challenges that a globalized economy will pose when he graduates, and knows he will jump from job to job during his working life.

But he bewails what he calls "the immobilism" of French society, where business, politics, and the unions are full of people over 50, unwilling to make way for younger generations. "I am ambitious," he says. "I want jobs from which I will learn, that will be fulfilling." Most of the people he knows who will graduate this summer, though, face an endless series of unpaid internships or short-term contracts that don't lead anywhere.

According to the labor ministry, the average age at which a Frenchman lands a job on an open-ended contract offering high levels of job security is 33.

"France is run by old men who don't understand that young people are seeking their place," says Mr. Lecoeur. "It is French society that has the problem, not young people."

Much of the blame, he believes, lies with the country's political leaders, who, he says, are out of touch with their own citizenry and with the rest of the world. Symbolizing this problem is President Jacques Chirac, who is more than 20 years older than the leaders of neighboring Germany, Britain, and Spain, where top politicians in their 40s and early 50s are common.

French leaders, adds Professor Dubet, "find it extraordinarily difficult to admit that the world has changed and to ask how we need to redefine our system to cope with it."

Instead, politicians on both the left and the right commonly blame the country's problems on outside forces - the European Union's free-market reforms, for example, or globalization.

The results can be seen in France's vote against the European constitution last year, and in polls such as one carried out by the Program for International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at Maryland University.

Out of 19 nations surveyed by PIPA, France was the only nation in which more people were found to view globalization negatively than positively.

"We cannot get over the fact that we do not control our destiny any more, as a result of globalization, and that France is no longer a dominant nation," argues Dubet. "It is not a decadent country, but it looks backward too much, and not enough ahead."

Government and unions in a stand-off

Meanwhile, with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and union leaders in an ongoing standoff, the future of further reform in France is clouded.

"The enormous mistake that the prime minister made was to raise tensions" by not discussing the CPE with unions before introducing it, and then ramming it through parliament without a debate, says Christophe Lambert, author of a recent book dissecting what he calls "The Fearful Society" in France.

"Those tensions," he says, "will undermine the government's ability to push through any future, deeper changes."

Nationwide strike

In a show of solidarity with students protesting the new labor law, numerous unions planned strikes for Tuesday:

AIR TRANSPORT: Most Air France unions are taking part, with some flights likely to be canceled.

TRAINS: Unions have ordered a work stoppage from 8 p.m. Monday until Wednesday morning. Two in three regional trains were expected to run as normal, and service was guaranteed on about half of Paris area trains in peak commuting hours.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: About half of subway trains and about two-thirds of public buses will operate as normal.

OTHER PUBLIC SERVICES: Postal services, unemployment offices, electric and gas utilities, and telecommunications companies are among the sectors expected to face disruptions in service.

- Associated Press

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