In France, systematized revolt

A million people took to the streets Tuesday, but the leaders treated the 'crisis' as part of the political process.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In its choreographed and time-honed fashion, much of France went on strike Tuesday.

A predetermined number of buses, subways, and trains did not run. Schools were ostensibly open, although teachers in certain grades had warned parents beforehand that they would skip class. In scores of cities and towns, about 1 million people marched peacefully - with only scattered post-march clashes between youths and police. No one expected to have mail delivered and, for the most part, they were right.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose jobs plan for young people was the target of the nationwide protest, was already planning for the morning-after. He said he was open to discussing the details, but not the legitimacy, of his plan, and invited student and union leaders to meet when everyone goes back to work on Wednesday.

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Indeed, for all its clamor and disruption, the latest political confrontation in France has a certain predictability to it.

Over the past 15 years, strikes and street demonstrations have become an integral part of the way public policy is made or, as is often the case, unmade, in a country that simultaneously fears and yearns for change.

With presidential elections scheduled for next year, the clash over the new labor contract has taken on the aspect of a dress rehearsal for the battles to come between Mr. Villepin, a potential candidate, and his rivals on the left and right wings of French politics.

But the latest eruption of public protest also has many people worried that politicians have lulled themselves into viewing such demonstrations as simply a form of popular referendum, especially after the surprise French rebellion against the European Constitution and the riots by suburban youth last year.

"Demonstrations are no longer even seen by the government as a sign of open crisis," says Danielle Tartakowski, a historian and professor at the University of Paris.

The prime minister, she adds, is flirting with danger. "If you make the demonstrations a quasi-norm of political life for resolving disputes," Mrs. Tartakowski says, "you can create a very strong destabilization of society and a strong sentiment of revolt."

The proposal that Villepin has been defending would add a new type of labor contract to the array of regulations that already govern relations between employers and employees.

The "first-employment" contract (CPE), as it is called, would permit companies to hire young people on the basis of a two-year probationary period with the freedom to fire them without cause at any time.

The prime minister described it as a reform to help reduce the 23 percent jobless rate among young people, but student groups have called it a contract of guaranteed insecurity for a single class of French worker.

Villepin pushed the proposal through the French parliament with little debate last month, prompting both union and some business leaders to complain that they should have been consulted before the law was written.

The process was itself an example of the country's dysfunctional system for finding consensus on social and economic reform, according to Jacques Julliard, a historian of contemporary French politics.

"Things are done in reverse here," he says. "First a law is passed and only afterwards is it discussed, in the street, chaotically and with a spectacular confrontation."

As the student and union protests over the law mounted over the past six weeks, Mr. Villepin also dug in his heels, saying he would not abandon the new law but was open to discussing changes that might provide better job protection.

A Socialist Party spokesman accused him of holding France "hostage to his presidential ambitions." Cartoonists for the French newspapers have taken to caricaturing him as imperial and imperious. And his chief rival in the center-right coalition government, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, has tried to exploit that image.

"One can be firm," said Mr. Sarkozy in a speech Monday evening that was billed as the start of his presidential campaign, "without being rigid."

But an opinion survey by the Ipsos polling firm and published in the daily newspaper Le Monde, suggested that Villepin's strategy in the face of the demonstrations has paid off in the short term.

Of the 959 people interviewed, 63 percent disapproved of his continued defense of the job plan. But 74 percent of those who identified themselves as supporters of the right-wing UMP, the party of both Villepin and Sarkozy, said they backed his stance.

The opposition Socialists and other smaller left-wing parties, in the meantime, have thrown their support to the student and union demonstrators. Villepin, they said, must abandon the jobs plan completely or the demonstrations would continue.

The threats could be brinkmanship, a sort of "charade" with each side of the conflict taking a maximal position before a compromise, according to Mr. Julliard, who published a book called "Le Malheur Francais," or "The French Tragedy," last year. Or they could presage a serious government crisis.

"There are many people in the street and they are asking for nothing and proposing nothing," Julliard says. "They just want the law withdrawn. Yet at the same time, they expect a solution from the state. They distrust the political class and yet have this extraordinary confidence in the state. It's a particularly French form of immobility."

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