Why few young immigrants are protesting in Paris

Though they don't support the new French job law, young people from the poor suburbs are too disillusioned to march.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If anyone were to benefit from the new labor law that has plunged the French government into the country's worst political crisis for more than a decade, it ought to be Toumani Camara.

Like other young men of immigrant background in this gritty suburb north of Paris, 19-year-old Mr. Camara stands a good chance of going on the dole when he leaves school this summer.

The government says its controversial "easy fire-easy hire" law would make local employers readier to give him the electrician's job he will be seeking. Camara wants nothing of it.

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"It's just exploitation," he said, as he gathered with a group of neighborhood friends Tuesday before setting off for a protest demonstration in Paris that drew more than 100,000 people. "A boss could sack me at the drop of a hat."

Camara's sentiments echo those of the hundreds of thousands of university and high school students who have poured onto the streets of Paris in recent weeks to protest the First Job Contract.

But unlike the relatively well-off city youths, Camara and his peers have largely skipped the demonstrations, skeptical that the government could be moved to improve their situation.

"I'll never get a job whatever kind of contract they come up with," said Hakim Rabiat, an unemployed 25-year-old of Algerian extraction as he idly strolls the streets at lunchtime. "They don't want anything to do with us blacks and Arabs. The CPE means nothing to me," he says, referring to the law by its French acronym.

Youth unemployment of 40 percent

The law, designed to encourage employers to hire young people by weakening the job protection they are required to offer regular workers, is aimed at improving a national youth unemployment rate of 23 percent. But the problem is particularly acute in these poor and heavily immigrant suburbs, where rioting last November drew attention to youth unemployment rates of up to 40 percent.

Outside the Jacques Feyder Lycée, a high school here in Epinay blockaded by students for the past three weeks, a visitor on Tuesday found that few of the young people chanting slogans, playing ball, or just chewing the fat had any faith that the new law would do them some good.

"The CPE brings only precariousness," said André Preira, who is 17. "When you know you can be sacked at any moment for no reason, that is not very stable."

Trade union and student leaders have based their campaign against the law on that principle of precariousness. After more than a million protesters took to the streets again Tuesday, leaders of the ruling UMP party met trade union chiefs Wednesday to negotiate a way out of the crisis, offering amendments to make the law more palatable. But the unions demanded the law be rescinded before discussing other ways to combat unemployment.

At the Jacques Feyder Lycée, away from the overturned trash cans and metal fencing where activist students manned roadblocks outside the school gates in the bright spring sunshine, some students were more charitable about the thinking behind the new law.

"I'm in favor of more flexibility," said Taha Demirel. "Look at how much lower unemployment is in England," where job security is weak, he pointed out. But even he does not think the CPE, which would allow employers to sack young workers without giving a reason during their first two years on the job, is the answer.

"There is already enough racism in the workplace," said Mr. Demirel, putting his finger on one of the reasons that immigrant-descended French youths encounter such difficulty in finding work. "Allowing bosses to sack people without reason would make racism easier: They could sack you for being black or brown and not have to admit it."

That did not wash with Marie-José Katataly, the Togolese mother of a boy at the school, who turned up outside the gates mid-morning to remonstrate with the protesters.

"The CPE is a chance for kids and you should seize it," she argued. "You should take a job if you are offered one, be punctual, persevere, and prove yourselves. You can't expect everything to be handed you on a plate."

She admitted later that such views put her in a minority among her friends, and even her son, François, did not agree with her. "The CPE is dangerous," he insisted. "I know France needs to change if we are to make any progress, but young people need more guarantees."

'We are accustomed to being smacked down and being pessimistic'

When it came time to head for the demonstration in central Paris, though, only 30 or so students followed Sofiane Belkacem, a leader of the school blockade, toward the station.

"We don't have much following," Mr. Belkacem lamented. "People in the suburbs don't have the same mentality as the students in Paris. They are badly informed and not sensitized enough."

At the same time, he says, it's hard to organize people from these suburbs to protest because "they think the cause is already lost. We are accustomed to being smacked down and being pessimistic."

"A lot of people here are not aware," added Camara. "They don't know how to represent themselves, and the only way they express themselves is to create chaos," as in last year's riots.

"The kids in the suburbs do not have an educated political conscience," explains Nathalie Broux, who teaches French at Jacques Feyder Lycée, as she wrapped up a class she was holding in a park outside the school gates. "It's all part of the underprivileged social culture in which they live. They can't be bothered."

A friend of Mr. Rabiat's concurred. "We see the demonstrations on television and we zap," said Abou Samafu. "They don't concern us. That's not our fight."

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