WITH their government wary after nearly a month of internal strife, the youth of France halted their rioting two weeks ago. Some considered the upheaval to be the greatest display of generational angst since 1968. Congress and President Clinton no doubt empathize with French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, the protesters' beleaguered nemesis. But the proper reaction American leaders should express is anxiety. Massive youth rebellion, triggered by economic hardships, could happen here too.
The French youth were aggrieved that their government planned to alleviate a 25 percent youth unemployment rate by allowing employers to pay those under 25 as little as 30 percent of the current $1,020 monthly minimum wage.
Student protesters felt ``ambushed,'' Alan Riding reported in the New York Times, noting that they were told ``higher education would bring them better-paying jobs.''
This discontent bridges both sides of the Atlantic. Millions of young people in the United States know the frustration of not finding employment commensurate with their abilities. Living with one's parents because it is impossible to afford a first home - or even a first apartment - is a reality for many so-called Generation Xers.
As our political system fails to address simmering problems such as the $4.5 trillion national debt, people born in the 1960s and '70s are wondering why they already are saddled with higher taxes to pay off expenses they did not incur. They are increasingly aware, as former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts puts it, that the national debt is ``generationally immoral.'' Its very existence, he and others fear, plants the seeds for a generational war.
The riots overseas should awaken Washington. The French government never expected the students to protest what the youth perceived as several hundred dollars' worth of deprived compensation. Just think what a more serious injustice would ignite there - and here.
Fast forward into the next century, when future generations are expected, according to the ``General Accounting'' appendix to Mr. Clinton's 1995 budget, to pay a whopping average lifetime net tax rate of 82 percent. Will these yet-to-be-born Americans rebel against their grandparents, the baby boomers, who stood idly by as debts and interest compounded endlessly? Don't bet against the future.
To avoid generational war, Congress and the president must take heroic action to end deficit spending by the year 2000. To do this, entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare must become means-tested. The weeds of waste, fraud, and abuse must be uprooted.
Certainly young Americans must be called upon to make further sacrifices, even though they have known stagnating wages virtually their entire lives. They realize the alternatives are either to face up to their problems or face disaster.
BUT as the French example shows, youth cannot be singled out as sacrificial lambs. Although they make up only 22 percent of France's 3.3 million unemployed, youths had been asked to shoulder all of the unemployment compensation cutbacks. It doesn't play well in Paris - as it wouldn't in Peoria.
The newly formed bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform, headed by Sens. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska and John Danforth (R) of Missouri, must address the generational implications of what economist Robert Samuelson calls the ``massive income transfers between workers and retirees'' - in other words, Social Security and Medicare in their present forms.
If we fail to take a hard look at entitlements or then fail to enact substantial reform that affects all generations, we will leave behind the seeds of rioting seen now in France. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.