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When a young Frenchman’s fancy turns to revolution

by : France
Friday March 17, 2006 - 01:46

William Pfaff: When a young Frenchman’s fancy turns to revolution

Governments in France are unwise to launch initiatives affecting students and the young when springtime approaches and the sap rises.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has put himself in a difficult situation at a moment when the French already suffer depression connected with unemployment, a sense of economic vulnerability and what seems like political futility.

This week, Villepin confronts street demonstrations of students flush with revolutionary enthusiasm, backed by union demonstrators with lifetime jobs at state corporations, and opposition politicians. This is supposed to culminate in vast gatherings across France on Saturday, all to protest a modest change in the country’s complicated employment laws, meant to help unemployed young people lacking school or other job qualifications.

France is a certifications culture. Even simple jobs demand formal diplomas indicating a level of school achievement. If you don’t have the right certificate, you are usually out of luck.

The certifications game works at all levels and lasts a lifetime. The obituaries of France’s greatest men and women all but invariably begin by saying that the deceased was a graduate of the École Polytechnique or École Nationale d’Administration or some other of the "grandes écoles."

Only after that does the obituary add that the deceased was also president of the French Republic, a leading scientist, head of a great corporation or winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s the school that counts. I exaggerate only slightly.

The youth unemployment problem is connected to this. The poor, unemployed immigrant youth of the ghetto suburbs of France’s cities are often, as you might imagine, school dropouts. The problem has been worsened in recent years because of well-intentioned efforts blocking "selection" in schools so that everyone will follow a curriculum leading toward a baccalaureate. The result, naturally, is that even more drop out of baccalaureate courses they don’t understand and don’t want.

One of the important responses of the Villepin government to last fall’s disorder in the ghettos was to restore, re-emphasize and lower the age of entry to apprenticeships in the trades and crafts.

The continuing demonstrations, and the break- in and occupation last weekend of part of the Sorbonne in emulation of Paris 1968, are all about a new job contract meant to encourage businesses to hire young people lacking the right credentials, and teach them on the job, with the prospect of a regular job contract to follow.

It offers advantages but also provides that if things don’t work out during the first two years, or the business ceases to be able to afford him or her, the new employee can be fired with proper notice but without being given formal cause.

This is called "marginalizing" and undermining young people. I am a biased American, of course, but I never dreamed that the first job I found would carry a lifetime guarantee.

Villepin argues that without the new contract the unqualified unemployed are likely to stay unemployed. In addition to promoting apprenticeships, he has already sponsored a plan by which small companies can hire new employees and be initially dispensed from onerous social charges. This seems to have been a success. The new two- year tryout plan was supposed to be the next step. Instead, it could cost Villepin himself his job, and his crack at the French presidency next year.

For years, student demonstrations have for better or worse been the most exciting part of the political education of young people in France, exploited (usually cynically) by politicians. The quarreling Socialists and Communists now have their big issue for next year’s elections.

A knowledgeable analyst of Le Figaro, Bruno Jeudy, says Villepin should have stuck with the success of his scheme for small businesses. If he insisted on going further, he should have called in the unions for talks in which he could have won some support. He never should have overridden parliamentary opposition. School holidays seemed to offer Villepin a chance to get the change through quickly, while opposition was scattered. Now it’s back, fully mobilized, and Villepin’s allies are edging away from him. Jeudy says he has shown the qualities that have damaged him before: impetuousness, and a taste for solitary decisions.

He may well survive. Student opinion is divided, and many are angry about the excesses of a student fringe. If the demonstrations peak this week and then decline, and if the new employment measures actually push youth unemployment down in coming months, Villepin will have passed the test of the streets, which has broken the career of more than one prime minister.

If that happens, he is allowed to dream seriously of the presidency.

 http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/03...



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