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France Protests Over Probationary Employment Law

France Protests Against Probationary Employment Law

By John Pagani in Paris
Read John Pagani's Blog

They say the street always wins in French politics.

Daily for a week the Paris streets have filled with protests organised by students and unions demanding 'retrait du Contrat Première Embauche', or withdrawal of the 'first employment contract' law. The CPE introduces a two-year probationary period for anyone under 26 when employers could fire them for any reason.

Opponents say making it easier to sack people won't create any jobs, that it will increase insecurity for young workers and make them more likely to be exploited.

The government says employers are more likely to hire young workers when they know they can change their minds later. The point is a strong one in France because it is very difficult to dismiss staff for poor performance or even because business conditions demand cutbacks.

The CPE was one of the measures prime minister Dominique de Villepin proposed to reduce youth unemployment following the car burning riots last year. In the months following he became the favourite to replace Jacques Chirac as President in presidential elections next year. Now his popularity is being shredded.Villepin has managed the almost politically impossible - for the first time since Mitterand the socialist party is united, and in tune with the large majority of French public opinion at that. Although it continues to languish in polls its leaders queued at the rallies as if at a beauty contest: The socialist party leader Francois Hollande was there with his wife Segolene Royale - both are front runners to be the left's presidential candidate next year, along with former culture minister Jack Lang who was also there. The ridiculous Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe was there too.

As the three-mile long demonstration walked through Paris' elegant streets marchers chanted in rhythmic beat with drums keeping time, 'Chirac. Villepin. Sar-ko-zy...retrait, retrait, retrait du CPE'. The President, the Prime Minister and the right-wing populist Interior Minister. In the cool afternoon sun demonstrators waved flags and flew balloons. Many students wore plastic bags to show the government regarded them as disposable.

An Invercargill icon watches

It's obvious the protesting students are largely not the same group of young people as the marginalised young rioters and car-torchers in the Paris banlieue, or suburbs, last year. Out there in the suburbs media vox pops commonly find unemployed Arab men and women saying a job you can be fired from sounds better than not having a job at all. Still, there are few who believe there will be more jobs in a country where youth unemployment is over twenty percent, and forty to fifty percent among young suburban ethnic men.

The general public's feeling of insecurity dominates French politics. It was expressed in the furious, frustrated rejection of the European constitution at last year's referendum. Though average incomes in France are a third higher than New ZEaland's and its companies are prospering French workers worry about losing their employment protections - long holidays, a 35-hour week and security.

Sixty-eight percent of the French public oppose the CPE, according to the most recent poll on the subject. On Saturday marches were organised in 160 towns and cities. Organisers claimed 300,000 marched in Paris; the government said 80,000. I calculated maybe more than 100,000. (If you discounted the ubiquitous media presence, the participation might have fallen by a fifth).

The huge trade union CGT is preparing for a general strike sometime this week. It will surely go ahead because the government may back down, but it will never back down enough. So transport will gridlock, schools will close and public amenities won't function but baguettes and croissants will still be available at the boulangerie.

This is escalating. The universities are paralysed or virtually closed.

President Chirac is already beginning to sell out his protege, publicly telling Villepin to defuse the protests and declaring 'of course it won't be possible for people to be fired without any reason at all.' That's not what the law says as it stands.

PM Dominique de Villepin has never been elected to anything in his life. He was handpicked from the bureaucracy by President Chirac then elevated through the ministry. If he finds a way through this crisis he will be well placed to win his first campaign, for the highest office of all. But the Paris street knows he has no employment security. 'Better him than us', one of the chants went. And, as they say, the street usually gets its way.

I talked to one student on Saturday who opposed the CPE but said it would make almost no difference for many. If students want a professional job they work as unpaid interns for large corporates or organisations, hoping for paid careers at the end. He said he's much more worried about the future ability of France to provide jobs at all. Taxes and the cost of living are far too high, he complained.

The smoke is from stands selling duck sausage with baguettes for five euros.

As the protestors sang and chanted they passed small barbecue stands selling little duck sausages wrapped in a baguette for five euros each. About NZD$9.60 for a bird flu hotdog? Now there's something to protest about.


John Pagani is a Euro-Based commentator and former chief press secretary for Hon Jim Anderton. Read John Pagani's Blog


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