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Parisian Riots, Take Two

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Section: Accounts Geography: Europe France, Paris Topics: social movements

March 20, 2006

Parisian Riots, Take Two

This time, it's elite French students who are rejecting government plans

by Marco Chown Oved




all photos: Marco Chown Oved
PARIS, FRANCE--It's been less than a month since a state of emergency was called during November's riots. There's trouble in Paris again.

For several consecutive nights, French youth have been gathering in the streets, fighting with police, destroying property and setting fires.

But this time the problem comes not from the impoverished suburban minorities, whom French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy recently called "Rascals," but from the cream of French society: students of the prestigious Sorbonne University.

"In November, we saw suburban youth, frustrated by the fact that they couldn't find a job and seemed to have no future, burning cars in the streets. Now, we see the same sentiments being expressed by university students," said Robert Gaignon, a union representative with the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (FSU).

The issue this time around is the introduction of the CPE, a new category of employment reserved for those under 26 and promising far fewer guarantees than those accorded to other workers in France's protectionist job market.

The CPE, legislation introduced and hurried through government by France's unelected Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin who was appointed by the President Jacques Chirac, has been met with strong resistance from unions and students alike. Both complain that the CPE provides an easy way for employers to fire young workers during the first two years of employment. This approach differs greatly from the protection offered to France's other workers.

The government justifies the CPE by explaining that it will make it easier for youth to find a job: Employers will not have to worry about being stuck with student workers for the long term, and will thus be less reluctant to hire new workers, the government claims. The students and unions counter that the contract will create a situation of disposable workers, where employers will simply get rid of cheap young employees every two years instead of giving them a raise and taking them on permanently.

"It's governmental permission to exploit the youth, and then throw them away when you're done," Gaignon explained.

The opposition first displayed its force in demonstrations held on March 7 drawing an estimated one million people throughout the country, with 200,000 marching in Paris, as reported by the FSU.

Since then, things have escalated quickly. On March 10, 45 of France's 84 universities were either occupied, or blockaded by striking students.

The marked escalation to violence occurred when the National Police, dressed in riot gear, stormed the administrative offices of the Sorbonne at 3 a.m. on March 11. The office had been occupied by a group of students since the previous afternoon.

The French press showed little sympathy for police in the eviction, which they described as brutally asymmetrical, pitting hundreds of riot police using tear gas indoors against a group of several hundred students sitting on the floor.

De Villepin stood firm during his March 12 television appearance, stating that, "The law, as passed, stands." While he mentioned that he might consider some additional assurances, the CPE itself was not up for negotiation.

When students showed up for class on Monday morning, they found the Sorbonne, along with several other major Parisian universities, closed and blockaded by lines of riot police barring entry. This created a standoff that has gone on day and night, ever since.

Groups of students have gathered outside of the Sorbonne and Jussieu, another major Parisian university, with violent results. Tear gas and mace have been deployed frequently by police, while the city has been forced to remove the metal grilles around the trees lining the streets in the Latin Quarter after they were used to construct barricades and smash store windows.

"It makes no sense. They won't let us find work, and now they won't let us study!" exclaimed Daniel Bureau, a Sorbonne student among the crowd on March 14. "They've forced thousands of angry students into the streets with nothing to do but fight," he added.

Scenes like this are being repeated across France, with large demonstrations occurring in Toulouse, Lille, Lyon and Marseilles.

"It won't stop tonight, or tomorrow. It's not only here, it's everywhere across France. Since they won't let us go to school, we'll fight them in the streets till they listen!" Bureau threatened.

Many faculties and unions stand behind the student protesters. The faculty of the Sorbonne held their own demonstration on March 15, followed by mass student protests across the country--which again turned violent--during the day on March 16.

"The opponents of the CPE grow ever more numerous," read the headline of Le Parisien on March 17, the day before a crowd of 500,000 people demonstrated in Paris, only a week and a half after the last mass demonstrations. This time, however, hundreds remained after the end of the march, burning three cars and smashing store windows before the gendarmes dispersed the crowd with several volleys of tear gas.

Sixty-eight per cent of the French population is now against the CPE, according to a survey published in Le Monde.

"This is not an isolated event. The Villepin/Sarkozy government is set on making its liberal reforms, regardless of what the people think. Chirac was only elected because he was up against [the extreme right-wing] Le Pen in the last election, but he has used the victory to rule with an iron fist. After the first year, there were regional elections that [his party] the UMP lost badly; then there was the European constitution which failed to win popular support; now, after his appointed PM de Villepin sneaks the CPE through the senate, people are rising up. They're tired of telling him that his policies aren't welcome with a ballot box," Gaignon explained.

For the French government, things continue to worsen. Its popularity has dropped 15 per cent in the last two months, according to the Le Monde, with 46 per cent of those surveyed agreeing that it is "too authoritarian."

After November's three weeks of rioting attuned the world's newspaper readers to government indifference, March's student revolt may be worse than a public relations nightmare: the press here are already making comparisons to May 1968, when 10 million workers and students effectively shut down the state for several weeks.

This spring's events mark the first time that the unions have backed a popular student movement since 1968. But this time around, the alliance between workers and students is not fuelled by ideology, but by "précarité" - the insecurity fuelled by increasing unemployment. And this affinity can be extended to a third group: the disillusioned suburban youth, primarily immigrants and first-generation French citizens.

The unions are behind the students "for one simple reason," Gaignon said. "If you introduce an underclass of workers into the job market without the same guarantees given to everyone else, that weakens the working class as a whole."

For their part, a coalition of unions is threatening a general strike slated for March 23; a strike which could cripple the country's economy.

"Their battle is ours," Gaignon stated matter-of-factly.

The government seems to have inadvertently made things worse for themselves. Through their actions, two traditionally disparate groups--the immigrant and français-de-souche youth--have found common ground: the stark reality of facing a hopeless future without employment or adequate income.

"In November, I couldn't believe that people would burn down a school for any reason, but now, faced with my own systematic discrimination, I'm starting to understand," said Bureau.

While the results of this latest round of violence are yet to be seen--they may simply fizzle out as the November riots did--the palpable discontent found in France's youth today will require far-reaching changes before there is any true calm.

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