Turbulent legacy of noose and guillotine

April 21, 2006

Robert Tombs delves into the French psyche to find why the country's complaints so often turn into public disorder.

The world now knows about France's unemployment problems. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's hastily introduced Contrat Première Embauche (CPE), now scrapped by President Jacques Chirac, proposed to encourage the hiring of young workers by making it easy to fire them.

Abroad, it was judged a modest but useful experiment. At home, it caused mayhem. Why this difference of perception? And why do France's grievances so often develop into widespread disorder?

There are some big and long-standing causes. Hostility to the free market is uniquely strong in France. The State is expected to fulfil a central role in economic life, as embodiment of the common interest. This can be traced back a long way, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's Minister of Finance, is often evoked, although presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand are more immediately relevant. Hence, liberalisation challenges the legitimacy of the State, the rule of law and the security of society.

Secure employment for the breadwinner remains the ideal. La précarité , the key term in the CPE controversy, has no similarly punchy equivalent in English - "job insecurity" hardly makes the flesh creep. Three quarters of France's 18 to 24-year-olds aspire to state employment because it is secure. This recalls Madame de Staël's tart definition of France's ideal constitution: "All Frenchmen are civil servants and are paid by the State."

Add to this a Malthusian attitude to employment, which reduces demand for jobs by prolonging education, limiting working hours and allowing people to retire early.

Behind such defensiveness lies deep pessimism - what Mitterrand deplored as morosité . Chronic unemployment and resultant youth alienation and ethnic tension are the worst symptoms. French teenagers fear being denied the chance to live an adult life. Only 5 per cent feel "strong optimism" compared with 20 per cent in Germany. So change seems menacing: globalisation, the English language, US power, British influence in the European Union. Anything can be grist to this mill: when London was awarded the Olympic Games, commentators saw more proof of France's decline.

The present outcry is another round in France's tussle with economic liberalism. Last year it was over the European Constitution, rejected as a charter for a "British-style Europe". A Britain in the throes of "ultraliberalism" has for years been portrayed in lurid colours. It is widely asserted that its high employment rests on Third World labour standards. The newspaper Le Monde declared that the "Anglo-Saxon model" was based on "social inequalities accepted by the British but which would seem intolerable here. One cannot expect a people that made a revolution, guillotined its king and hung aristocrats on lampposts to have the same conception of social relations as a monarchy where one of the chambers of Parliament is composed exclusively of lords."

This has been the official line too. Chirac has pronounced that British "methods and social rules would not be acceptable to us". His Government destroyed the Brussels commissioner Frits Bolkestein's plan to liberalise services, and it has restricted EU immigration and takeovers of French companies. Chirac and de Villepin have not therefore been converted to "Anglo-Saxon" methods. The CPE was designed to tinker with youth unemployment, but without addressing the politically sacrosanct principles of the "French model" of labour regulation. Modifying practices without changing principles is a French tradition. So a rash of special employment contracts has emerged in recent years - CDI, CDD, CIP, CNE and now CPE - conferring different legal rights. Young employees are increasingly offered only temporary contracts or the notorious stages, of which more than 800,000 are given each year. Many of these "training" positions, often combined with bogus university registration, are really full-time jobs. In the name of security, France has, ironically, become a world centre of institutionalised précarité .

The anger of students, often portrayed as mindlessly Luddite, arises from this institutionalised inequality. The young know that their precarite is the price of their elders' job security. The CPE threatened to make this official: the young would be the ones to bear the brunt of fluctuations in the economy, while older workers, holders of the coveted CDI ( Contrat à Durée Indeterminée ), remained protected. Their sense of injustice was powerful.

It was exacerbated by the French education system. In Republican rhetoric, education is glorified as the meritorious route to social mobility. Higher education has long been regarded as training for a particular career, creating entitlement. Students would like to see themselves as newly minted professionals, not as callow beginners who need a humiliating trial period.

The yawning gap between the ideal of entitlement and the reality of unemployment - aggravated by chronic neglect of universities in favour of elite institutions such as the grandes écoles - simply increases a sense of injustice, as middle-class students face social demotion.

Glaring inequality of opportunity within the age cohort - between poorly educated school dropouts and university diplômés , between students in more or less marketable subjects, and between "mass" universities and predominantly upper-middle class selective institutions - reproduces the social hierarchy. The CPE took a further step: it extended to all students the lack of legal protection experienced by their contemporaries subject to the CNE ( contrat nouvelle embauche ), which applies only to small firms.

This range of inequalities creates serious tensions among the young. The grandes écoles were untouched by the strikes, as were universities teaching engineering and business. A considerable student movement opposed university closures. At the other extreme, there was violence from extremist groups or socially marginalised youths, including attacks on demonstrating students. This brought back the spectre of last year's riots in the banlieues .

Public and trade-union support for the student protest rested on a "thin-end-of-the-wedge" analysis: tampering with job protection was seen as threatening the rights and security of established employees. The fact of being used to defend a system that discriminates against the young was an irony of which many students were aware, and it gave rise to well-argued denunciation of generational inequality, and to slogans such as A bas les vieux!

Student unions both in universities and lycées (a major source of militancy) mobilised huge numbers. A handful of organisers and militants had an early catalysing role: the Sorbonne was occupied by only 250 people, and Paris's famous lycée Montaigne had only 100 at an early mass meeting.

Some lycées were closed by only half a dozen pickets. But as the protests took off, the number involved reached the hundreds of thousands. France, and French youth, are noticeably more politicised than in Britain, as election turnouts show, and the hard-core activism that in Britain might go into the Green movement or animal rights is still directed into more conventional political channels, including that of extremist groups that infiltrate mass protests. These are the people the old Left called les éléments incontrollés , and - combined with opportunistic looters - are popularly known as casseurs (smashers), who inject violence and vandalism into peaceful demonstrations, often with far-reaching effects. The Sorbonne was closed, for instance, after vandalism.

The Government, and the State more broadly, are crucial elements in this volatile mixture. The "republican monarchy" of the Fifth Republic is often insensitive, and has a long record of imposing unpopular measures that provoke, and are sometimes reversed by, mass protest. Indeed, this ritual might be regarded as an informal part of the constitution. De Villepin hastily produced the CPE without consultation and forced it through Parliament by executive fiat. De Villepin, a career diplomat who has never been elected, has a notoriously Napoleonic-Gaullist conception of political leadership: "France has her legs open," he has recently been quoted as saying. "No one has taken her for a long time."

No less a characteristic of the Fifth Republic is strife within its ruling elite, as contenders for the presidency of the republic within the same party or government try to wreck each other's chances and foster their own.

In this case, de Villepin promoted himself as masterful, and his main presidential rival, the hard-line Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, seized the opportunity to urge compromise. The strategy of pourrissement - letting the crisis persist in the hope of a swing in public opinion - is standard practice. Sarkozy was suspected of this, but more likely it was the result of his determination not to risk his electoral chances though TV footage of beefy security forces using their truncheons on winsome blonde lycéennes .

Whatever the reason, Sarkozy's police yielded ground to demonstrators: 600 lycées and more than 60 universities have been disrupted. The Sorbonne was sealed off by gendarmes , and Nanterre (the cradle of May 68) was shut for a month. Perhaps most traumatic for French academe, the famous Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris was looted by an anarchist group after being refused police protection. Reportedly, police told academics to protect it themselves.

The cartoonist Plantu put the country's plight into an unsettling image: France as a desert island in a shark-infested sea, a tattered tricolour fluttering from its single palm tree, and crowded with a placard-waving population marching endlessly round and round. Plantu might have added the young taking to the boats. Polls show a large majority would consider emigration. Meanwhile, an astonishing variety of people shamefacedly whisper their hope that Sarkozy might be the man to change things. A republican monarchy, after all, needs a monarch.

Robert Tombs is a reader in the faculty of history at Cambridge University.

His book That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present , written with Isabelle Tombs, is published by William Heinemann, £25.00.

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