There was more violence in Paris
overnight, as protests continue over the government’s new “contract of
first employment” (CPE), intended to combat youth unemployment by
reducing job security. Most reports, however, agree that the protests
have been generally peaceful, and the violence has been the work of a
small minority.

Cracks have now started to appear in the government’s response. Prime
Minister Dominique de Villepin’s main rival, interior minister Nicolas
Sarkozy, is positioning himself
as the champion of possible compromise on the CPE. De Villepin is
offering some modifications and agreed to a meeting with union leaders
later today, but unionists say they won’t negotiate unless the law is
withdrawn first.

The twin tracks of French policy are therefore evident. On the one
hand, there is the faith that things can be settled by talks among the
elite – government, business and unions, Left and Right. Yesterday de
Villepin promised discussions without preconditions with “les
partenaires sociaux” – literally “social partners”. On the other hand,
policy is repeatedly hostage to the reaction in the street, where
reforms can be stymied by mass demonstrations – or, as The New York Times put it, the “tendency to rebel against any attempt to curtail entitlements”.

So there is a vicious circle in place: governments are timid about the
extent of reform, and stealthy about trying to implement it. But that
just opens them further to attack. The mainstream Left, as represented
by the editorial page of Le Monde,
has not attacked the principle of the CPE but rather its half-baked
nature and the government’s lack of consultation in introducing it;
public opinion is now running 66% against the law.

The student violence also puts last year’s Paris riots into
perspective. The disaffected suburban youth who protested then were
part of a long French tradition, not some alien element imported from
the Middle East. Ironically, their main grievance is the youth
unemployment that de Villepin is trying, however ineptly, to address.

Peter Fray

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