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French unions, students stage massive protests
Government pressured to nix law that some fear will make jobs vulnerable

Updated: 2:04 p.m. ET March 18, 2006

PARIS - Huge crowds of students, trade unionists and left-wing politicians took to the streets across France on Saturday to press the conservative government to scrap a new law they fear will erode job security for young workers.

Hundreds of thousands turned out in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes and over 150 other cities and towns in a growing protest movement that has created a serious crisis for Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The marches were mostly peaceful, but a few dozen youths overturned and set fire to a car at the end of the main protest in Paris and pelted police with missiles. Scattered violence was also reported in Marseille and Rennes.

Organisers estimated the turnout nationwide at 1.3 to 1.4 million, with up to 400,000 of them in Paris. The Interior Ministry counted 503,000 nationwide, with 80,000 in Paris.

The protesters demanded that Villepin withdraw a new youth job contract, known as the CPE, which lets firms fire workers under 26 without explanation in their first two years on the job. He launched it to spur reluctant employers to take on new staff.

In the western city of Rennes, students wore plastic garbage bags with signs declaring: "I am disposable."

"I risk working for two years for nothing, just to be fired at any moment," said Paris student Coralie Huvet, 20, who had "No to the CPE" written on her forehead. Pointing to painted-on tears, she added: "That's depressing, that's why I'm crying."

Organisers, who decry the CPE as a "Kleenex contract" that lets young workers be "thrown away like a paper tissue," said they hoped to have up to 1.5 million people out marching in the third national protest in six weeks.

The Paris march began with students in front and workers behind, but turned into a multi-generational mix including many parents who accompanied their teenage children. Banners declared "No to throw-away youths" and "Tired Of Being Squeezed Lemons."

Opposition Socialist and Communist politicians also joined the protest, only the third time in almost four decades"”after 1968 and 1994"”that students and workers marched together.

Union leaders look ahead
Union leaders, due to meet after the march to discuss future strategy, threatened to keep up the pressure on the government with further action next week.

"If they don't listen to us we are going to have to think about moving to a general strike across the whole country," said Bernard Thibault, head of the pro-Communist CGT union.

"We can't hold back because the student movement will continue and there could be some risks," said teachers' union head Gerard Aschieri. "There should be a strike next week."

Villepin, whose gamble on this unpopular contract could cost him his chance to run for president next year, has pledged not to give in to street pressure. At the same time, he hinted on Friday evening that he could make some adjustments to the law.

Unemployment is the top political issue in France, where the national average is 9.6 percent and youth joblessness is double that. The rate rises to 40-50 percent in some of the poor suburbs hit by several weeks of youth rioting last autumn.

In a bid to defuse the crisis, President Jacques Chirac said on Friday the government was "ready for dialogue" on the law that critics say must be withdrawn before any talks can start.

But the government has little room for manoeuvre without making major concessions. An opinion poll published on Friday showed 68 percent of French people oppose the law, a rise of 13 percentage points in a week.

The crisis has isolated Villepin politically at a time when his patron Chirac is himself badly weakened. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin's main rival on the right, has stood back discreetly as the prime minister's troubles mount.

His only consolation is that the opposition Socialists are so split that they hardly seem able to profit from the crisis.

In an opinion poll to be published on Sunday, Villepin dropped six points to 37 percent popularity.

Violence broke out in Lyon when a march of about 2,500 Turks protesting against a memorial to Armenian victims of a 1915 massacre in the then Ottoman Empire crossed paths with the anti-CPE demonstrations.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters.
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Minority youth opt out of latest riots in France
Labor law viewed with skepticism, met with silence in migrant community

Updated: 5:39 p.m. ET March 17, 2006
CLICHY-SOUS-BOIS, France - While angry students clashed with police in Paris over a new labor law, the daily life of soccer and smoking hashish among youths of North African descent went on as normal in the poor suburb where France's wave of rioting broke out last year.

This time, the suburbs have been relatively calm "” and it was student protests in Paris and other cities that devolved Thursday into stone-throwing clashes with police and car burnings.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin had unemployed youths from troubled suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois in mind when he concocted the "first job contract" to make it easier for companies to hire "” and fire "” young workers as a remedy for sky-high youth unemployment rates.

The contract allows employers to fire young workers within their first two years in a job without giving a reason "” a strategy to encourage companies to hire thousands of such people to bring down their 23 percent unemployment rate.

But the very youths the law is designed to help show little enthusiasm for it.

"This contract just means two years of anxiety," said Mohammed, 20, between kicks of a soccer ball Thursday at a Clichy-sous-Bois shopping center. "Villepin is lying when he says it's for us."

Fear of reprisal
Rolling a hashish cigarette, an unemployed sanitation worker who gave his name only as Mourad criticized the law as a sop to companies and a sellout of youths. He would not give his family name, because he and others said they feared reprisals by police or disgrace to their parents.

"We agree with the students," said Mourad, 26, who spent a year in prison for trafficking a stolen passport "” a charge he denies. "But if we join them, with our darker skins, the cops will massacre us."

Although the French are used to generous job protections, officials argue that youths understand the benefits of the new measure.

"Suburban youths are not afraid of the first job contract, because they're sick of job insecurity," Azouz Begag, the equal opportunities minister, was quoted Friday as saying in Liberation daily. "They say it's an extra lever, a tool to lower unemployment."

The northern suburb of Clichy is a world away from the ornate Sorbonne University in Paris' Left Bank, an epicenter of violence Thursday night. France's three-week wave of rioting erupted here in October after two teenage boys were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electric substation.

Edgy nights on the streets
Not much has visibly changed since the riots, Clichy-sous-Bois teens say. Police come round a bit less often; identity checks are a bit more rare. Nights are still edgy, though, and dozens of cars on average are still burned each night in France. When the suburban violence hit its peak, more than 1,400 cars were torched in a single night in early November.

"We had a crisis in the suburbs "” we quickly forget "” several months ago," Villepin said in a prime-time TV interview Sunday to defend the new labor measure. "Unemployment among suburban youths is 40-50 percent. What do we tell them? That's the question we must answer."

The message is not getting through here. Youths do not expect any quick results from the contract and wonder how it is any different from temp work. They insist it does not solve the real problem for them: discrimination because of their foreign-sounding names and addresses in the troubled suburbs.

"Before the riots, at least companies sent a letter back "” albeit saying 'no' to my CV," said Mohammed. "After the riots, several didn't even respond."

© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
French Student Riots
by Thomas Sowell (March 17, 2006)

Student riots in Paris remind us that education at elite academic institutions is not enough to teach either higher morals or basic economics. Not on their side of the Atlantic or on ours.

Why are students at the Sorbonne and other distinguished institutions out trashing the streets and attacking the police?

Because they want privileges in the name of rights, and are too ignorant of economics to realize that those privileges cost them jobs.

Like some other European Union countries, France has laws making it hard to fire anybody. The political left has long believed that such laws are a way of reducing unemployment.

More important, they have long remained oblivious to the fact that countries with such laws, such as France and Germany, usually have higher unemployment rates than countries without such laws, such as the United States.

Belatedly, some French officials have begun to see that job security laws make it more risky and costly for an employer to hire inexperienced workers with no track record, whom they would have a hard time getting rid of if they don't work out. The unemployment rate in France is 23 percent for workers who are 25 years old and younger.

To try to deal with this high unemployment rate among young workers, the job security laws have recently been modified to make it easier for employers to fire those workers who are on their first job.

That is what has French students outraged and rampaging through the streets of Paris. They don't want employers to be able to fire them after they graduate and go to work.

Students and their political supporters, including labor unions, depict them as victims. Among the slogans chanted by the rioters is "We're not young flesh for the boss." The fact that many bosses don't seem to want to hire their young flesh seems to be lost on them.

A leftist deputy has declared: "To create discrimination based on age transgresses fundamental rights!"

In other words, people have a right for other people to have to continue employing them, whether those other people want to or not. The "fundamental right" to a job over-rides the rights of other people when they are called "bosses."

The fact that many students can think only in terms of "rights," but not in terms of consequences, shows a major deficiency in their education. The right to a job is obviously not the same thing as a job. Otherwise there would not be a 23 percent unemployment rate among young French workers.

The law can create equal rights for inexperienced young workers and for older workers with a proven track record but the law cannot make them equally productive on the job or equally risky to hire. Nor is rioting likely to make employers any more likely to want young workers working for them.

Estimates of the damage done by the rioters -- called "protesters" or "demonstrators" in the mealy-mouthed media -- range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million dollars, thus far. They have also shut down dozens of universities, including the Sorbonne, denying an education to other students.

The heady notion of "rights" -- and especially the notion that your rights over-ride other people's rights, when those other people belong to some suspect class called "bosses" -- is an all too familiar feature of modern welfare state notions.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who supports the new labor law, has seen his approval rating drop to 36 percent. That is what happens when you try to talk sense to people who prefer to believe nonsense.

It is elementary economics that adding to the costs, including risks, of hiring workers tends to reduce the number of workers hired. It should not be news to anyone, whether or not they have gone to a university, that raising costs usually results in fewer transactions.

The fact that such profound ignorance of basic economics and such self-indulgent emotionalism should be prevalent at elite institutions of higher education is one of the many deep-seated failures of universities on both sides of the Atlantic.

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