In French Eyes, 'Anguish,' not 'Fantasy'
In the U.S. media (the Washington Post, for example) it is hard to find opinion makers who have much sympathy for the French students and workers staging a nationwide general strike today in opposition to a new employment law for young people.
The French demonstrators are in denial, says Post columnist Robert Samuelson, suffering from "the illusion that if they march long enough and burn enough cars, they can prevent unwanted change."
They're living in a fantasy land, says columnist Steven Pearlstein. "Rather than supporting the reforms that might generate more jobs and more income," he says the protesters "have bought into the nostalgic fantasy of a France that once was, but can never be again."
In the French media, the discussion is less disdainful, more anguished. The new law enabling employers to fire workers less than 26 years old without cause during the first years of employment has plenty of supporters, especially among the right of center news sites like Le Figaro (in French).
At leftist news sites like the Liberation (in French), observers acknowledge that France needs to reform its social model but cannot figure out how to do so.
But even those commentators who favor the new law (known by its French acronym CPE) are less dismissive of the student strikers and more critical of the government than U.S. counterparts. The BBC's translation of opinion from French commentators found widespread criticism of the government of Dominique Villepin for implementing the law in a high-handed way.
The reason the government is on the defensive is found in the language of the French protests. Words like "precarite" and "transmission" recur all the time. While French supporters of the CPE might not share them, they have a legitimacy unknown to contemporary to Anglo-American political thinking.
"Precarite," best translated as "precariousness," is what the demonstrators fear and what they say the new law installs into public life. They face a bleak job market and see CPE as creating obstacles, not opportunities. Their apprehensions and hopes are well-represented on Lib.com, a blog run by English-speaking students who have spent time in France.
The fear of "precarite" runs deep in French history, note the editors of Le Figaro. The country's culture, they noted, combines Catholic, aristocratic and revolutionary traditions which mistrust money, commerce and private enterprise. As a result, they say the protest movement is most striking for its "extreme conservatism." The demonstrators are rallying in defense of a labor market "characterized by privileges for the two third[s] of the employees well entrenched in their jobs, and insecurity for the rest, most of them young."
The challenge, sociologist Louis Chauvel tells Liberation, is "transmission," passing along the good life enjoyed by the older generation to the young--and French leaders have not offered a credible plan for doing so. He sees the protest movement an expression of "profound anguish" in the absence of "a positive collective national project."
To restore transmission, Chaveul suggests France look to countries like Iceland and Sweden where young people enter the work force much earlier and are regarded as adults at a younger age. But such a change would take a broad social commitment. The government isn't interested, he says, and the demonstrators in the street only speak the language of "no, no, no."
"The calls to leave the dead end we have been in for twenty years are inaudible," he says.
Bernard Bernhus, a business mediator and supporter of the law, told Liberation he also looks to Scandinavian countries that have introduced "flexibility" to their labor markets along with efforts to help new workers and the unemployed. "France isn't unreformable," he says. "You just have to know how to do it." The problem is that there is "no political will."
Today's anti-CPE demonstrations, reports Nouvelle Observateur(in French), have attracted 3 million people nationwide.
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