French politicians lose their youth

Click to follow
Several thousand students and teachers processed noisily through the university quarter of Paris to the French prime minister's office yesterday afternoon in a protest that seemed unnecessary. They were objecting to proposals to reform the technical sector of higher education that had been withdrawn a week before in response to previous demonstrations.

Yet the students still turned out with their banners to chant "Non, non, non!" to the reforms and "our education is not for sale", and so did many of their colleagues in other university cities. In going ahead with yesterday's planned marches, the students were making a political statement: they would not be placated by a few concessions. They are feeling belligerent, and they want to be heard.

For the prime minister, Edouard Balladur - indeed, for all the presidential candidates - this latest bout of discontent is something to worry about, not only because of France's history of student power. It is one aspect of a bigger problem that has come to be termed "the youth peril": the disenchantment of the younger generation.

The figures that worry the politicians are these: there are 8 million people under 25 in France who have a vote. Fewer than 20 per cent of them at the last time of asking had decided who to vote for in the presidential elections. While they tend to sympathise more with the left than with the right, the majority dismiss the categories of left and right as irrelevant. They say they want action to address their particular grievances, chief among them being unemployment and plans to reform the education system.

A slight improvement in the country's overall unemployment level last December (which at 12.6 per cent is one of the highest in the EU) did not affect youth unemployment, which continued to rise: more than 27 per cent of those between 20 and 24 have no job.

Those in higher education feel betrayed. One girl said they had gone to college with the prospect of a secure job at a salary of £20,000 or more afterwards; now they were looking at £50 a week, or nothing.

Last year, the Balladur government proposed measures to price young people into work by allowing employers to pay them less than the minimum wage. But the plan was dropped after a series of street protests. The government then held a "youth poll", in which opinions were solicited on everything from employment policy to education, social class and drugs.

The results were published late last year and the government gave its considered response last month. Many suggestions were rejected, and committees have been set up on others. But there is a general disappointment with the exercise. A recent working group set up to consider legalisation of soft drugs was split nine to eight in favour of legalising possession and use of cannabis, but the majority was considered too small to warrant a change in the law.

The politicians' nightmare is summed up in a film that has become something of a cult. The Youth Peril tells the story of an anti-social gang of five teenage boys who create havoc in their final school year, descending through truancy, sex and drugs into anarchic political activism.

The message seems to be that the young mostly turn out all right. The scenes of havoc are flashbacks, recounted by the lads from the perspective of the maternity hospital as they wait for the wife of one of them to produce her first child. But it is the film's depiction of amorality, political activism and youth unemployment that has struck a chord.