Unions pile pressure on Villepin with threat of a national strike action

Click to follow

After a weekend of mass student demonstrations and scattered street battles, the French government faces the prospect of a prolonged social crisis unless it suspends its new youth jobs rules.

Smelling political blood, trade union leaders will consider calls for a national strike unless the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, withdraws his "easy hire, easy fire" law for young, first-time, job-seekers.

More than a million students, sixth-formers and sympathisers joined largely peaceful and good-humoured marches against the law in 160 towns and cities on Saturday. But in Paris, running street battles went on for six hours after the demonstrations ended. One of the battles, around the Place de la Nation, in eastern Paris, mostly seemed to involve multiracial gangs from the poorer suburbs who burnt cars and smashed shop windows.

In a separate riot, on the Left Bank, around the Sorbonne university, militant students and far-left activists hurled cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at police in an attempt to re-enter college buildings cleared last week. There were 167 arrests and more than a hundred minor injuries.

The sight of burning barricades and the smell of tear gas on the Left Bank inevitably raised memories of the Paris student and worker "revolution" of May 1968. French political and social commentators - and even leaders of the 1968 revolt, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit - insist that the dynamics of the present revolt are quite different, though not necessarily easier to control.

In 1968, France was economically prosperous but stifled socially by 10 years of Gaullist conservatism. French students, inspired by the explosion of youth culture in the US, believed that they were fighting for a freer, less-repressive society. The protest began with a demand that male and female students should be allowed to spend nights in one another's dormitories.

In 2006, France has been suffering from high unemployment, and especially high youth unemployment, for more than two decades. The protests are, in a sense, a conservative and inward-looking revolution. The students are demanding the same kind of job security enjoyed by their parents. Far from smelling freedom on the wind from abroad, many young people in France - as seen in the vote against the EU constitution last year - are deeply hostile to what they see as ultra-capitalist, Anglo-Saxon notions of globalism and free trade.

The protests began with an attempt by M. de Villepin to solve France's chronic youth unemployment by making it easier for employers to hire, and also fire, young, first-time workers. His contrat de première embauche (CPE) allows an employer to hire young people under 26 and fire them without specific reason, at any time in the first two years.

The new contracts, adding to rather than replacing a jumble of 700 pieces of existing labour law, are aimed mostly at under-qualified young people in poor suburbs where youth unemployment can reach 70 per cent. This was intended as a partial response to the five weeks of rioting by youth gangs in the suburbs in October and November.

It was not aimed at the university students who have led the protests. They, in the French system, are frequently not ready to look for a first job until they are 26 years old or more.

The vehemence of the protests has been fuelled by a kind of transferred anger. University students in France are part of a second-class system of tertiary education, underfunded and undervalued compared to the elite special colleges or grandes ecoles.

They know that their chances of finding jobs are relatively poor. The CPE, intended for them or not, has become the symbol of what they see as their exclusion from the kinds of privileges enjoyed by earlier generations.