Andreas Whittam Smith: Dominique de Villepin's Napoleonic gamble

He intends to tame the bucking bronco and show France what courage brings
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The Independent Online

Being prime minister of France is like trying to control a bucking bronco. It isn't long before the rider is thrown off and hits the dirt. Many think that Dominique de Villepin will soon be unseated, though I am less sure. He is hanging on with unusual determination. But such falls do indeed happen pretty regularly.

In fact there have been 12 occupants of the Matignon, the prime minister's residence, since 1979 whereas during the same period, 10 Downing Street has had only three tenants, Thatcher, Major and Blair. In case this is thought an unfair comparison seeing that France has had the same number of presidents since 1979 - Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterrand and Chirac - turn for example to the list of British Chancellors of the Exchequer in the past 27 years - six only.

What usually brings down French prime ministers is their attempts to reform social security. Ten years ago, Edouard Balladur got into trouble with his privatisation plans and proposed reforms of employment law. Then Alain Juppé had an unsuccessful go at social welfare reform. And one reason M de Villepin's predecessor, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, crashed to the ground was his attack on public sector pensions. On each occasion, there were street protests, public sector strikes and varying amounts of violence.

Going on a demo is part of the culture of French politics. Even when there is no political crisis, groups with something to complain about regularly take to the streets and march behind their banners. It can be hospital doctors in their white coats, or teachers or even the police themselves. Hardly a day goes by in Paris without a demonstration. The so-called "winter of discontent" of 1978 in Britain is remembered because nothing like it has happened since, whereas every year in France there are winters, springs, summers and autumns of discontent.

What has led to the present impasse is a new form of employment contract that M de Villepin quickly forced through Parliament as emergency legislation. It allows employers to dismiss new staff who are under 26 years old at any time during a two-year trial period without having to offer an explanation or give prior warning. The theory is that employers are more likely to give young workers a chance if they can easily get rid of them - whether because they are unsatisfactory or because business has turned down or for any other reason at all. The policy is a way of tackling high levels of youth unemployment - on average, 23 per cent with even worse rates for those without qualifications.

The massive student protests, supported by the public sector unions and assorted trouble-makers, have focused on what is perceived as the unfairness of the new type of contract. And because it opens the way to arbitrary dismissal, italso reduces the creditworthiness of such employment and makes it harder for young people to buy their first property and so on.

But there is a deeper, unspoken reason for protest. Suppose the new contract actually worked. Suppose that many employers offered it and that many young people took it up. Suppose, as would be likely, that there was very little arbitrary dismissal. Suppose that, as a result, employment of young people rose sharply and suppose the reason turned out to be the removal of restrictions on employers rights to hire and fire. What then? The fearful prospect is that such success would lead inevitably to demands to liberalise the whole of France's rigid labour laws, so elaborate that they now require a book of 2,501 pages in its latest edition, the 66th, to describe.

For France is deeply anti-capitalist. When recently people round the world were asked in a poll whether they approved of free enterprise, France was the only country in which the majority of the population declared itself hostile. In enthusiasm for the market economy, it came behind even Russia, Nigeria, India and China. The US was third and the UK seventh.

These are the circumstances in which M de Villepin has decided to make a stand. He bends less easily than the average politician, perhaps because he has spent most of his life as a foreign ministry official and a presidential adviser and has never stood for election to anything. But nor is he a technocrat. He models himself on de Gaulle and admires Napoleon. He would like to have been a general who rode in front of his troops towards enemy fire. And he calculates that if he shows leadership now, he thereby increases his chances of being selected by his party to contest the presidential election in 2007 and of winning it.

M de Villepin is faced, however, with many disagreeable consequences. If the rioting goes on, somebody may be killed and the death would be blamed on him. Meanwhile some of his party colleagues grumble and say that the new labour contract isn't worth the opposition it stirs up. And his great rival, the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, suggests spending a month in further consultations before imposing the new law - which, from M de Villepin's point of view, would be equivalent to retreat.

Tomorrow France will experience strikes in the public services. Many university campuses will remain closed due to student action. There is anger in the immigrant communities. Attacks on property and burning of cars are becoming more common again. Yet M de Villepin will, I believe, be unyielding. He intends to tame the bucking bronco and show France what courage brings.