John Lichfield: If only this were a real French revolution

For all its political pretensions, this is a revolt for the right to a safe, permanent job
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The other day an American friend in Paris met a fellow American standing outside the Louvre, wearing a stetson and a puzzled expression. "How's your trip?" my friend asked. "Terrible" said the man in the stetson. "We went to Versailles and there was a riot. We went on to the Left Bank and there was riot. Wherever you go in this damned country there is riot."

The March "riots" of 2006 have been rather tame as French riots go. All the same, you can see the puzzled American tourist's point. In October and November, young people rebelled in France's poor, multi-racial suburbs. Four months later, it is the turn of young people from relatively well-off backgrounds in France's underfunded and unloved universities.

It seems that France is an insurrectionary mood, or at least a pre-revolutionary mood. Would that it were. The student revolt of 2006, although mostly led by students of the left or far left, fits the pattern of conservative revolutions - revolutions against change - which have defied, or destroyed, successive French governments of left and right for the last 20 years.

The November revolt in the poor suburbs was different: a revolt against the status quo but an apolitical, even nihilist revolt, with no particular political organisation or aims. Of the two revolts, the suburban unrest was the greater long-term threat to the social health of France.

The university unrest - likely to develop this week into disruptive union protests - is a greater immediate threat to the country's political and economic stability and recovery. The suburban revolt provoked France to re-examine some of its self-defeating illusions about its social model. In the student revolt, the illusions have bounced back.

In a sense, one revolt led to the other. The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, pushed through last week a new "easy hire-easy-fire" jobs contract for the under-26s. Anyone hired under a contrat première embauche (CPE) - first job contract - can be fired for no reason in the first two years. Afterwards, the contract becomes permanent. The principal aim is to encourage employers to give a chance to underqualified, or unqualified, youngsters in the poor suburbs (where youth unemployment sometimes reaches 70 per cent).

M. Villepin is a vain and impulsive man. He refused to consult with trades unions in advance. He failed to explain properly what the contracts were for. He is now, belatedly, trying to do both, without much luck.

The change in jobs law - actually an addition to 700 different pieces of job legislation - was seized on by the unions, by the left and by students' organisations as an "ultra-capitalist" outrage: an attempt to smuggle wicked, globalist, Anglo-Saxon attitudes into France. After a slow burn for three weeks, the revolt has exploded in the last 10 days to campus sit-ins, mass demonstrations and some scattered battles with the riot police.

May 1968 revisited? Hardly. May 1968 was more a cultural revolution than a political one. The freedom, fashions and self-flattery of the 1960s youth revolutions in the US and Britain were slow to reach France. Admire all those quaint, short hair-cuts and neat, female pony tails in the pictures of the Paris demos of 38 years ago. May 1968 was - for all its political pretensions - a revolt against parental discipline and values: a revolt for the right to wear purple trousers.

Young people in France in 2006 already embrace all the global cultural fads of the time, from nose rings to blogs. They resist - or many of them resist - the notion that the globalised, internet-dominated future should alter the kind of social protections and complex employment laws which have grown up in France. For all its political pretensions, this is a revolt for the right to a safe, permanent job.

The students do have plenty of causes for complaint, but they are not complaining about them. The first-degree university system in France is overcrowded, poorly funded and poorly regarded by potential employers. At a recent exam at the Sorbonne - no longer an élite institution - there were not enough tables and chairs for all the students.

A shortage of chairs is not an inspiring subject for political revolt. "Ultra-liberal" changes in jobs law are. But the existing French social model which they eloquently defend has failed young people for years. Youth unemployment in France is 22 per cent, compared to 7.6 per cent in Britain and 15 per cent in Germany. There are now 300,000, mostly young, French people in London - economic refugees from a failing system.

The CPE contracts are no panacea; nor are they likely to prove the charter for wicked employers that the students and unions pretend. For all their idealism, the revolting students are defending a rigid system of labour laws which helps to exclude them - and, above all, the poorer, less qualified kids in the suburbs - from the job market.

Here is the heart of the French paradox. At each election in the last 25 years, voters have clamoured for change. Governments have bounced from right to left to right. Any government which has attempted real reform has been opposed by street protests.

In other countries, the middle, or middling, classes are usually the swing vote for change. In France, they are the obstacle to change. There is a large block of the French electorate - a kind of "lumpenbourgoisie" - which benefits from the present system and fears reform.

The beneficiaries, or "ins", of the French system include public sector workers, but also many white-collar workers in the private sector. They see no reason to weaken their job protections and welfare privileges for the sake of more economic dynamism and more opportunities for the "outs".

The middle-class students at the heart of the present protests are potential "outs" who are mostly the children of "ins". They assume that they should have the same rights as their mums and dads. They have also imbibed the anti-globalist, anti-market, anti-American - and even anti-European - ideas which helped to wing the EU referendum in favour of a "non" vote last May.

Even a modest shift in the social model towards a degree of risk and flexibility outrages them. In the latest opinion polls, 71 per cent of French people say the students are right. In previous opinion polls, the same electorate, by the same kinds of majorities, complained that "the politicians" had failed to deliver "change" and tackle unemployment.

The presidential election is 13 months away. With every day that the protests continue, the chances increase of another sterile zig-zag in French electoral politics next spring. This time it may be turn of the left to triumph - and then be detested.