There has been quite a shocking amount of inkletting in the wake of the ongoing events both on the streets and in the circles of power around the proposed introduction of the Contrat de Premier Embauche (CPE) in France. In the French press, this has mostly been in the form of agonised soul-searching, except where it’s been a lot of vitriol, from both sides it has to be said. In the English-speaking press, there’s been quite a bit of commentary of the "Jet2.com condemns French strike action and calls for lazy frogs to get back to work!", but that’s only to be expected. Obviously not all analysis has been that simplistic, but there has been a certain degree of perplexity expressed as to why French youth and trade unions have been so steadfastedly and sometimes violently opposed a measure that purports to improve their chances of employment.
If all that French youth wants is a fair chance of a career, retirement and a decent pension like their parents, why the rejection of the CPE? Well in a nutshell, because it doesn’t offer them anything like a fair chance, and perhaps above that, because of near-universal fury at the high-handed way in which Dominique de Villepin set about implementing this pet project of his, at least partly to further his own political machinations. The CPE was foisted on France with no consultation of any interested parties, de Villepin having chosen to disregard the advice of just about all of his entourage and to go back on his earlier promise that no changes to employment legislation would be made without a preliminary dialogue. There was no real case for it. A similar and more measured new contract, the Contrat Nouvelle Embauche (CNE) was introduced in late 2005 and it is too early to measure its impact. For all that anyone knows, that may yet achieve just as much as any legal tinkering is ever likely to without attempting to address the underlying causes of the problem. The only explanations for this extraordinary lapse in political judgements are personal and of course basely political. Politically, this fits into the ongoing rivalry between the Prime Minister and Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the UMP candidacy for the 2007 Presidential elections. Sarkozy is always presenting himself as an energetic man of action with the drive and tenacity to push through tough reforms. “Qu’à cela ne tienne!” says de Villepin. He can be an unflinching strong man too, and he will make his stand on the CPE. On a more personal level, de Villepin is a great admirer of Napoleon (you have a choice in France if you’re in right-wing politics: Napoleon or De Gaulle, who in turn both thought that they were Louis XIVth), an Enarque, a technocrat. He’s not really a politician, he was appointed to the job from where he belongs, which is the Civil Service. He isn’t used to having to please anyone, and certainly not to have to account to the Street, let alone when it’s full of layabout students and Pinkos. He certainly never expected to have to pay much attention to the whining of “les Jeunes”. It’s not that he doesn’t care about their plight, it’s just that he wishes that they’d just recognise that it would be much better if they’d just let clever people like him decide what’s best for them because decisions like this are better left to grown-ups. And frankly, to people like him who went through the gruelling French Republican cursus honorum that has been delivering technocrats to run the country for a couple of centuries now. Which is an understandable opinion to have if you’re a civil servant, but not if you’re a Prime Minister. When you’re the Prime Minister you keep opinions like that to yourself and ask for guidance on how to handle the Masses from all the real politicians around you.
Out on the streets, the collective attitudinal landscape shapes behaviour. Essentially, the French young feel they’ve been lied to, stitched up and that the Government doesn’t care, so they have to make them care. There’s a long and illustrious history of effective people power in France (something to be proud of I think), there’s a strong tendency to default Bolshiness and there is undeniably an unfortunate tradition of political street violence (whatever you think of that, it’s ingrained in people’s minds, both the CRS – “On va casser du Bougnoule!/du Communiste!/de l’étudiant!” etc. – and the demonstrators – “CRS! SS!” and so on). The Lie is what they have been told since they were born, and it’s a part of Republican Dogma, France’s substitute state religion. This is how Republican life is supposed to pan out: wherever you are born and in whatever background, the Republic will ensure that every generation goes a few floors higher on the social lift. The Laic, Free and Compulsory School will give everyone the same opportunities. All you need to do is work hard at education for as long as you need to. This is why French teenagers hear the expression “Passe ton Bac d’abord” as a mantra to stop them from falling off the Republican bandwagon. And why the Baccalauréat results are posted in public places in July, deciding whether your parents will bore everyone they meet during the summer senseless boasting of your results, or whether shame will descend on the family. Baccalauréat results will determine where you stand in the pecking order of Grandes Ecoles which will produce the Republic’s elite for those who can stay the course. Entrance is by competitive examinations seemingly inspired by Imperial China. It’s pretty much identical to the Japanese system. When you’ve been through all that, you will have arrived in Republican Nirvana and you can relax. You see, paradoxically, the Republican Dream is both properly egalitarian and democratic, and yet totally elitist. And most importantly, it’s no longer real. The belief has gone, and everyone is undergoing a crisis of secular faith, be it the youths on the Street or the Prime Minister. It’s quite possible that Jacques Chirac’s spectacular and rapid loss of political mojo is due to the equivalent of a priest losing his belief in God.
The results of all this upheaval surrounding the CPE is that it’s been kicked into touch: Chirac’s intervention may have enabled de Villepin to just about save face, but his project’s dead in the water, and has been in effect taken out of his hands. Sarkozy, who is a proper political player, discreetly put the word out that he had nothing to do with the CPE. In a particularly skilful and understated display of political skulduggery, once the outcome was all but know, he unctuously pledged his support to de Villepin’s idea, the vindictive little snake. The Street has prevented the implementation of a measure which would essentially have amounted to institutionalised discrimination against the young, with which there would have been precious little Fraternité, Absolutely no Egalité, and without those prerequisites there isn’t much Liberté to do very much.
A poor attempt at patching over some cracks may have been avoided, but no one has seriously attempted to deal with the problem. Without a doubt, unemployment and particularly youth unemployment is France’s biggest problem, and some flexibility in the labour market would certainly help. But it has to be flexibility for everyone, not just flexibility for the under 26s. De Villepin’s attempt to preserve the economic security of the older electorate by taking hostage the under 26s is frankly despicable, and he will be punished for it. Unfortunately, at the moment, the only real beneficiary appears to be Sarkozy, and he’s not one of the world’s great listeners either.