Vive 1968: Students and Workers on the Warpath in France !
'If they don't have secure jobs why aren't they grateful for insecure ones?': that seems to be French Prime Minister Dominic de Villepin's republican way of keeping alive the French Royal tradition of advocating cake for those demanding bread! A new law, called the CPE (First Employment Contract), introduced by de Villepin and enacted by the French Parliament, gives employers the right to fire workers under the age of 26 years, without citing any reasons, after two years. A blatant assault on the right to employment and job security? No: according to de Villepin's words in Parliament, the new law is a move to alleviate unemployment!
France has a shockingly high rate of unemployment - higher than most countries in Europe . Nearly 10% of the workforce is jobless; among workers under 25, the rate of unemployment is 20%, and in some of the deprived suburbs, this amounts to 50%. These are the suburbs, where young non-white, non-Catholic people, many of them Black and Muslim are condemned to live with no hope of employment - and it is these suburbs that erupted a few months ago in fearful racial riots. Racial discrimination makes it almost impossible for those with 'Arab-sounding' names to land a job. The French PM claims he can't 'stand by and do nothing' while the young go jobless, and that the new law is a compassionate response to prevent the social disaffection and unrest stemming from joblessness. But such attempts to sell the law as a salve for the unemployed and racially discriminated has not worked: it has widely been recognised as a brutal official attempt to take advantage of the desperation of the jobless, to condemn them to insecure and exploitative work without any expectation of labour rights. Rather than alleviating racial discrimination, de Villepin seems to have counted on France 's deeply ingrained racism to prevent mass outrage and protest against the law, hoping that the relatively more privileged students and established trade unions would not join ranks with the poor blacks of Arab origin.
It is a tribute to France's students, workers, and youth that they have baffled their rulers with a remarkable protest that is seen by many to revive the spirit of 1968. More than 60 of France 's 84 state-run Universities are on strike - and the prestigious Sorbonne, epicentre of the 1968 student movement, is at the forefront. Students have boycotted classes for several weeks now; have organised massive sit-ins and have virtually taken over the Universities; and daily hundreds of thousands of students hit the streets in a variety of protests. Massive rallies of an estimated 4 lakh people – students, trade unions, workers – have been held. The protestors have faced violent repression and arrests at the hands of France 's riot police. Undeterred by the consensus of France 's ruling class on the law, the movement is now said to considering a general strike.
The work-contract law seeks to disguise itself as a beneficient gesture towards the jobless. But is actually a cruel joke. It offers the young a ruthless choice – between hopeless unemployment and 'casual' work completely shorn of any legal protection. It forces the young 'reserve army' of labour to play musical chairs with jobs – allowing employers the full benefit of an endlessly flexible and desperate workforce. Effectively, it would also work as a threat against workers' protests, unionisation, and strikes. France's big business organisation, Medef, has advocated CPE-type work contracts for all workers – betraying that the real purpose of CPE is not to share jobs around, but to rob the working class of its hard-won historical protections and rights.
The French PM, also a leading Presidential candidate in the next General Elections, has refused to reconsider the CPE is any way; he has the full backing even of his leading political rivals and opposition. Whatever the immediate outcome of the ongoing movement, it is bound to have far-reaching political consequences in France .
For us in India , the upsurge in France is a shot in the arm, an inspiration. Unemployment has assumed the proportions of an explosive crisis here. Contractualisation, casualisation, and new labour 'hire and fire' labour laws are the order of the day. If France 's youth are being asked to accept contractual jobs with a built-in 'unemployment guarantee' as 'work', the very meaning of 'work' is being redefined in India . Among the rural poor on the brink of starvation, a glorified 'food for work' programme – of manual labour for just 100 days a year – is all that is being offered in the name of 'Employment Guarantee'.
Will India 's workers, students, and youth unite to fight, like their counterparts in France ? Will France 's ongoing movement change the course of economic and political policy, or neo-liberalism and racism, in that country? We hope so!