French youth ask for steady jobs, not big dreams

When student demonstrators in France wore trash bags to protests, their message was: ”We’re not disposable.” Officially, they are angry about a new government job plan that makes it easier for employers to hire and fire them. But that was just the tipping point.

The unemployment rate for France’s young people is more than 20%, or twice the national average. Many overqualified college graduates string together odd jobs, meaning they don’t dare move out of their parents’ homes or start families. Without a steady job, it’s extremely hard to rent an apartment in France or even to open a bank account.

Job competition from emerging markets — the government’s key argument for the new law — is far from most students’ minds. Their leaders say French workers cannot accept longer hours and lower pay on par with Asian economies that are often touted as the models of the future.

”What the student demonstrations are saying is that the young refuse to live in the world as it is,” said Bruno Julliard, the head of France’s main student association, UNEF.

Student groups have suggested earlier job training and individual job counseling — but there is no consensus among the country’s drifting young people on a radical way to solve youth unemployment.

Bolstered by support from trade unions, students led a new protest on Tuesday, marching across the Left Bank and shouting: ”It’s the street that rules!”

Tensions mounted afterward as several hundred protesters tossed bottles and stones at riot police near the stately Luxembourg Gardens, and officers retaliated with tear gas. A few stragglers took advantage of the chaotic scene to steal cellphones and break mirrors off several cars along the march route. About 10 people were taken into custody, judicial officials said.

Students have blockaded dozens of universities across France, prompting others to complain about having their classes cancelled so soon before final exams. About 300 students staged a ”counterdemonstration” outside Paris’ famed Pantheon. They chanted, ”Enough, enough! Let us through!”

”We are not all in favour of the jobs plan, but we refuse to sacrifice our studies over it,” said one demonstrator, 18-year-old Thomas Seince.

Along with this fall’s riots in France’s depressed suburbs, the protests have been a major test for conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and highlight the challenges faced by many European governments looking to reform their job markets to cope with globalisation.

Villepin said on Tuesday that unions and employers could discuss improvements to the contested ”first job contract” — but he refused to consider cancelling it or substantially changing it.

”The law is well-crafted,” he insisted in a meeting with youths. The boisterous debate could shape the outcome of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Villepin’s popularity has plunged, and the Socialists have vowed to revoke the law if they return to power.

The jobs law, which takes effect next month, is an attempt to make France’s labour market more flexible and encourage companies to hire young workers. To do that, it will allow employers to fire workers younger than 26 in the first two years on the job, without citing a reason.

Villepin, who appears to be staking his political career on the issue, tried to rally his party as more critics from right and left called for it to be sharply modified or withdrawn.

Attention also focused on a protester in a coma after Saturday’s protest. Union leaders claimed the 39-year-old man had been ”violently trampled by a police charge”, but a top police union official said demonstrators had struck him.

”The entire country has plunged into a test of power, which could become very serious,” Jean-Marc Ayrault, the Socialist leader in the National Assembly, told the lower house.

When Ayrault claimed that Villepin was driven by ”egotism,” many ruling party lawmakers left the chamber in protest of the comment, shaking their fists and shouting ”CPE” — the French acronym for the jobs contract.

Meanwhile, courts have begun intervening to stop the university blockades. A tribunal in southeastern France on Monday ordered an end to one such blockage in Grenoble, ruling that every student occupying the city’s universities could face fines of â,¬50 a day starting on Thursday.

Another day of nationwide student street protests is planned for Thursday, and trade unions called a national day of strikes for March 28 which are expected to affect sectors from travel to industry. – Sapa-AP

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