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French Youth Up in Arms Over New Labor Law
'First Employment Contract' gives employer right to fire indiscriminately
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-13 14:29 (KST)   
The demonstrations in Paris in May 1968 have become a symbol of the protest movement that swept the globe in the 1960s. The massive demonstrations on March 7 in 160 towns and cities in France, and the subsequent student strikes and university occupations and demonstrations, planned or in process, have raised the question as to whether these recent protests will lead to a similar social unrest as occurred in the 1960s.

On March 7, up to a million people in France demonstrated in opposition to the French government's plan to pass a new law that was then in the French Senate. The law has come to be known as CPE, the "Contrat Premiere Embauche"; in English, the "First Employment Contract." Despite the protest, the government passed the bill the next day so that it is now a law. The law was passed in a way that sidestepped the debate and discussion that is a traditional part of the legislative process in France.

This law applies to those under 26 years of age who find a new job. It gives the employer the right to terminate the new hire's employment within two years without having to give any reason. Under French law, the employer has only a month to terminate the employment of a new employee who is 26 or older without having to provide a reason. After that, French labor law provides protection for the employee so that employment isn't ended without objective cause.

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The unemployment rate in France is an estimated 10 percent of the French workforce. This includes an estimated 20 percent of young people who do not have jobs. There have been various proposals offered for how to lower this high rate of unemployment. One such proposal is to make it possible for those in the current workforce to retire earlier than presently possible in order to open jobs for those who are currently unemployed.

The new law, however, takes a very different approach to the high rate of youth unemployment. It is based on an initiative introduced by the French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. It provides that those under 26 who work for companies with more than 20 employees can be dismissed from their employment in the first two years without any reason given for their termination. Students and others who oppose the law say that this treats them in a discriminatory way. Not only is it normally difficult to get a job, but under this new law, an employer will have an incentive to end their employment before the two years are up and hire another employee who is under 26. For those seeking jobs who are 26 or over, this new law provides an incentive for employers to give preference to younger workers who can be hired and then fired as a new form of temporary employment.

Last August a similar law was put into effect by Executive Mandate that applied only to employers with less than 20 paid employees. Under this law, known as the CNE, (in French "Contrat Nouvelle Embauche") a small employer can hire and dismiss people before they have worked for the employer for two years without having to provide a reason for the dismissal. There are many instances of workers protesting they lost their jobs unfairly under this law. The very competitive pressures that leads employers to desire such flexibility to hire and fire at will, also is a pressure on the employer to terminate a new worker before the two years are up and to hire someone else who is not covered by the labor laws. The new labor law, the CPE, is modeled on the CNE, but applies to larger employers.

The French Senate passed the CPE in a hurried way and at night, on March 8 and 9, cutting short debate using a special procedure known as Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. Students, student organizations, and other young people across France were dismayed by the prospects of having to work under the conditions provided by the new law. French labor unions also oppose the new law, along with the Socialist Party and other parties, including the Greens.

In response to the French government passing the law after the large protest demonstrations, there were student strikes and sit-ins at universities around France, including at the Sorbonne University in Paris. An estimated 600 students were part of the occupation of the Sorbonne on Friday, March 10. Other students demonstrated in the streets surrounding the Sorbonne to support the sit-in. Early Saturday morning, about 4 a.m., however, the police forcibly ejected those who were still occupying the university.

Dismay has been expressed by those who oppose the CPE that the police forcibly broke up a peaceful protest and entered a university. Students vow to continue the struggle to get the law changed. Continuing demonstrations and student strikes are planned, including a demonstration for March 16, and another one on March 18.

Press reports about the demonstrations describe how students are not only frustrated by the law, but even more so by the lack of response from the government to their protests. One student complained, "We feel we have the support of the people in the street but that the government just doesn't care."(1) Others explain that they escalated their protest to a sit-in because they were enraged that the government passed the new law disregarding the massive demonstrations against it.

Students describe how they feel they have no means to influence the decisions made by the government. At the heart of the discontent is dissatisfaction with the lack of democratic processes that made it possible for the French government to impose such an unpopular law on French citizens.

This problem of a disconnect between the citizens and their government is being expressed in other European countries, not only in France. In the recent German election, many were unhappy with the Hartz IV labor laws that the German government is instituting to take away the social benefits that German workers have felt important to maintain. Since both of the main political parties supported the Hartz IV laws, it was difficult for those opposed to them to express their dissatisfaction in the election and to find a way through the election to make a change in government policy regarding the new labor laws.

Similarly, in Great Britain, there is widespread discontent about various aspects of the British government's programs and policies. Elections there also do not provide a means for expressing this dissatisfaction, as a recent research study published in Great Britain demonstrates.

The report, "Power: An Independent Inquiry into Britain's Democracy," was published at the end of February, 2006. It is the result of research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, Ltd., which supports research "promoting democratic reform, constitutional change and social justice." The researchers explain that, "The POWER Inquiry was set up in 2004 to explore how political participation and involvement can be increased and deepened in Britain." The product of their research is a harsh critique of the failure in Great Britain of any means for citizens to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. The report suggests that elections are not playing this role. This problem is not peculiar to Great Britain, but the "majority of the established democracies are facing similar problems despite the differences in their recent political and economic histories and the variations in their constitutional arrangements," the report (PDF) explains.

What the report documents is that there is a widespread recognition among the citizenry that their views and desires are not part of the political processes, nor are they of interest to the politicians who make the decisions in our society. Though citizens, especially those who are better informed via the Internet, feel the need more than ever to have their views taken into consideration by the government officials who make decisions, these decisions are being made in ways that exclude citizens more than ever before. Essentially, citizens are being "evicted" from the political processes.

The report includes a set of recommendations about what is needed to change the situation. The researchers plan to hold a conference to discuss the report, its implications and recommendations it contains. But the significance of the report is that it documents how the discontent being expressed in the streets, and on university campuses in France in response to the new labor law, is part of a widespread failure of governments to provide for the democratic needs and desires of their citizens. The same was seen in 2003 when millions of people in the U.S. and elsewhere expressed opposition to any invasion of Iraq. The Bush regime went ahead anyway.

The government processes ongoing in France are an example of the broader problem, that the Power Commission identified, a problem that demonstrates that there is a fundamental flaw in how countries like France, Great Britain, Germany and the US claim to practice democracy.

In 1968, a similar problem resulted in widespread unrest and mass movements to try to correct the injustices and the lack of democratic processes available to citizens. The events unfolding in France today, reinforced by the problems described in the report published in Great Britain, demonstrate that there is a need for change in the democratic decision making practices of the countries with some of the most praised traditions of democracy. The problem of extending the democratic processes practiced by governments is a problem still to be solved. It is helpful that French students and the French labor movement are actively protesting the actions of the French government and fighting for more democratic political processes.
French PM Dominique de Villepin's opinion poll ratings dropped to 28 percent earlier in the week - the lowest level ever. Do you think his bid for the presidency next year will be harmed by the current "first employment contract" protests?  (2006-04-05 ~ 2006-04-12)
Yes
No
I don't know
(1) Angelique Chrisafis, French students revive spirit of 68, The Guardian, March 10, 2006.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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