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Meet Gatien: French Student, Protest Leader
Pierre Joo talks with an outraged Sorbonne student at the forefront of the Paris Anti-CPE movement
Pierre Joo (pierre_joo)     Print Article 
Published 2006-04-05 11:32 (KST)   
Gatien, 20, was not convinced at all by Chirac's recent address to the nation.
©2006 Pierre Joo
Little is left from the huge anti-CPE (Contrat première embauche -- "first employment contract") demonstrations that took place in Paris on March 28, ending in the Place de la Republique, a major square on the right bank of Paris. Near the metro entrance where I am standing four days after this huge march is a carousel full of loud children. Among the few remarkable details are two anti-riot police buses parked nearby and a "Non au CPE!" sticker still visible on the monument that symbolizes the French Republic in the middle of the square.

The CPE's objective is to enable companies to fire young workers without notice or severance benefits during the first two years of employment. As soon as the law was passed by the French senate, uproar from students, labor unions, and French public opinion gradually became such that the its fate was left to a much-awaited decision by President Chirac, either to sign the law into effect or ask the Parliament to review it. Chirac gave an address to the nation on Friday, March 31, on his decision, the consequences of which were to be decisive.

Signing the law would achieve the last step in its implementation process. The CPE would then immediately take effect, as advocated by its only promoter, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin -- something that no one, even in his own political center-right government or political party, enthusiastically endorsed. Sending it back to parliament would mean its demise, as demanded by two thirds of the French Senate. For Chirac, the latter choice would be a genuinely presidential gesture, taking into consideration social appeasement rather than politically motivated calculations and the fact that even the best reforms can hardly be implemented without minimal support.

For someone not acquainted with French politics, the choice seems all the more obvious in this case, in which the wise decision would also be the most popular. But among the few who would be unhappy, even humiliated by a withdrawal of the CPE, is de Villepin, Chirac's long-time advisor and protege. Together they have won two highly uncertain presidential battles, suffered a dramatic setback in the 1997 parliamentary elections, and opposed Bush and Blair on the war in Iraq.

As all politicians without a vision, Chirac, after weeks of silence, tried to please both camps. He announced he would sign the CPE law but asked the government to ensure that no job contracts containing CPE provisions would be signed by employers before two modifications would be voted by parliament: the reduction of the trial period to one year, and the right of young workers to be notified about why their contracts are to be terminated.

In the end, Chirac's clumsy decision did not meet protesters' demands and still managed to be a serious blow to de Villepin, whose objective was for the CPE to take immediate effect.

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As in many past French anti-government protests, university and high school students played a key role in the current battle against the CPE. Gatien, a 20-year-old male student, is one of them -- a very active one. Gatien is an undergraduate history student at the Sorbonne as well as a geography student at the French National Geography Institute.

With his tall silhouette, and long, blond and curly hair, Gatien has the typical surfer look, but the waves he rides are a bit special, being the waves of protests that have been damaging the government's popularity and position for the past several weeks. Despite his tight schedule, he seems happy to share his views with OhmyNews readers, a media he had not heard of, but the concept of which he finds terrific.

Only two years after he gained the right to vote, Gatien already has strong left-leaning political convictions. For the 2007 presidential elections he wished the left-wing electorate supported "a real left-wing candidate, and not the likes of Francois Hollande" the current head of the center-left Socialist Party. Yet, Gatien does not belong to any political organization or any of the student unions backed by a political party.

"I am not part of any union or party. I just belong to a group of very motivated students who felt that the CPE was a scandal. In the beginning, we tried to find a place in the Sorbonne to meet, but the university administration would not let us, supposedly because of anti-terror security concerns. So, we looked for a place to meet at other universities. That's how student solidarity started to emerge, that's how it all started."

Gatien agrees his informal group of students is not representative of all students, and hence the actions undertaken are not the result of democratic decision making: "During student meetings, we had a hard time silencing the anti-CPE audience in order for the pro-CPE students arguments to be expressed and heard." Yet, he feels his initiatives are widely backed by students and the older generation, many of his professors, and also people in the street: "during a sit-in operation we were conducting to block train traffic in the Gare de Lyon, (a major train station in Paris), most passengers who were asked to get off the blocked trains were actually showing expressions of support for our actions."

What is the reason that has made Gatien take to the streets? "There has been a general trend for the state to disengage from its welfare obligations -- the CPE is like the last straw that breaks the camel's back, as it leaves the young workforce more precarious and with no assurance of getting a secured job later."

Like many protesters, Gatien was not surprised at all by Chirac's decision: "I am not naive enough to be surprised by him, I had no illusions before the speech and remain without illusions after."

Indeed, Chirac's concessions fall short of satisfying Gatien, who is busy preparing for the April 4 second national demonstrations, as well as other initiatives: "If the government doesn't budge from its autocratic attitude, we'll take more actions that will have an impact on France's economy, such as blocking more train stations, or highways." These would be more radical but still peaceful actions, as Gatien condemns violence, although he notices "fear of violent clashes has made the government make some minor concessions."

How are all these actions financed? "Some stickers and demonstration materials are provided by the unions. For the rest, we organize teatime meetings at the university, bake sales, making coffee, and inviting anyone to join us and debate the CPE. People are welcome to make a financial contribution as they choose." In fact, Gatien scheduled an activity right after this meeting with me that will also help finance his cause -- babysitting.

Our discussion then expands to broader subjects related to the CPE, as I am curious to get a better sense of Gatien's perception of a labor market he is not yet part of. Does he have a stereotypical vision of evil-minded company executives, eager to fire employees to get a better bottom-line result? "I don't have a bad opinion of company bosses, but I understand that they are in a position where in order to compete with other companies, they have to go by the rules of a system deeply unfair to workers."

But isn't this system part of a broader evolution, namely globalization, to which there are many positive aspects? "I totally embrace cultural globalization, not the unification of all cultures into a global one, but the development of exchanges between diverse cultures around the world. This type of globalization is great! As for the unfair north-south exchange and the system of comparative advantages, which drive workers' benefits downward, I think this aspect of globalization is not tenable for someone who doesn't have a crooked vision of mankind."

Call him a young fellow with utopian ideas that will fade away with time and the harsh reality of grownup life. Maybe this idealistic view will fade away, but for now, his intense look while explaining his convictions hints that Gatien is very determined not to readily let go of his demands regarding the CPE: "Whatever its outcome, this protest will help people realize how France lacks new political ideas."

How about Gatien's plans for the future? "I want to become a professor." He then quotes Victor Hugo in Les Miserables: "'Open schools, and you will close down prisons,' I deeply believe in that."
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
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Pierre Joo

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