The goings on in Paris over the last few weeks are a satire, wrapped in a parody, enveloping a lampoon, served on a dish of burlesque tartar. I used to write satire for a living, but I would not have dared to write this current fiasco.
Imagine all that you ever believed about the French system, and double it. To recap, the French government, taking one of its periodic looks into the black hole that is its unemployment situation — with all the social costs entailed — decided to attempt to do something about it. What it did was inherently illiberal, as you might expect from a prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who has never been elected to anything. It proposed a new law the CPE, "Contrat Première Embauche," or "First Employment Contract."
Now whilst one can understand what it is for — essentially to allow an employer to fire somebody, in their first job, in the first two years of their employment, if they are under 26, without having to give an explicit reason — that does not mean it is right. Yes, it will help tackle the monstrous unemployment rate for the under 26s in France currently at about 23% (and upwards of 50% in the immigrant ghettos that caught light last autumn), but it makes them less equal than others.
In the country that spawned the concepts of liberty, égalité and fraternity (and ideologically driven mass murder) this matters. Of course if the students were destroying the library of the Sorbonne in Paris or any other of the 84 universities currently affected in order to demand that in order to increase employment these rules should be applied to everybody I would support them, but of course they don’t.
They just want to guarantee that they can continue to spend years sponging of the common weal while wrapping themselves in their sociology degrees and other people’s taxes to keep warm.
In the last couple of days it has begun to look like the government, in the person of de Villepin (who is always described as an aristocrat and poet in the media — though it is more telling is that his last book was about Napoleon’s 100 days) is about to cave in. The students have rejected a meeting with him feeling that they have the upper hand. And they might.
As things stand, a coalition has been created between the students, the public sector unions and the socialist party desperate to have a few hits on the government in the year before the French elections. Given that the public sector today makes up more than 50% of employment in that country thus means that they have the ability, and I don’t doubt the will to impose a general strike.
Indeed, only on Sunday a strike date was set for this Thursday. The planned action is a classic of its kind, the venerable "manifestation," made famous by farmers and fishermen. That is the blocking of all main roads and railways. Over the past 20 years this particularly French form of protest has never in my memory failed. Be it French farmers protesting about cheaper British lamb imports (and torching them alive in their trucks), or maybe it was the discovery that the EU was not going to hand over the last few square miles of UK fishing waters. There again, it might have been the appalling presence of American fast-food chains in la Belle France, or maybe the introduction of semaphore rather than carrier pigeon. It doesn’t matter; what matters is, it works.
Oddly enough the only voice of sanity heard over the sound of burning futures and collapsing social systems is from the Archbishop of Paris, who must be Outkast’s elder brother Andre Vingt-Trois, who has tried to point out some reality to the students, "Honestly, I do not believe that anybody can guarantee you this security, no more than guarantee that you will have a standard of living comparable to your parents." His honesty must be in response to his failure to get a cardinal’s hat in the new pope’s first batch. If at first you don’t succeed, get conservative.