April 8, 2006

French students and workers mobilize against CPE anti-youth labour “reforms”

Enough of the Kleenex generation!

French students and workers mobilize against CPE anti-youth labour “reforms”

“We've had enough of being the Kleenex generation of disposable youth, shat on by employers and screwed by the government.” – anti-CPE protestor

Over three million protestors have now taken to the streets of France, after almost three months of mobilization in response to what they call a dangerous and disturbing new law, the CPE. As RY went to press, French students had just shut down Eurostar trains to Britain and blocked a convoy of parts for the star of European aviation, Airbus's A380, to put more pressure on France's embattled government to repeal a regressive new employment law.

The CPE -- "first jobs contract" -- is a particular type of contract with a two year probation period. It is the brainchild of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who says “urgent” action is needed to “bring the French labour market into the modern era.”

In France there are many types of contracts for young people such as temporary contracts, and different subsidized contracts that employers choose from, according to their needs. Most -- about 75% -- of new workers, and 13% of all jobs, are temporary contracts.

CPE is special because it grants employers the power to fire people, under age 26, without cause or warning within two years of being hired. It applies to workers who work for companies with more than 20 employees, regardless of whether the labour is skilled or unskilled. In contrast, under temporary contracts he would have had to pay 10% of the total wage paid since the beginning + the total wage owed until the end of the fixed term

The law was brought in as part of a wider ‘equal opportunities’ bill, that responded to a crisis in November 2005 when young people (primarily French-born children of immigrants from former French colonies, many of them Muslim) protested life on society’s working-class margins. Housing-project ghetto’s exploded in flames.

The youth unemployment rate in France is 23 percent, more than double the general jobless rate. In the poorest areas (like immigrant communities) youth joblessness is as high as 50 percent. The government claims that with CPE, unemployment (especially among younger workers) will be reduced because employers will hire more people if it is easier to get rid of them.

"For two months, young people and working people have expressed their worries and rejection of the First Job Contract that makes a period of poverty a mandatory phase for an entire generation," said Bruno Julliard, a leader of the national student union UNEF.

France's current, long-standing labour law allows employers just a few months to terminate a new employee without giving a reason. After that, the law sets strict standards for firing employees. Opponents of the so-called "first jobs contract" (CPE) have nicknamed it the "Kleenex contract" because of the disposable workforce it would create.

Many were upset with the quickness with which the measure passed through the Parliament. Bruno Julliard said the government "imposed the jobs plan without consulting anyone," and that the government only agreed to talks after the large demonstrations. UNEF, in turn, has refused to join talks until the contract is withdrawn.

The CGT, France's largest union federation, said in a March 21 statement, "This measure, ineffective for employment, offers employers a new means of pressuring employees to renounce most of their rights under the penalty that they will be pushed out the door: it is a welcome to unpaid additional hours, worsened work conditions, lower salaries, sick days not respected, scorned dignity, etc."

The French Communist Party has opposed the CPE, proposing instead "a large progressive reformation of the labour code, aiming for job security and income for all."

In addition to the planned labour strikes, UNEF has led student strikes at a number of universities. Student groups also worry that the CPE would make housing problems worse for young workers. Many landlords won't rent to young workers because of their precarious financial situation.

"There is a big housing crisis in France. With this contract, no young workers will be able to get an apartment," said Julie Coudry, president of the Student Confederation.


Protests have been marked by a carnival atmosphere somewhere between a victory parade for the demonstrators and a funeral march for the "first employment law" as the ruling party prepared to begin negotiating its way out of the crisis.

3 million Demonstrators marched in around 280 French towns and cities. In Rennes, where one university faculty has been blockaded for two months, students blocked railway tracks closing the station for almost an hour and police clashed with demonstrators who had gathered outside the ruling UMP party offices.

A spate of muggings spread in the demonstrations, but the unions and students have now organized stewarding and defence groups to protect against it.

One of the most shocking incidents of police brutality was the attack on Cyril Ferez, of the Sud-PTT union, who was seriously injured during a protest on 18th March. As RY went to press on April 8th, Ferez had just come out of a coma.

The newspaper l’Humanité describes “arbitrary arrests, humiliations and, sometimes, violence in police vans or at the station… teargases against peaceful high-school pupils blocking the entry of their school, as in Gagny, as a Seine-Saint-Denis, last Wednesday.”


After two months of protests in which hundreds of schools and universities have been blockaded, closed or occupied and workers joined in a national strike, Mr Chirac signed the law on Sunday but asked for changes: the probation period for workers would be only one year and employers must give a reason for dismissal. He also ordered talks with unions.


Jean-Robert Pitte, president of the world-renowned Sorbonne University branded French students protesting about the country's new employment law as "ignorant" and “stupid.” "[Todays] youngsters believe they have a right to everything and if things don't go the way they want it's someone else's fault," he said.

One of the recommended reforms is more “labour market flexibility.” This is an economist’s way of saying it should be easier to fire employees, and there should be less generous public pensions and unemployment compensation, and lower payroll taxes. Lower wages and benefits attached to employment, as well as a reduced influence of unions also fall into this category.

The available economic research provides little or no evidence for this argument.

For example, while it is true that France’s unemployment rate is relatively high (9.2 percent), there are a number of countries with high levels of labour market protections and low levels of unemployment: Austria (5.2 percent), Denmark (4.4 percent), Ireland (4.3 percent), the Netherlands (4.6 percent) and Norway (4.5 percent).

A country’s level of employment (and unemployment) generally has much more to do with the overall demand for the goods and services that its businesses produce, rather than the rules or benefits that affect individual employers.

The idea that labour protections are the cause of European unemployment is part of an overall myth that Europeans would benefit from a more American-style economy. The U.S. economy is supposedly more dynamic, but French productivity is actually higher than the USA. Their public pensions, free tuition at universities, longer vacations (4-5 weeks as compared with 2 weeks here), state-sponsored day care and other benefits are said to be unaffordable in a “global economy.” But since these were affordable in years past, there is no economic logic that would make them less so today, with productivity having grown — no matter what happens in India or China.

French students and workers seem to have a better understanding of these economic issues than their political leaders. Hopefully, the wisdom of the crowd will prevail.

- Comments


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  4. Michael N. MazurJune 6, 2008 at 1:23 PM

    This is a great article and a great magazine overall... I'm doing a report on Cnadian labor rights regarding termination for my Legal Studies class, and this article will help me contrast French laws to ours.

    With the Bilderberg Group meeting as I type in Virginia, it is more important than ever that the people stand up and give a collective middle finger to large corporations and the capitalist economy we struggle under.

    As it stands, we are corporate slaves, struggling under corporate fascism. We must stand up, bash the rich, and eliminate the corporate threat to our freedom.

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    Keep up the great work, and keep making good magazines!


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