MILLIONS OF PROTESTERS have taken to the streets of France, and trade unions are preparing for a general strike in response to what they call a dangerous and disturbing new law. The "first jobs contract" (CPE) would allow employers to fire people under age 26 without cause within two years of being hired. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin claims it will ease youth unemployment. But student and labour groups say it will aggravate the problem and allow employers to treat young workers like trash.
On Sunday, March 26, four militant French student leaders rejected an invitation from Villepin to hold talks on a new youth jobs contract, calling instead for a big turnout at protests and a general strike on March 28. Three "moderate" student leaders who have not been involved in the protests did meet with Villepin.
"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.
The youth unemployment rate in France is 23 percent, more than double the general jobless rate. In the poorest areas youth joblessness is as high as 50 percent.
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.
The new law is to be enacted when signed by President Jacques Chirac in April. Unions called for a national day of strike actions on March 28 to protest the plan. Bolstered by this support, student groups held more large‑scale protests March 21 and 23.
Public figures joining protests in 150 cities on March 18 included Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, Socialist Party leader Franτois Hollande, former culture minister Jack Lang and Communist Party leader Marie‑George Buffet.
The protest in Paris was marred by minor violence, in which a small number of demonstrators set fire to a police car. In response, police fired tear gas into the crowd. By and large the march was peaceful, though, with a festive atmosphere.
Carole Cases, a nurse who participated in the protest with two of her children, told The New York Times, "I'm sick and tired of all these phony contracts and I want to protect my children's future. They're trying to dupe the young."
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.
De Villepin IS expected to offer an amended version of the contract, possibly requiring a justification for firing or shortening the trial period during which the young worker could be fired. He has said publicly that he will stand by the law and that it will not be 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."
According to the federation, 75 percent of the population wants the CPE to be withdrawn. CGT leader Bernard Thibault said, "If this momentum continues, I think we will quickly get the withdrawal."
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.
The new law is seen as part of pro‑corporate "structural reforms" called for by international financial institutions. European Central Bank President Jean‑Claude Trichet said March 20 it was absolutely necessary for European governments to conduct such "reforms."
(With files from People's Weekly World and other sources.)