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Power Is Young in France

Youth, unions sense opportunity in labour law reversal.

By Dawn Paley 14 Apr 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Dawn Paley is a long time contributing editor with The Dominion, and a co-founder of the Vancouver Media Co-op. She has a Masters in Journalism from UBC and a degree in Women's Studies from SFU. At the moment, Dawn is working on a project examining the extractive industries in the context of the war in Mexico and beyond.

Reporting Beat: Latin America and, in particular, the extractive industries.

The most important issue in BC today?: The fact that most of the land in this province was never ceded by Indigenous people. Website: dawnpaley.ca

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After more than two months of regular demonstrations brought over 3 million people out on the streets in France against the CPE (First Employment Contract), the government finally acted on Monday April 10 to withdraw the legislation. Student groups and trade unions have proclaimed this an "authentic success," while high ranking members of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) government, namely Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, have lost credibility and support across the country.

The CPE was, in fact, Section 8 of the Law for Equal Opportunity, which was adopted in parliament in early February of 2006. Although the bulk of this law remains intact, including lowering the minimum working age to 14, the replacement of the much-contested Section 8 was introduced and debated in parliament on Tuesday night, adopted Wednesday and presented to the senate yesterday. The warp speed replacement of the CPE will see the government, among other things, subsidizing businesses that hire young workers on a standard CDI (fixed duration contract) to the tune of up to $550 (Cdn) per month.

Back to reality

On the heels of this victory, youth and workers are still left with employment legislation that encourages precarious labour. After the initial celebratory introduction, the statement issued by the four main student unions and eight trade unions after the withdrawal of the CPE went on to recognize the need to continue to focus energy on reducing precariousness, and in particular, on the repeal of the CNE (New Employment Contract).

The contentious issue with the CPE was that employers that hired youth under 26 were granted a two-year probationary period during which time they would have been allowed to fire or release the young employees without cause. The CNE stipulates exactly the same probation period, except that it applies to workers of all ages who are hired by businesses with less than 20 employees (which make up 96 percent of all French businesses).

The CNE became law in August 2005, and was met with weak resistance from trade unions. The International Monetary Fund released a paper in October of 2005 noting the CNE "takes an important step toward reforming the employment protection legislation in France." Since August 2005, an estimated 400,000 workers have signed a CNE contract.

Organising workers across a broad range of sectors against the CNE is the next challenge for French trade unions. Those unions are hoping the student and youth movement will maintain its solidarity in demonstrating against the relaxation of labour laws.

Clampdown message

The revolts by youth from France's banlieues (low-income neighbourhoods on the margins of cities) in October and November of 2005, and the resulting imposition of a three-month long state of emergency, is important in trying to understand what lies ahead for youth on the heels of the anti-CPE victory. The mainstream media in France and internationally often tagged those responsible for violence following peaceful anti-CPE marches as being youth from the banlieues.

Joëlle Bardot, a Parisian social worker, explained in an interview with The Tyee that while the possibility of a split among youth exists "this division is absolutely necessary in order for [Interior Minister Nicholas] Sarkozy to carry out his security policies." Sarkozy is the populist leader of the right wing UMP party, who came under fire for his inciting and racist language during the 2005 revolts.

During the youth revolts of 2005, over 2,500 people were arrested, 600 of whom were under the age of 16, and as of March 24, 1,420 people had been arrested during and following anti-CPE demonstrations. These strong clampdowns illustrate the importance of police forces in the state's communication strategy. There are plans in the works to build 11 new juvenile prisons in France, creating 500 new and permanent places for young offenders.

Sarkozy is currently preparing to introduce his Bill on the Prevention of Delinquency, which critics say will serve to further criminalize youth. Youth leaders face the challenge of continuing to organize in the coming months in order to attempt to bridge the potential or perceived gaps between them and to stand together against Sarkozy's new bill.

With presidential elections coming up in 2007, and Sarkozy standing out in the French mainstream media as the strongest candidate, youth have an opportunity to articulate a new vision for France, and to continue to participate in and influence the political life of the country. The strength of youth leaders and students working together with unions has been demonstrated by the success of the actions that have rocked the French establishment over the last two months.

What remains to be seen is if youth leaders, students and unions will build on that success by continuing to organise together around labour and delinquency laws. If they do, their coalition could prove a decisive factor in shaping the future of France, and in preparing the terrain for a change in government next year.

Dawn Paley is a Canadian journalist based in Berlin.  [Tyee]

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