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Strike Back

The French love political dramas, but lately the plots have all looked suspiciously similar. The basic trajectory goes something like this: France is contentedly savoring its role as the birthplace of continental democracy and high culture. The country even modernizes, just a little, to keep pace with the new global economy and to compete with its ambitious EU partners. Unemployment and a burgeoning Muslim population complicate things, but the reliable social welfare system is there to reassure. But then, the inciting incident: A renegade politician or party attempts to reform France. The old way is not enough; "anglosaxonisme"--Gallic shorthand for an American-style free market--is declared the order of the day. But the people won't have it. For once, young and old, left and right, native-born Parisian and Algerian immigrant all agree--France may be troubled, but who really wants to change her? As popular outrage grows, the specter of reform slinks away. In the past year, this frightening menace has been played by, among others, the EU constitution, English-speaking tycoons, and, most recently, the proposed CPE law, which would loosen up national labor policies just enough to allow employers to circumvent a byzantine French legal process when dismissing young workers in their first two years on the job.

And so, la greve. Tuesday's massive anti-CPE protests and strikes halted trains, stopped newspaper distribution, and shuttered schools and hospitals. The day was dubbed Mardi Noir--Black Tuesday--by reporters and union bosses, a name that captured the economic devastation, but points to an unhappy milestone in economic history. The market's black days of the past--in 1929, in 1987--resulted from fiscal recklessness on the part of elites. The villains were robber barons, speculators, and junk bond kings. Mardi Noir was perpetrated by students and workers.

The bond between unions and universities is not, of course, unusual. But its intensity in France is. Interest in organized labor has waned among American college students since its peak in the 1960s. But in France, the student-worker relationship remains passionate. This partly has to do with the existence of large student unions in the country. Young people learn early to organize; collective bargaining is practically part of a national catechism. And historically, in France as well as in other countries, the student-union connection has helped liberalize societies. Alliances between students and workers married the progressive spirit of the young with the economic grievances of the un-powerful. The typically privileged university student learned to care for the fate of the uneducated and less fortunate, and the typically conservative worker stood up for tolerance and individual liberties.

That combination, though, can hardly be said to exist in the anti-CPE coalition. Students and workers alike are wary of France's minority population, and neither group has put forward an alternate plan to boost employment and secure a place for France in the international economy. (Indeed, a now infamous Ipsos poll of 20 to 25 year olds in France from last fall found that 48 percent associated globalization with fear.) And the political power of the student-union alliance is, as the French historian Jacques Marseille recently explained to Le Monde, one of the paradoxes of the Fifth Republic. Young people and workers are less likely to vote than most French citizens and, when they do vote, they are more likely to cast a ballot for a candidate on the extreme right or left. As a voting bloc, then, they hardly wield any power at all (hence the center-right government that has steered France for the past dozen years). "They're what I call 'the useless French,'" Marseille noted. "They don't participate in the political life of their country, except in the form of protest." And yet protesting is such an institutionalized variety of political participation in France that it can effectively cripple even the most mildly controversial government policy.

Mardi Noir staged what is becoming an increasingly common political conflict in France: a battle between reformers, who are, largely and oddly, well-heeled middle-aged men, and defenders of the status quo, who are students and union hard-liners. (One bemused French university official told The New York Times that "[t]his is a rebellion--by the petite bourgeoisie.") Protest, which has served French society well in the past, has become almost threateningly conventional: It's the tactics of the revolution serving the aims of the clergy. So more than a people in uproar, Mardi Noir reveals a French progressive movement on the brink of collapse. Without new ideas or social policy, it has become intellectually arid and xenophobic--nearly indistinguishable, that is, from the country's seething far right wing.

The historic anti-CPE demonstrations have so far prompted a historic response from the government: nothing. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin invited union chiefs and students to discuss the CPE over the weekend; when few showed, he made it clear that there would be no more overtures for some time. President Jacques Chirac has kept a low profile. And while interior minister and would-be presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has complained of Villepin's management, he too has mostly avoided the spotlight. The message is calculated and clear: no to withdrawing the CPE, but also no to letting protesters govern. "[T]he street," as Marseille put it, may have "taken the place of Parliament in France," but now Parliament would like its place back. In a surprising twist on a familiar political drama, reform may yet win.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.