French protest job bill

After a weekend of protests in which 1.5 million people took to the streets, French labor unions are preparing for a general strike in response to what they call a dangerous and disturbing new law.

The law 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 labor groups say it will aggravate the problem and allow employers to treat young workers like trash.

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 labor 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 next month.

Unions have called for a national day of strike actions on March 28 to protest the plan. Bolstered by this support, student groups called for 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 François 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, a leader of the national student group UNEF, said the government “imposed the jobs plan without consulting anyone.” He said 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 UNEF, in turn, has refused to join talks until the contract is withdrawn.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 was 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.”

In a January statement, the Communist Party of France stated its opposition to the CPE. Instead, the party proposed “a large progressive reformation of the labor code, aiming for job security … and income for all.” The statement also called for businesses to be socially responsible.

In addition to the planned labor 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.”