French student rallies a far cry from '68 protest

By Kerstin Gehmlich

PARIS - The sight of thousands of students marching in Paris recalls the May 1968 revolt, but the image is deceptive. Their worried calls for jobs have nothing in common with the exuberant cries of four decades ago.

Banging drums and waving banners reading "Hands off our labour law," tens of thousands marched through Paris yesterday urging the government to withdraw a youth labour contract in favour of more advantageous older laws.

The protests defending the generous worker protection system -- a stand also popular among the trade unionists who joined the students -- could not have been more different from the radical calls to change bourgeois society in 1968.

Back then, students chanted "Be realistic, ask for the impossible!" and "Workers of the world, have fun!" Today's protesters can hardly believe their parents marched along shouting: "The boss needs you. You don't need him."

Francois Harve, a 52-year-old teacher who marched as a student in 1968 and was back on the street yesterday, said today's protesters might seem conservative compared to then.

"But I have no problem with being considered a 'social reactionary'. I just want to maintain the social progress we have achieved," Harve said, standing near a banner reading "Life-long job insecurity? No thanks!"

"The reasons to march now are very different. Back in 1968, it was an anti-authoritarian protest. We were against the war in Vietnam and wanted to change society. Today, the movement is emerging out of a situation of unemployment and insecurity."

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin hopes his CPE "first job contract" will help cut unemployment in a country where almost one in four young people has no job and where youths facing a bleak future rioted in Paris's poor suburbs last year.

But the protesters say the CPE, which lets firms fire workers under 26 without explanation in their first two years on the job, will only make the situation worse for young people.

Marie-Paule Chavanat, 55, said the protesters' social situation today seemed much worse than four decades ago.

In May 1968, student strikes in Paris escalated into a crisis that threatened President Charles de Gaulle's government as workers staged a general strike and students fought running battles with police in Paris's historic Latin Quarter.

"Back then, there was no unemployment. It was a situation of abundance. The protests were about liberties and sexual freedom. Today, the protests emerge out of a situation of social precariousness," Chavanat said, noting she did not rally in '68.

"I didn't really feel concerned then. I thought the protests were for people who had all. But today, there is a real problem."

Student Mathilde Appa, 17, said: "The CPE will not help cut unemployment. It only helps employers get rid of people."

Law student Chloe Deldicque, 21, said France's welfare system and worker protection laws were much more generous than in countries such as Britain or the United States.

"I realise we have a lot of protection," she said. "But why should the fact that we have these accomplishments prevent me from defending them? Why should I accept that we are moving to the same low standards existing elsewhere?"

"People always accuse us French of not being able to reform," her friend Regis Azoulay said. "I agree reforms are essential. But Villepin should discuss them with the unions and people concerned before pushing them through."

- REUTERS

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