French youth and unions' general strike defeat new employment law, 2006

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Timing
Time Period:  
7 February
2006
to
10 April
2006
Location and Goals
Country: 
France
Location Description: 
Protests occured in over 200 towns and cities across France.
Goals: 
The repeal of the First Employment Contract (CPE) law.
 

January of 2006 in France was tense time. Economic growth in 2005 had been unexpectedly poor and national unemployment was at nearly 10%, totaling more than 2.5 million people. Youth unemployment was particularly problematic, with the under-26 population suffering a joblessness rate of 22-23% nationwide and 40% or 50% in France’s poorest communities. In fact, youth angst and dissatisfaction, significantly influenced by the high unemployment rate, was so high by the end of 2005 that urban riots forced France to declare a two month state of emergency.

Business leaders claimed that they were reluctant to hire young workers because France’s strong employee protections made firings difficult if they were deemed unsuitable for a position or no longer needed. As a result, on 16 January 2006, in an effort to alleviate this reluctance, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin introduced a law creating the First Employment Contract (CPE). This new work contract, specifically for citizens under 26 years old, provided employers with a two-year trial period during which workers could be terminated without cause or explanation, as opposed to the existing trial period for other employees, which typically ranged from one to three months. In addition, the new law would give employers a three-year exemption from social security charges for young people who were employed for more than six months. The government argued that the measure would boost opportunities for young workers, as businesses would be less hesitant to hire them.

Students and trade unionists were unconvinced by the arguments, instead believing that the legislation would make it even more difficult for youths to find permanent employment and that it could be abused by larger employers. To demonstrate their displeasure with the proposed law, opponents organized protests in over 150 cities and towns across France for the day the bill was scheduled for debate in the National Assembly- 7 February. According to the trade unions, approximately 400,000 people came out to oppose the new contract, but Prime Minister de Villepin announced that he would use emergency powers to force the law through if the opposition sought to block it. After 43 hours of debate, with the Socialists stalling, the prime minister used his special constitutional powers to force the bill through the lower house without a vote. The legislation was then sent to the senate, where it was passed on 6 March.

The French youth were quick to mobilize in opposition. By the end of February, students at thirteen universities were on strike in order to help coordinate protests against the law. The day after the senate approved the bill, students and unions were able to organize between 400,000 and one million protesters in 160 locations around the country, including Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Renne, and Grenoble, to demand that the law be rescinded. Transportation in 35 cities was disrupted, between seven and fifteen percent of education workers went on strike for the day, and almost two thirds of the French population supported the protests, but the Prime Minister reiterated the necessity of the law.

The next day, Wednesday, 8 March, students began a series of occupations that would spread to almost half of France’s universities within just three days. That Saturday, French riot police were sent into the Sorbonne in Paris to drive out over 200 occupiers at that university. The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Belanoe, condemned the use of tear gas and batons against the protest, which had been largely peaceful, but the French Education Minister, Gilles de Robien, defended the use of force, accusing the students of such “odious acts” as defacing books and equipment. The day following the raid, the Prime Minister went on national television to again insist that the law would go into effect and that the CPE was necessary to ease youth unemployment, though he also promised to consult labor unions.

But the students would not be dissuaded, and called for continued protests. On Thursday, 16 March, between 250,000 and 500,000 protestors again took to the streets of France, including as many as 120,000 in Paris alone, demanding that the law be revoked. Though mostly peaceful, violence did erupt in certain areas, with police clashes resulting in at least 50 police injuries and 300 arrests. The following day, French President Jacques Chirac urged for dialogue and called for further protests to be peaceful, and Prime Minister de Villpein announced he would meet with university presidents to discuss solutions, though he still refused to repeal the law. Undeterred by de Villpein’s intractability, between 500,000 and 1.5 million students, workers, pensioners, and families rallied across the country that Saturday to voice their dissatisfaction with the law. As with the Thursday protests, the day of largely peaceful protests was followed by a night of violence, as police clashes led to at least twenty-four injuries and 160 arrests.

The following Thursday saw a near repeat of the previous one, with between 220,000 and 450,000, mostly peaceful, protesters demonstrating against the law, while several dozen violent rioters led to the injury of 60 people, including 27 police, and 420 arrests. The next day, the prime minster, supported by the president, refused an ultimatum by union leaders to repeal the law or suffer a general strike. On Tuesday, 28 March, the unions followed through with their nationwide general strike, seriously disrupting the country’s transportation, utilities, hospitals, print press, schools and universities, post offices, banks, and government offices. With just four percent of those polled wanting the first contract law kept unchanged, between one million and three million demonstrators joined the strikers that day in what was possibly the biggest protest turnout in French history.

On 31 March, President Chirac delivered a nationally televised address in which he announced that he would be signing the bill, but proposed that the probationary period be reduced to one year and that employers be required to provide a reason for firing workers. On 2 April, the bill officially went into effect, but because amendments were expected, the government asked employers not to apply it yet. But the proposed amendments would not placate the law’s opponents, and two days later between one million and 3.1 million protesters took part in more than 200 rallies around France to again demand its full repeal.

During his monthly press conference on 6 April, Prime Minister de Villepin insisted that it was time for the country to move past the crisis, but labor unions maintained that unless the CPE was revoked by Easter weekend they would stage another nationwide general strike. In the face of this unwavering opposition, the president, prime minister, and other senior ministers held a meeting on Monday, 10 April, and decided to rescind the First Employment Contract. In a live television address, Prime Minister de Villepin, whose popularity had eroded over the crisis, lamented that he had not adequately articulated the reasoning for the law and reaffirmed his determination to combat youth unemployment.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The scale and demographic composition of the protests quickly draw comparisons to the iconic May 1968 protests in France (see "French students and workers campaign for reform (May Revolt), 1968"); however, most sources agreed that comparisons were, for the most part, inappropriate because the 1968 protests were focused on rejecting the traditional society and driven by hope of a more liberal morality, whereas the 2006 protests were very much a defense of existing societal expectations and driven by fear and insecurity.

Sources: 
“Chirac urges dialogue after riots.” BBC News. BBC, 17 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4817056.stm>.

Fouquet, Helene. “French Strike Against Labor Law May Turn Disruptive.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 3 Apr. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aRrAhzEMHJZY&refer=europe>.

Fouquet, Helene and Gabriele Parussini. “French Protest Against Labor Law Marred by Violence.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 28 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a9d9CurMcABY&refer=europe>.

“France defends raid on Sorbonne.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4798034.stm>.

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“Paris job law rally turns violent.” BBC News. BBC, 23 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4838880.stm>.

Parussini, Gabriele. “French Students Join Unions to Oppose New Jobs Plan.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 7 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aRUYd_z6Evao&refer=europe>.

“Police battle Sorbonne protesters.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4795648.stm>.

“Riots erupt after French protests.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4821670.stm>.

“Troubled France still ill at ease.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Jan. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4581332.stm>.

Vandore, Emma. “French Socialists Call No Confidence Vote on Job Plan” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P., 10 Feb. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a5A3TkMhivHc&refer=europe>.

“Violence flares at French rallies.” BBC News. BBC, 16 Mar. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4812132.stm>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Thomas Fortuna, 07/12/2011