Karen (aswanargent) wrote,

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An article from last weekend's Financial Times

Jenni, this is one of the articles I mentioned.

(This article was written by Martin Arnold in Paris, and appeared in the March 18 / March 19 2006 edition of the Financial Times.)

The wave of demonstrations and riots sweeping France is the antithesis of the protests of May 1968, according to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the upheavals of four decades ago.

Whereas the student movement of 1968 reflected a "positive vision", the demonstrations over the French government's attempt to reform labour contracts for young people reflect a deep malaise in French society.

Mr. Cohn-Bendit, now a prominent Green who led protesters to the barricades in May 1968, told the Financial Times the movement he incarnated was "offensive" in a fight for "more liberty".  In contrast, today's protests are "defensive" and negative", even though they are expected to attract more than 1m people.

The former firebrand, once known as Danny the Red, is now co-chairman of the Green group in the European parliament.

The protests of 1968 were a reaction against the repressive moral standards of an older generation and eventually led to the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle.

"You have a society that is sick of the establishment," Mr. Cohn-Bendit said in an interview, arguing that the backlash against the prime minister Dominique de Villepin was "a serious political crisis".

He added:  "The young people have a negative vision of the future.  May 1968 was an offensive movement, with a positive vision of the future, but today's protests are all against things.  They are defensive, based on fear of insecurity and change."

Mr. Cohn-Bendit said the first signs of France's disaffection with the political system and fear of the challenges of globalisation could be seen in 2002, when the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the world by reaching the second round of the presidential elections.

Last year's riots by disaffected immigrant youth in poor suburbs was another sign of the malaise, he said, claiming the French No vote in the referendum on Europe's constitutional treaty was motivated by a "rejection of neo-liberalism" more than by a debate about the European Union.

In another sign of France's mood of defensiveness, parliament yesterday adopted "poison pill" legislation to defend its companies against takeover amid growing fears of foreign hostile bids.

Yesterday, President Jacques Chirac repeated his government's appeal for dialogue to start "as quickly as possible" with trades unions over the government's unpopular proposal to allow employers to dismiss staff under the age of 26 more easily during a two-year trial period.

However, sensing the government is on the back foot, French union and student leaders have resisted its attempts to draw them into negotiations over unpopular labour reforms before today's demonstrations.

Mr. de Villepin has staked his political reputation on pushing through the contract, which is designed to loosen France's rigid labour market.  However, more than two-thirds of people have said they want the proposal scrapped in recent opinion polls.

As opposition to the contract has increased, Mr. de Villepin's popularity has plummeted to record lows, hurting his chances of running for president next year, even though he has not officially declared his candidature.

This has led to comparisons with the last big joint protests by students and workers in 1994, when the then prime minister Edouard Balladur was forced to abandon his labour reforms, designed to cut France's high unemployment rate among young people.

Mr. Balladur's popularity never recovered from his policy U-turn and he went on to lose the 1995 presidential elections, for which he had long been the favourite, to his rival Mr. Chirac.


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