"Rêve général" read the stickers on marchers' bags. It means "general dream," a play on the phrase Grève générale (national strike). It's a great slogan. Still, I'm not sure that what the social movement started on February 7th is defending can be called a "rêve général."
It would have been a good slogan in May 1968. But while my generation may dream of a May 1968 of our own, having heard so much about the original, what we are fighting for is something totally different. Despite the symbolic occupation of the Sorbonne by 200 students two weeks ago, March, 2006 is a new kind of struggle.
The CPE, the name for the new job contract, enables employers to lay off workers under 26 years old without cause during the first two years of employment. Its aim is to entice French companies, particularly small ones, to create new jobs. Students were the first to mobilize against this law, which would only increase the collective sense of "precarité," best translated as precariousness. "Précarité" is the word we constantly hear in France now, an appropriate name for the economic fears of a generation facing a 23 per cent unemployment rate. "Précarité" is embodied by successive low paid or unpaid internships and short-term contracts for students already graduated which makes for job insecurity.
A journalist wrote in the Washington Post that the protests were about "the nostalgic fantasy of a France that once was, but can never be again." He may be right, but we grew up taking this "fantasy" for granted, so in that sense, the fear is legitimate. The democratization of education made young people believe that they would have good jobs. Instead, they are offered low-level jobs, which do not require the education they worked for and received. Facing this hard reality, a feeling of unfairness and injustice has arisen among the younger generation. Our parents never had to worry about joblessness, they never had to hide the "blanks" in their resumés, whereas for us, this is or will be the case.
The crisis over the CPE is best described as a refusal by the protesters to accept legalization of changes in the job market, turning changes we are already suffering through into an enforceable, lasting situation. The encouraging thing about the protests is that we still believe it can be different, that there are other alternatives than just what is happening. And one can be proud of seeing so many people in the streets to defend their rights. On April 4th, between 1 million and 3 million people filled the streets. In a sunny and happy atmosphere, they hailed slogans like "Villepin, your probationary period is over!," "Soon, all slaves?," "You won't take away our dreams" and "The street votes, the street thinks... the streets protests!"
Unfortunately, the only imaginable alternative to date is the old way. The youth wants to look forward to the future as the past generations did, enjoying the same benefits and security, but the economic situation is completely different, and no one can say how to maintain the old status quo.
Not only students, but also the workers and retired grandparents who joined them in the streets out of solidarity, fear reforms. No one has an exact idea of what they would like to be implemented so let's just keep it as it is.
It sounds more like a delusion than a dream,doesn't it? Dreaming would mean an end to the rampant fear of globalization (a survey showed that France is one of the most hostile countries toward globalization.) Dreaming would mean taking the risk to experiment with new routes. None of this means passively accepting the CPE but instead taking a look at how other European countries are handling economic change, and using parts of their examples to fight against an unacceptable unemployment rate.
Dreaming would also take efficient measures to fight against the gap between two youths: the haves and the have-nots, the students and the bands from the "banlieues" (the disadvantaged city suburbs.) This gap was extremely visible during the marches against the CPE. In the cortèges, students. On the sides, bands of hooded "casseurs" (smashers), who came to Paris to steal cell phones or digital cameras and to fight with the police. In other words, to make trouble.
A French sociologist drew a parallel between the riots which happened last November and the current social movement against the CPE. According to him, the latter is the transposition of the same vindication in the middle class. Both are an expression of a malaise. But I am not sure the two situations can be compared. Young people from the "banlieues" rioted in November to show the country that they suffer from being rejected by a society not willing to integrate them. They were not proposing anything, they just tried to be noticed, to be finally taken into account.
Students who are marching now are only excluded from the economic sphere. Even if they only find internships, short-term contracts, or jobs which do not meet their expectations, they can still find a job. The youths from the "banlieues" situation is worse. They face the same bleak job market but without any degree in most cases. Moreover they are victims of racism. If their names sound arabic, if their resumés mention they come from cities like Trappes, or Clichy-sous-Bois, it is really hard for them to be hired. In some of these cities, unemployment for people under 25 reaches 40 per cent.
The protest are now over. On April 10, President Jacques Chirac announced the abolition of the CPE. "The necessary confidence and calm are not there," Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin declared on television. Universities are re-opening slowly. Was it a waste of time? That is what many people are now asking. But Autumn 2005 and now Spring 2006 has proven that there is a deep malaise in France.One symptom of this malaise is that the Eiffel Tower was closed for two days because of the strike. To the tourists who were in France and missed the view from the Tower we apologize for the inconvenience.
Virginie de Rocquigny
Photographs by Kevin Saborit. You can see more of his work on