18 March 2006

The Mother of All Protest Marches

In blatant disregard of this morning's e-mail from the US Department of State, Amy and I walked up the street to check out today's manifestation against the CPE (the controversial new labor law, more details at the bottom for those who haven't followed the story). This is my response. Amy will post hers later today, rife with some of the 118 pictures that she took.

The march began at Place Denfert-Rochereau (at the top of our street) and ends this evening at Place de la Nation (some 5 kilometers north and east of us). In addition to nearly all the universities in Paris, several of the most prestigious lycées (high schools) and a couple collèges (junior highs), twelve major unions and a ton of small unions participated. After walking through the staging area and marvelling at the food vendors and the masses of people, we walked up the Boulevard Arago to the official starting point of the march.

As we passed the prison, all the inmates with windows overlooking the street were shouting out to the crowds. One even shouted some compliments to Didg and thanked him for supporting the protests!

Once the march began, it was simply overwhelming. Realize that I have been in huge crowds before. For New Year's 2000, I was in the mass of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the Sydney Harbor Bridge. That crowd didn't even begin to compare to the size of this march.

We had front-row seats on the curb for 75 minutes, leaving early because Amy was getting cold and Didg was irritated by how many people were stepping on his tail. While I can offer no promise of expertise, here's my estimate of how many people we saw. An average of 30 people passing directly in front of us at any given moment, about 30 rows per minute, for 75 minutes. For the mathematically challenged, that's roughly 67,500 people. That doesn't count the hoards marching on the sidewalks (many of the unions were marching up the sidewalk behind us while the students were going in front of us on the street), nor does it include the tens of thousands of people still in the staging area.

The sheer size of this crowd--from high-school groups through to the most experienced veterans in the unions--was simply mind numbing. Of course, the other shoe is yet to drop. If the law isn't repealed by Tuesday, the unions have promised a general strike nationwide to support the 64 universities already on strike. (BTW, France only has 84 universities.) We'll see what happens...

Colin's summary of the controversy for those who haven't been following it:

Prime Minister de Villepin passed a law last Monday called the "Contrat Premier Embauche" (First Job Contract). If the law stands, it will go into effect at the beginning of April. The basic idea is that employers of large companies (those with more than 20 employees) will be able to offer a new type of job contract to people who are 25 or younger. The key feature of this contract is that, during the first two years, the employer can fire the employee at any time and for any reason.

A few quick facts. In this age bracket, the nationwide unemployment rate is about 20%. In some areas (for example, the depressed banlieus that saw rioting last November), that number climbs to more than 40%. French workers currently enjoy some of the most generous labor laws in the world.

According to the supporters and de Villepin, this measure will encourage employers to take chances on hiring young, inexperienced employees. As it stands right now, it's almost impossible to fire an employee if they are merely incompetent at/inappropriate for the job or lazy. They believe that this law will only adversely affect bad employees. Their hope is that the law will reduce youth unemployment and (tacitly, I think) improve the work ethic and habits of a generation that seems to be oft-perceived as lazy and underachieving.

According to the critics (the unions, the students, the Communists, the Socialists, and other leftist parties), this law (and a similar one that is already in effect for small companies) are a significant threat to job security and represent a form of age discrimination. Many also feel that this will provide a vehicle to increase racial/ethnic/gender/sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace. Most importantly for them, it is in direct opposition to one of the three cardinal virtues represented by France--Egalité (equality).


At 18/3/06 19:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The American press is reporting that a total of 400,000 people took part in the protests in Paris. It is also noting that these protests don't have the same "fire" as those in 1968. It's fascinating that you all are able to able to be such a part of history during your time in France, both with the riots and now the protests (particularly the more important angry PE Teachers protest).


At 18/3/06 21:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is another example of people shooting themselves in the foot in the name of "protection." Of course employers are not going to be much more circumspect in hiring newly graduated young people if the employer doesn't have the opportunity to try them out. Good workers are in demand. The French system without this new proposed law would continue to discourage business from growing with new employees, and continue to support innefective workers.


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