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Mass Protests Continue in France to Oppose Controversial Labor Law

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Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in France to oppose a controversial new law that makes its easier for employers to fire young workers. We go to Paris to speak with a student protester at the Sorbonne and a journalist who covers politics and social movements in France. [includes rush transcript]

Students and union groups across the country have taken to the streets to oppose a law that makes its easier for employers to fire young workers. Nationwide demonstrations continued for another day Thursday, drawing between 220,000 and 450,000 people. In the latest unrest, police clashed with protesters in a central Paris neighborhood. Police said they made 420 arrests. The clashes left burnt cars, smashed store windows and injuries on both sides of the barricades.

Meanwhile, a demonstrator remains in a coma after sustaining critical injuries at a demonstration last Saturday. Witnesses said the man–Cyril Ferez–was beaten viciously by police. A photo taken of the incident shows Ferez lying on the ground before he is swarmed by police. The police were also accused of refusing to call the paramedics as Ferez lay bleeding and unconscious.

The law in question is called is the First Job Contract law. It allows employers to fire workers under the age of 26 years old for any reason during a two-year trial period without having to offer an explanation or give prior warning. France’s parliament approved it two weeks ago without any debate. The law awaits final approval from France’s Constitutional Council before coming into effect.

Students have joined forces with teachers, workers, retirees, opposition politicians and labor union leaders to oppose the law. Recent polls show at least 68% of the French public are against it. In an apparent concession to the protesters, the government will open talks with union representatives today. But there is no indication the government will back down from its staunch defense of the worker law. The unions refuse to negotiate unless the law is withdrawn and say they will only use the talks to press demands. They called for a nationwide strike next week. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin addressed the issue in front of parliament on Wednesday.

  • Dominique de Villepin, speaking March 22, 2006.

Joining us are two people who have been in the midst of the unrest:

  • Jade Lindgaard, a journalist who covers politics and social movements in France for Les Inrockuptibles
  • Jennifer Hamm, a student of philosophy and sociology at The Sorbonne. She has taken part in several of the protests.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin addressed the issue in front of Parliament on Wednesday.

PRIME MINISTER DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: I want to say it again in front of the representatives of the nation, what drives us is the will to arrive to concrete, efficient and fair action for the young people and their future, to open up for them the doors of employment and success in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us are two people who have been in the midst of the protests. Jade Lindgaard joins us on the line from Paris. She is a journalist who covers politics and social movements in France. Also with us from Paris is Jennifer Hamm. She’s a student of philosophy and sociology at the Sorbonne, taking part in several of the protests. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Well, the protests at the Sorbonne led to the police raiding the university for the first time in a very long time. Jennifer Hamm, why did the students take over the university there?

JENNIFER HAMM: Hi. First of all, I think, as was very [inaudible], we wanted to talk, and we had a lot of debates for many, many hours. We wanted to open the university and make it a place more lively and eventually discuss about the C.P.O. and the good conditions. So the occupation started on the 8th of March and ended up on Saturday morning, when we got evicted at 4:00 a.m. Obviously, I think that everybody was really shocked to hear that news, because the eviction was quite violent. There was a lot of teargas used inside of the Sorbonne, and you could smell it down to Saint Michel, that’s a couple of blocks away. I think that the movement just keeps on increasing a lot since that event and during the riots that took place, because riots take place in front of the Sorbonne almost every day, but especially two weeks and a week — the last week, sorry. Many students and policemen are injured, and I think being evicted from the Sorbonne has not helped the situation to improve at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Jade Lindgaard, we would like to welcome you to Democracy Now!


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us, in terms of putting these protests in context, it’s been probably going back to 1968 since France has been rocked by this kind of massive protest, or have there been others in recent years?

JADE LINDGAARD: Yeah, well, you know, it’s interesting, because there are similarities with May '68: obviously, the youth movements; obviously, the students; obviously, the Sorbonne events. But what happens is that it's really different when you look at it closely. And one of the main differences is that in '68, the students wanted in their revolutionary dream to join in with the workers. And what happens today is that many of these students are now workers also. They have to work to pay for the studies. And this is a major change in the sociology of the students here. Their struggle now, this fight, is extremely political, and it's really interesting to see that it is — it goes far beyond the opposition to this contract, even though this contract triggered the movement and demonstrations, but it’s going far beyond that, and it’s massively a demand for more social justice, against inequities and against the attitude of the government, which has been so far extremely reluctant to discussion and social dialogue.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is the prime minister pushing this so hard?

JADE LINDGAARD: Well, you know, in 1995, we had another rightwing prime minister, and he was extremely contested on the streets about his reform about social security, and for weeks and weeks you’ve had demonstrations, unions joining in together, which is not so common in France, and he tried to hold up onto his positions as long as possible, and eventually he lost. Apparently, Dominique de Villepin is trying to do better than this prime minister in '95, but apparently he's going to have to retrieve his contract. You know, here, nobody sees what other way out other than retrieving the contract, and right now the unions are meeting with him at the hotel Matignon, at his office, and what everybody expects now is to see how they’re going to reform and change deeply this contract.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Jennifer Hamm, I’d like to ask you, it was only a few months ago that France was rocked by protests by Islamic and Arab youths around the country. Is there any indication that some of those protests also have had an impact on the students in their willingness to take to the streets in the last month?

JENNIFER HAMM: I don’t know if it really had an impact, but the riots in the suburbs just turned off, in a way, because of winter. And there’s still anger, you can sense, in the suburbs now, and now that it’s springtime, people are starting to wake up again, in a sense. I think that makes sense. But in the same time, something Villepin said a week ago, he said that the C.P.E. doesn’t concern the university students, but I had a lot of interesting talks and debates with friends in university, and I think this — what Villepin said, saying, 'Okay, this doesn't concern you,’ just makes it — it makes us even angrier to see that the youth is being divided into different categories. It’s like there’s an effort to build a sort of under-proletarian class. For example, people who live in suburbs, there’s about 40% of unemployment over there, and I don’t think that it’s a good reason to say that — not a good reason, but it’s a good thing to say that it doesn’t concern us. It does concern us.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Hamm, on that point, we have to leave it there. But we will continue to follow what is happening in Paris and all over France. Jennifer Hamm, a student at the Sorbonne; Jade Lindgaard, journalist, covering politics and social movements in France.

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