By Bruce Crumley – TIME / Paris
Even as Greece awakened Monday to relative calm following eight days of rioting by outraged youths, French officials were moving to placate protesting students amid rising fears that violence could break out across France. Given the defiant nature of French student protests over the years â€” including weeks of violent demonstrations over a new youth labor contract in 2006 â€” concern is growing in France that the dismal economic outlook could push the current anti-reform protests into the kind of wild insurrection that has rocked Greece.
“What we saw in Greece is not beyond what could happen here in France,” warned former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius last Friday of the increasingly raucous student protests that closed about 100 French high schools last week. “When you have the economic depression and social despair we’re facing, all it takes is a spark.”
Although incidents of vandalism and clashes with police by protesting students have been limited so far â€” including ugly scuffling after youths showing support for demonstrators in Greece broke out on the Champs ElysÃ©es Friday night â€” Interior Minister MichÃ¨l Alliot-Marie has said authorities are “following the movement with attention.” Alliot-Marie noted “the climate is tense, (and) certain medium-sized cities have suffered damage” to structures during demonstrations.
On Monday, the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to cool temperatures by delaying the release of a hotly contested education reform plan just 24 hours before it was due. French Education Minister Xavier Darcos said he would negotiate the package “without taboos” with students, a striking reversal for a minister known for his intransigence.
Protestors vowed to carry on with nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday and Thursday. “We want reform to correct the problems in public education, but we won’t accept this one in any form,” warned student leader Alix Nicolet, who says students particularly hate Darcos’ proposal to reorganize the final years of high school. They are also angry that cost-cutting this year eliminated 11,200 public education jobs and that another 13,500 may go in 2009. “How can the government claim it has no money to continue funding public education when it can come up with billions and billions to support banks and finance groups?”
The unrest in 2006 centered on a new youth labor contract that detractors claimed handed an unfair advantage to employers. The government ultimately capitulated on the scheme, one of more than two dozen such victories French students have claimed since 2000. But while the majority of those victories came after peaceful demonstrations, France has a history of protest turning violentâ€”student and otherwise. Some observers say the situation today is particularly volatile and unpredictable. “As in Greece and many European countries, the unions, opposition parties, and associations that usually take youth movements under their wing and organize protests in France are too weak and divided to play that role â€” meaning all the anger and resentment driving protests can surge out of control,” warns French political analyst Dominique ReyniÃ©.
ReyniÃ© says there’s another feature shared by virtually all European nations that also played a role in the Greek riots, and could inspire similar action elsewhere: The resentment of a relatively small generation being asked to finance the pensions of a huge wave of Baby-Boomers headed into retirement at the very time good jobs for well-educated young people are drying up. “This is a generation feeling it’s being sacrificed for ones that came before it, and are looking at their economic and employment future with despair,” ReyniÃ© says. “The situation is worse in southern Europe than northern Europe, but everywhere young people are looking around them and saying, ‘This is a swindle’.”
That feeling could spread. Unlike the 2005 nationwide riots in France’s blighted suburban housing projects, which horrified the nation, protesting French students are typically supported by their elders, who see them as idealists fighting for a better life. The specter of the current student movement turning violent in frustration â€” and being joined by other people frightened about their own future as recession closes in â€” is what ReyniÃ© and many other experts think was behind the government’s decision to momentarily pull its education reform back.
“It is said that the ElysÃ©e is intensely observing the slightest sign of revolt,” wrote Laurent Joffrin in Friday’s edition of LibÃ©ration â€” whose cover featured French students waving their fists in protest over the headline “After Greece: Can France Ignite?” “It’s a wise precaution: divided, anguished, disillusioned, France has a Greek profile.”