(19 December 2008) — On December 15, French Education Minister Xavier Darcos announced the temporary withdrawal of a highly contested high school reform, in the face of student protests and after consultation with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The decision to temporarily postpone implementation of the law, which would cut teaching staff and rearrange high school curricula, is an embarrassing about-face for the government. A week ago, Darcos promised he would maintain the reform movement, explaining that student protests “are almost a habit… I am not the minister of National Hesitation, I have a duty to future generations. We must reform a country that badly needs it.”
Since then, however, there was the eruption of massive and violent anti-government protests in
Darcos explained on
Students oppose the reform because they worry about cuts to education budgets and hours of instruction, attempts to make public schools compete with private schools, and the likelihood the reform will undermine their diploma’s credibility with employers. They are also angry about job cuts in education: the government has decided to eliminate some 13,500 teaching jobs next year, after eliminating 11,200 this year.
Since the Darcos reform was presented in October, students have staged numerous demonstrations against it. Over the last week, a number of demonstrations and school occupations took place in cities such as
The basic economic conditions that provoked the Greek riots exist in all of Europe, and in particular in
After a young man lost his life in a police chase in the suburbs of Paris in 2005, unemployed and working class youth rioted for several days in protests that started in the Paris suburbs and spread to over 300 French towns. The government responded by declaring a three-month period of emergency rule and using large-scale deployments of riot police. Riots also broke out in
These social tensions are now intensified by the spread of the world economic crisis, with massive bailouts and industrial shutdowns throughout
In its December 11 editorial, the daily Libération wrote, “The aggravation of the economic situation lays bare longstanding difficulties: the low-budget precariousness in which a large part of the population, especially the generation of 20- to 30-year olds, lives… The Elysée [presidential palace] is observing with intensity the slightest indicator of revolt. It is a wise precaution: divided, stressed, and disillusioned, France has a Greek profile.”
Ex-Socialist Party Prime Minister Laurent Fabius noted, “What we are seeing in Greece is not outside the realm of the possible in France. When you have such an economic depression, such a feeling of social hopelessness, all that is missing is a match.”
The discrediting of the unions, amid repeated defeats of strikes and demonstrations against Sarkozy’s social cuts over the last two years, also creates a harsher popular mood. The state has no confidence that the student unions and trade unions would be able to control student protests.
In an article titled, “We are sitting on a powder keg,” Libération asked University of Paris sociologist Isabelle Sommier whether “the unions and political parties can channel this despair.” She responded: “They are in a morass and without credibility, as they offer no alternative, that is to say no perspective other than the preservation of what currently exists. Of course, they can mobilize themselves, but already for several years this has led nowhere. From there stems the inclination, in some youth, to direct action.”
High-ranking French officials have been carefully monitoring protests both in Greece and France.
An aide of Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie told Le Monde, “We are following with close attention the movements that are developing around the high schools. The climate is nervous, and certain medium-sized cities have suffered damages.”
French officials also received daily updates from the Greek government during the riots. Le Monde wrote, “[French Immigration Minister] Brice Hortefeux contacted Greece’s interior minister, whom he knows well, to take the measure of the situation. He fears an ‘overexploitation’ of the phenomenon in France.”