A group of rightwing â€œdeclin-ologistsâ€ (1), prompted by the avian flu scare, have diagnosed France as an organism in collapse and in urgent need of treatment. Recent events have confirmed the pessimism and, by reinforcing the perception of institutions in meltdown, have contributed to the general malaise. In 2004 the trial of an alleged paedophile ring in the northern town of Outreau turned into a judicial and media disaster. In February 2005 the National Assembly passed legislation requiring school courses to recognise the â€œpositive roleâ€ played by French colonialism (2). The decommissioning of the asbestos-laden aircraft carrier Clemenceau was a shambles. Last November there were riots in deprived suburbs around French cities. The controversy over the cartoons of Muhammad and the shocking murder of a young Jew, Ilan Halimi, have reinforced sectarianism. The government has started a backdoor privatisation of the publicly owned gas utility Gaz de France.
The prophets of doom claim to detect a sense of collective despair, demonstrated in May 2005 when France voted against the European constitution. According to leading declinologist Nicolas Baverez: â€œFrance has retreated to a cocoon of demagogy and falsehood . . . where politicians refuse to tell the truth. They are afraid that if they introduce reforms there will be a revolution. But it is precisely the absence of reform that causes revolutionsâ€ (3).
To cure what Bavarez has described as â€œa sick France in a decadent Europeâ€, he and fellow-believers hope and pray for a liberal â€œreadjustmentâ€.
Convinced that all that is needed is to push the right button, they have long demanded the deregulation of the labour market. The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin – who coined the term declinologist – is feeling the pressure. Sensitive to Baverezâ€™s accusation that he â€œstands up to Bush but rolls over for the trade unionsâ€, he seems to have decided to crash through ruling-class inertia and reform employment at last.
His first prescription, the New Employment Contract (CNE), was rushed through parliament last summer and came into effect on 1 September. It affects firms with fewer than 20 employees, 66% of French businesses, and its most striking innovation is the ease with which it can be broken. As labour inspector GÃ©rard Filoche, points out: â€œIt introduces a new right of dismissal: you can fire anybody at any time and for any reason, without following any formal procedure and without any right of appealâ€ (4).
It met longstanding demands from employers and encountered only moderate resistance. So Villepin decided to press on. In February the First Employment Contract (CPE) was voted through parliament with no real debate. This legislation applies to those below the age of 26 working for companies with more than 20 employees. As under the CNE, employers can terminate a contract at any time during the first two years without any written explanation.
Villepin tried to use the November 2005 riots as justification for this extraordinary legislation, on the grounds that there was an urgent need to encourage employers to take on untrained youngsters. The argument fooled no one. Opposition, first from students and then from major trade unions, was widespread and fierce. The stakes are political as well as symbolic. The French working-class movement was forced to look at itself after a major defeat over pensions legislation in July 2003. People have realised that if they give way on the CPE as they did on the CNE, they leave the way open for the complete dismantling of the labour code, with long-term consequences in terms of flexible, insecure employment.
Far from being â€œthe sick man of Europeâ€ that the right detects, France is strong enough to resist the attempted takeover by financial institutions.
Almost uniquely in Europe, the majority of French wage-earners fiercely oppose the governmentâ€™s attempt to wash its hands of them and let unrestrained globalisation serve them up to business. This shift in the relationship between political power and society could mean the end of the welfare state. The CPE is part of a campaign to destroy the sense of social solidarity central to French identity. That is why there is so much opposition. And why France is in revolt.
Translated by Donald Hounam
(1) Among others, Nicolas Baverez (author of La France qui tombe), Michel Camdessus (former governer of the Bank of France), advertising chief Christophe Lambert, historian Jacques Marseille and author Alain Minc: all close associates of the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.
(2) On 4 February President Chirac called for this act to be rewritten, on the grounds that it â€œdivides Franceâ€.
(3) Lâ€™Express, Paris, 12 January 2006.