French Students Join Pension Protests

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Tens of thousands of high school students have joined the massive demonstrations in France against the government's plan to change the country's retirement system. But why would the students be protesting a change that won't affect them for decades?

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In France, thousands of students have joined the mass protests against the government's plan to overhaul the retirement system. Many of those students are as young as 15.

So reporter Eleanor Beardsley tried to find out why so many young people in France have become militant over a measure that won't affect them for years.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Unidentified Group: Resistance.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Screaming resistance, thousands of high school students marched through central Paris last week. They chanted slogans into bullhorns and carried banners reading: Students today, retirees tomorrow, let's protect our retirement at 60.

Seventeen-year-old Antoine Derri(ph) says the government's law to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 directly affects young people like him.

Mr. ANTOINE DERRI: (Through translator) In France, 25 percent of young people are currently unemployed. So lengthening the work time of seniors is going to worsen the situation for us, because these are jobs that will not be freed up for young people to take.

BEARDSLEY: Derri's point of view reflects a commonly held belief in France, especially among those on the left, that the labor market is a fixed pie to be shared among workers.

But fear for jobs and the future is only one of the reasons young people are marching. They are also motivated by their near unanimous contempt for President Sarkozy, who is seen as an authoritarian, right-wing devil amongst this crowd.

And there's something even deeper. Protesting is considered a rite of passage for French youth, part of a political education in a country founded by street revolution.

Many of these teens' parents demonstrated in the now-mythical protests of May 1968, where students joined workers and ultimately brought down the government of President Charles de Gaulle.

Seventeen-year-old Simon Sultan(ph) says he's having a good time and his parents don't mind because they're probably out here too.

Mr. SIMON SULTAN: (Through translator) We blocked our high schools this morning and we all met up in Paris to protest. It's a great day, and everyone is here. We won't give up. We're going to the end.

BEARDSLEY: Over the past week, students blocked and barricaded more than 800 high schools across France, closing many of them down. The ambiance here is feisty and festive on a sunny fall day. Students dance and sing political cheers. Some swig wine from water bottles. It's almost what you'd find at a Friday night football game in the U.S.

That's just the point, says journalist Peter Gumbel, who has covered France for Time and Fortune magazines.

Mr. PETER GUMBEL (Journalist): The French schools, you don't have any sports worth talking about, a little bit of sport. But (unintelligible) sports teams, for example. So you don't have any outlets.

BEARDSLEY: There are no orchestras or jazz bands either, says Gumbel, who has just published a book that is critical of the French school system.

Gumbel says on the whole, schools in France are old-fashioned, authoritarian institutions where kids have no sense of community or fun.

Mr. GUMBEL: School is a place where, you know, you have to go, and you have to suffer these indignities and humiliations, and you have to because it's important for your life, but you hate it. And so you have this combination of high stress and no sense of belonging and no sort of outlets.

BEARDSLEY: All that pent-up aggression explodes on the streets, says Gumbel. Since 1968, French governments on the right and left have been wary of student protests.

In parliament last week, conservative Prime Minister Francois Fillon lashed out at the Socialists, accusing them of trying to manipulate young people.

Prime Minister FRANCOIS FILLON (France): (Through translator) Shame on you who are calling on young high school students to come out in the streets just to beef up your demonstrations. You are sacrificing their futures.

BEARDSLEY: The retirement bill passed the French Senate on Friday, and a final version needs only a rubber stamping by both houses of parliament to become law. Until then, President Sarkozy is counting on the two-week fall school vacation that began this weekend to take the oomph out of the student protest movement.

For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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