Protesters Fight Impending Youth-Jobs Law

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Protests continue in France over a youth-jobs law proposed by the prime minister and passed by the parliament. The law allows employers to fire, at will, workers younger than 26 during their first two years on the job. Nicole Bacharan, of the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Paris, talks with Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The prime minister of France is offering to talk with labor unions and student groups that have been protesting for the past couple of weeks. Those protests have often been violent. Today in Paris cars were set on fire and shops were looted.

Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, says the agenda for those talks will be completely open. The talks were expected to begin tomorrow. And the subject of the protests, presumably of the talks as well, is something called the CPE, that stands for the French words for First Job Contract.

Now this is an area of French law so different from anything we have here that we're going to ask our guest, Nicole Bacharan, who is a research fellow at the Political Science Faculty of the University of Paris, to first of all just explain what the CPE is. This is a program to try to improve the job prospects of disadvantaged youths in France.

Ms. NICOLE BACHARAN (Research Fellow, Political Science Faculty, University of Paris): Yes, that's intended for young people under 26 years old, so that companies and employers would be encouraged to create jobs and to hire young people knowing that if they are not satisfied with one of their new employees, or if they are not satisfied, you know, with the growth of their company, they could fire them in a rather flexible and easy way. And obviously the purpose was also to help young people who don't have good degrees, who are not really qualified for anything, be hired and find jobs.

SIEGEL: Now, you have to put this is in some context for us, because a jobs program that permits a new worker to be fired if the worker doesn't work out, in the French context people aspire to much better than that, I gather, to much greater security than that in their jobs.

Ms. BACHARAN: Actually that's what they are used to. I mean, older people, most of the time. And that's what young people don't want to see crossed out for them. I mean, a regular job contract in France is extremely protective. It's very, very hard to fire someone. It takes a long time. It costs a lot of money and it can bring up a lot of litigation. So, it makes a very rigid job market.

And what I see in the current situation is that although we have one-quarter of people under the age of 26 that are unemployed, there is an aspiration to this absolute or quasi-absolute protection, and they don't want to see that diminished. They want to get into these protected jobs, even if it means very few jobs.

SIEGEL: So the Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposes a youth employment scheme that the inducement to the employers would be that you don't have to sign somebody on for life if you hire them. If it doesn't work out you can get rid of them. And it appears that all of his political opponents out there, in the unions at the universities, turn out and seize upon this as a great political issue.

Ms. BACHARAN: Yes. And it's really a small regulation, because if you look at the current situation for young people, even with good degrees, will try to get into the job markets before they get to this, you know, heaven of the high social protection, they have all kind of intermediate situations. Many, many months or years of internships that are required and that are not paid, or paid a few hundred dollars, you know, a month. Or you have short-term contracts where they know exactly they'll be fired or they'll be, they'll have to go after a month, two months, or three months. So they go through all this and then they want to get into the protected job market.

SIEGEL: Well, these protests mark the second time recently that the politics of youth grievance in France have turned at least unruly if not downright violent. There were the riots in the suburbs where so many young people of African ancestry live. Is this turning into one of those years in France, like 1968 or 1848, when there is great upheaval and things are decided not in negotiations, but out in the streets?

Ms. BACHARAN: I think we're in a very, very volatile situation, because what we are seeing now is something similar to what happened in the unrest in the fall. And what happened in those suburbs that you earlier mentioned is now spilling over into the middleclass youth and nice urban areas, and the whole youth. Only most of the youth are actually out in the streets. And I think we do have a very, very, very volatile situation.

SIEGEL: Well, Nicole Bacharan, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BACHARAN: Thanks again.

SIEGEL: Nicole Bacharan's a senior fellow at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Paris.

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