France's Carousel Of Unrest

Youths clash with police in a cloud of teargas during clashes following a students' demonstration against the first job contract, or CPE, Thursday, March 23, 2006 in Rennes, western France. Francel braced for a new day of street protests Thursday by students trying to force the government to withdraw a contested jobs law, with a warning from the interior minister that violence would be severely punished. (AP Photo/Vincent Michel)
AP Photo/Vincent Michel
In Paris this springtime, never mind love, it's rebellion that is in the air.

Tear gas drifts. Thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands take to the streets protesting a law designed to deal with France's shocking unemployment rate. A law that is supposed to increase job opportunities by giving employers the right to fire employees under age 26 after two years without the usual, and numerous, protections.

The demonstrators say this would make them the "Kleenex generation": use and throw away, reports CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar.

The riot squad wades in. The sense of crisis deepens.

On Friday night, France's president made one of the most anticipated speeches of his long political career.

It's time to diffuse the situation, Jacques Chirac said.

He offered a concession, shortening the trial period to just a year.

But watching student leaders, this was no compromise.

"This is throwing oil on the fire, said Bruno Juillard as he got back on the phone to organize some more.

For many students, now, the line is hardening. And what they want is the law to be withdrawn.

So how is it that the French, who once took as their anthem the words of Edith Piaf, "Je ne regrette rien" ("I regret nothing") now come to a point where above all else they crave order and stability.

A place where uncertainty equals precariousness, and if at the age of 25 you can't see what life is going to be like at 60, well that is precarious indeed.

Most universities and a growing number of high schools, too, are closed.


Shut down by Lucas Chancel..

"I will be 25 with an unstable job and debts. That's not a future that French people want," Judith DuPortail tells MacVicar. DuPortail says she is studying to be a physicist.

DuPortail adds, "In countries like England, for example, if I get fired in the next two days or even following week, I can find something. In France, it's really not like that. You have to wait months, or even years."

One in four of the young are unemployed. In some neighborhoods, it's one in two.
The vaunted French social system, source of so much pride which provides support and care from the baby buggy to retirement and in between education, health care, parental care, worker protection, short working week and long vacations, no longer works.

Just like Paris traffic, the system is grinding to a halt. It's expensive to fire someone. So expensive, companies don't want to hire in case they make a mistake and have to fire.

There is no mobility.

"We used to have a great system in the 80s, now the entire system is collapsing. This country is afraid of itself, afraid of the world, afraid of any kind of change," says Jerome Godefroy, a journalist, who spent years working in the United States.

"To give you one statistic that is very interesting, between the ages of 18 and 25, two thirds of the people want to be a public servant. Meaning that they want to have a job for life. One job until you die," Godefroy says.

Corrine Maier wrote a best seller called "Bonjour Laziness" about French attitudes toward work.

"I think the French people dream of security because they are afraid of the future," Maier says.

"It may seem strange. It's a very rigid society where we have the feeling we have no future. Where we have the feeling that even if we work a lot, it won't change anything in our life," Maier says.

What the French don't do, says Maier is flexibility. Take the example she says, of President Chirac himself. He was first prime minister more than 30 years ago.

"Chirac was there when I was a little girl, so he's not flexible at all," quips Maier, adding that "Politics in France are not flexible. It's always the same people."

The students argue they are ready for reforms, but not this one.

Underlying all of this is fear. This is not a revolution and the demonstrators are not revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the existing order.

The existing order with all its protections is what they want. For Tuesday they've called for another day of mass protest and strike. Last week, more than a million came out. For the students to keep up momentum and pressure, they must bring at least that number out again.

The list of obstacles is daunting.

No confidence to take a chance. Without risk, no progress. A government that isn't trusted by those on the streets. An embattled Prime Minister who must stick to his guns and succeed or end his political career.

Is it any wonder that people here feel they are going around and around and not getting very far at all.