Their riots…

Who governs France? Not parliament, trampled on by the street and the president
May 19, 2006

France is holding its breath, unsure whether it is on the brink of something calamitous, maybe even the death of the fifth republic, or merely another political spat. For the past 12 months there has been an atmosphere of fin de régime: Chirac's defeat in the referendum, his lost prestige in Europe, his emergency operation and reportedly poor recovery, his inadequacy during the riots last November. But now, with the overwhelming rejection of a labour law already passed by parliament, people are wondering, half excitedly, half fearfully, how and where this crisis will end. Can a discredited, unpopular president limp on until the elections next year? Should his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, be sacrificed? Is there a crisis of the fifth republic with parliament increasingly squeezed between the president and the street?

The crisis, like others in recent years, has been brought on by popular resistance to market reforms. "Whereas the British perceive the market as an impartial arbiter, a place where commodities and labour find their natural level," says Philippe d'Iribarne, specialist in comparative work cultures and a director of the National Council for Scientific Research, "the French see it as fundamentally unjust." And whereas the British see work as giving dignity, in France it is closely associated with servitude. Because they see their role as menial, French employees compensate by cocooning themselves in protective privileges, the avantages acquis: a job for life, with five weeks' holiday minimum, one Friday in two at home (35-hour week), "13th-month" bonus as standard, a high pension. When any of this is threatened, the French employee takes to the street. It was to abolish privilege that the French took to the streets in 1789, but the revolution only complicated the central paradox that continues to haunt France: "We still want the abolition of privilege," says d'Iribarne, "but each of us nevertheless wants to be privileged."

The revolution is taught in schools as France's defining moment: violent revolt created something magnificent—the French republic. It is not surprising that adolescents in the ghettos, middle-class university students and their parents all see the street, not parliament, as the legitimate way of creating a better world.

But the problem for democracy is that street power squeezes out parliament. Is it right that an impressively large, but unrepresentative group should reverse a law passed by parliament? This is part of Charles De Gaulle's legacy. De Gaulle accepted the invitation to form a new government in 1958 on condition that he could draft a new constitution. He wanted the president, chosen pope-like by an electoral college, to be "above political battles," since "national sovereignty belongs to the French people, who exercise it through their representatives"—that is parliament. At first it worked as planned. However, staying above political battles proved impossible for the general, so after four years he proposed that the president be chosen instead by general election. As the historian Charles Williams has pointed out, this set up an ambiguity of power. There was now one contract between the president and the people—and another between the people and parliament. "There is not, nor has there ever been a clear view on which of these two alternatives has priority," says Williams. The day-to-day delegation of responsibility is relatively straightforward: the president concerns himself with the outside world, while government ministers, not necessarily parliamentarians, look after the domestic issues, which are debated in parliament. The problems inherent in this ambiguous system crystallise when there is a parliamentary majority opposed to the president: President Mitterrand working with Prime Minister Chirac, or President Chirac working with Prime Minister Jospin. Who has the ultimate power? That unresolved question has created a seesaw mentality: when things are good, the president holds his head high; when they are bad he lies low and puts his prime minister in the firing line. But the important point for democracy is who does the firing. In France it is neither parliament nor the press. In practice, it is usually the street.

The street is predominantly left-wing, concerned mainly with social issues such as employees' privileges. The street's "no" to the European constitution was a slap in the face to parliament, and indeed the political class. Six months later, a different sort of street, the riots in the banlieues, further humiliated parliamentarians. The apolitical, self-destructive despair in the ghettos proved the republican model of equality was not working. Unable to admit this failure, politicians disappeared into the woodwork.

They re-emerged once that crisis was over—debating a bill conceived as one answer to the problem of discrimination. The equal opportunity law is aimed at the young in urban estates, mainly of immigrant descent. Apprenticeship at 14 is its principal proposal, but it contains four other major sections: the fight against discrimination; helping parents exercise their authority; helping mayors fight incivility; and the creation of a voluntary civic service. While these reforms were being debated in parliament, De Villepin added an amendment—the now infamous contrat première embauche (CPE)—enabling employers to hire people under 26 on two-year contracts, unprotected by the usual labour laws, in the belief that this could make inroads into ghetto unemployment. This first-job contract was criticised for not addressing the main problem of France's labour market: the two-tier system where some have massive protection and others none at all. But as an amendment to an equal opportunities law, that was never the intention. Using a rarely invoked procedure, the prime minister, ignoring the already vociferous street, rushed the amendment through parliament with neither debate nor vote.

Although the law is not aimed at them, white middle-class students saw the CPE amendment as a threat to their privileged future prosperity. Unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds in France, at 609,000, is only about 100,000 higher than in Britain. The French figure, however, represents a far higher proportion of the labour force—more than 20 per cent—because so many young people go to university. Indeed, the future for graduates is bleak: since universities open their doors to everyone with the baccalauréat, there are too many graduates chasing too few suitable jobs—with the majority having to lower their expectations and accept short, often unrenewed contracts doing jobs that don't require a degree. Nevertheless, the student objections to the CPE showed little understanding of the real economy. The lifetime guarantees they seek are only possible in larger companies or in the public sector, but France's larger companies increasingly recruit in Asia, hence their high profits.

To give them muscle, the students linked arms with the unions, but unions are there to protect the privileges of those in work, principally in the public sector. Their fight is to hang on to the present closed system which discourages employers from taking on new staff. "Victims and their oppressors are working in concert," said Le Monde.

So a law which, with a little tinkering, would have helped many has now been abandoned. Reasoned debate in parliament would almost certainly have incorporated the proposition by economist Olivier Blanchard (French but working in America): keep the two-year first contract, but with incremental protection, starting at zero for the first few months but increasing gradually until it matches the levels given to permanent staff.

But there was no debate in parliament—De Villepin abused democracy and so did the students. With union backing, they were able to force the president to withdraw the contentious clauses. Thus a law passed without parliamentary debate or vote (under pressure from the president) was emasculated without parliamentary debate or vote (under pressure from the street). The second wrong does not correct the first: in neither case is democracy served. If, partly as a result of this fiasco, the fifth republic is dissolved and Nicolas Sarkozy creates a sixth, he promises that parliamentary democracy will be served even less, for his plan is to strengthen what is already the strongest head of state in Europe.