Baby revolutionaries Étienne Phillip, 16, and 17-year-old Christiane T. are lounging on the metal chairs along the boat pond in the Jardin du Luxembourg, ready for their next demonstration. Blocks away a phalanx of cops stand guard behind stanchions blocking access to the Sorbonne. The teens are part of one of several clusters of young people in the park highlighting book passages, writing reports and playing cards because they've been locked out of nearby high schools and universities in the wake of protests against the new French labor contract that would make it easy to fire young workers.
The two are laughing, leaning back in the sun, but they exude a quiet resolve. "It's an important fight for us," Christiane explains. "It's our future. It's the future of most of France."
Told that just hours earlier Prime Minister Dominique Villepin had vowed to keep fighting for the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE) or First Employment Contract, which would allow new workers under 26 to be fired any time without cause during a two-year period, Christiane simply shrugs and returns to her book. "Now that we're part of the European Union, there's pressure to change," says Étienne. "But we're not going to." Asked what they want, Christiane replies: "Total retreat." It echoes the call for a "coup de grâce" to the CPE from Jean-Claude Mailly, the head of France's powerful union Force Ouvriere, one of several key unions that have joined the battle against the new contract.
Protesters like Christiane and Étienne have been largely portrayed in the U.S. press as privileged, dope-smoking slackers determined not to share their jobs with young immigrants and pitching a fit about it. The French, the cliché goes, will never pass up an opportunity to miss a day of school or work to demonstrate. And what are they so upset about? Losing jobs-for-life that promise six weeks of vacation practically from the minute you step in the door. Ridiculous. Isn't it?
But it's not a school kid spring fling. Many French see the manifestations as a key battle to preserve an essential element of their economic culture and a fight for the soul of the European Union, pitting their sacrosanct labor stability against a more ruthless economic Anglo-Saxon model. The French newspaper Le Monde reported last month that as of mid-March 66 percent of the French wanted the CPE dumped, up from 55 percent the previous week.
"It's important not to dismiss what's going on in France," says political science professor Steven Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "This is deathly serious for the European Union. This is exactly the generation the E.U. needs on their side. In a way, it's a battle for their souls."
Jean, a no-illusions, pedal-to-the-metal French businessman, supports the protesters, but it's not something he discusses at work. He's thrilled about making money as a partner in a new Franco-American enterprise, but is not willing to mow down what he regards as a cornerstone of French economic life -- job security. He's believes the law would stigmatize the young, making them sous employees -- second-class citizens.
"It would be a nightmare for an entire generation," he says. "They wouldn't be able to rent an apartment or open a bank account without a standard labor contract. There's an unemployment problem among the young, but the answer isn't giving companies more power.
"We rely on having stable jobs," says Jean. "Americans don't know about that."
Weber believes the French labor system will ultimately "break" under increasing competitive economic pressures. "Jobs for life are not sustainable," he says. "The question is going to be how will the costs of that break be distributed? It's going to be a major test of the society as a whole."
Villepin hurried the CPE law through Parliament soon after weeks of riots by young people from the immigrant banlieues rocked France last November. He pitched it as a way to increase jobs and cut the 23 percent unemployment rate for the young, which is estimated to be nearly twice as high in the banlieues. If it's cheaper to hire a young employee, the theory goes, maybe companies will hire two. But can either one make a living?
Students worry that companies will continually replenish slots with CPE labor and young workers will be forced to move every two years, temporarily filling jobs that will no longer be offered to seasoned workers. And if young workers can be fired for no reason, they could be more vulnerable to discrimination based on race, pregnancy or sexual orientation.
The hidden agenda of the CPE is not necessarily only to increase hiring but also to grant companies what economists like to call "flexibility," a kind of get-out-of-a-recession-free card, by allowing corporations to jettison workers onto welfare rolls without severance costs.
The CPE technically passed last weekend, but the government has recommended that it not be enforced -- yet. Union and business representatives are continuing to meet with representatives of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement Party. Several observers expected Villepin, whose public approval ratings have slumped, to resign at his news conference Thursday. Instead he said he'd see the battle for the CPE to the end -- but would consider compromises on specifics.
The unions and students, who have mobilized millions of activists in several days of demonstrations, have called for more protests and set April 15 as a deadline to repeal the CPE. In Toulouse on Thursday students blocked transport of parts for a new double-decker plane being manufactured by Airbus, and Paris students spilled onto the tracks at Gare de l'Est to briefly disrupt train traffic. "If the protests keep up, the CPE dies," declared Jean. But Weber believes the French government "could hang tough. It's a very critical juncture for France." Can France preserve what many see as a crucial aspect of its essential character and still survive economically in an increasingly competitive new world order?
Itienne and Christiane are ready to hit the ramparts. "The CPE is not a solution," says Etienne. Asked what the solution is, he reflects a moment, then replies in English: "Make some noise."