Street riots put pressure on de Villepin reforms

A general strike is looming in France after PM Domenique de Villepin refuses to back down on reform plans after a weekend of violent street protests.

The issue of job creation is at the heart of the Lisbon strategy, and there has been a debate on the right strategic approach in the EU in the past year. The Nordic ‘flexicurity’ model, that makes it easy to hire and fire with high unemployment benefits, has often been highlighted as the way ahead.

Drawing on elements of this model, de Villepin has sought to attack France’s high youth unemployment which stands at 23 percent. However, he has not been seen as the saviour of youth. Rather, the reforms have been met with great resistance as hard won rights are perceived to be under threat.

A fresh BVA poll shows that 60 percent of French voters want the CPE law to be withdrawn. However another poll, published in the newspaper Liberation on 20 March, shows that 38 percent want the law modified; 35 percent want it withdrawn.  

The French conflict has shown that even modest labour market reforms face great resistance, and has led to questions as to whether the Lisbon agenda can survive politicians’ need to stay in office.  

French PM Domenique de Villepin has had great difficulty in selling his reforms to the French public. He believes that once people understand the law, they will support it as a job creation measure. "There was a lack of understanding over the method, which I regret," he said.

Bernard Thibault, head of the CGT union, said, "If there are no moves we will propose a day of strikes in the next few days." 

Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of the Force Ouvriere union: "The prime minister is like a pyromaniac who has set fire to the valley and then withdraws to the hill to watch."

At the European Business Summit, 17 March, EURACTIV organised a debating session on labour market reforms, at which the following views were expressed:  

Maja Wessels, Vice President of Honeywell, expressed her amazement at the protests from the French youth. "There seems to be a very strong risk aversion. If you are this afraid of losing your steady job at so young an age, then there is something wrong," she said, arguing that risk-taking is something that can be learned from family or in school.

Maria Rodrigues, special adviser to the Commission on labour market reforms, said there was a need for flexibility. She argued that social protection should not be seen as a safety net, but as a springboard to a new job. She proposed the introduction of a so-called 'time saving account' with a 'life course' approach - i.e. that  citizens should be able to keep a credit of social benefits to be used over their lifetime. 

The French PM Domenique de Villepin came to office on a promise to improve job creation. However, the CPE, a "first job contract" for under 26 year olds, which gives the employer the possibility of easily firing employees in the first 2-year trial period of the contract, has put his leadership under pressure. It has become a first test case for his bid in the presidential elections in 2007.

Marches across France on 18 March drew crowds of between 530,000 and 1,5 million onto the streets, and in Paris there were several incidents of looting, burned cars and clashes with riot police, who responded with tear gas and made 167 arrests.   

  • French PM Domenique de Villepin is scheduled to have talks with both unions and students on 20 March.
  • On 23-24 March EU leaders will gather to discuss the results of efforts to refocus the Lisbon-reforms. 

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