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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 March 2006, 12:19 GMT
People power grips France

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Hundreds of thousands of people - mostly students - have taken to the streets in France for a second week of protests against the controversial new employment contracts. Caroline Wyatt has been considering whether they might be the symptom of a greater malaise in French society.

"To the barricades!" is the cry heard again on the streets of France, as they ring to the sound of student chants.

Protester sets fire to phone box
Anger is focused on a new job contract to tackle chronic unemployment
The crisp early springtime air on the Left Bank is filled once more with the heady scent of revolution, black coffee and Gauloises.

A delicious sense of people power has gripped the French and most of all, the students I mingled with a few days ago as they marched arm in arm through the boulevards of Paris, shouting their anger with the government.

To the barricades, they went, these revolutionaries, to fight for their rights - to pensions, mortgages and a steady job.

Such odd revolutionaries. No heartfelt cry to change the world, but a plea for everything to stay the same.

For France to remain in its glorious past: a time of full employment and jobs for life - a paternalistic state to take care of them from cradle to grave.

Cause and effect

So what brought this on? On the surface, a new youth employment contract, aimed at helping young people get their first job - no easy task in a country with 10% unemployment, but almost one in four out of work among the young.

It's a contract that would allow employers to take a chance, to hire a youngster in the knowledge that the trial period could be up to two years long, and the normal French restrictions on firing would not apply.

But scratch the surface and it is a far wider issue. The trouble with France has been brewing for decades.

In an echoing stone courtyard at Paris University, Marion and other students are making banners to carry on their march.

"Mr Villepin, you are not the king", they read, a reminder of what happened to France's aristocracy after people power won out in times gone by.

"I haven't studied hard to get nothing at the end of it," says Marion, with indignation. "I've earned the right to a secure job."

A secure job like the one her parents and grandparents enjoyed.

A recent survey suggested that for most of the young in France, the real dream is to become a civil servant - a fonctionnaire. To work in government offices with regular hours, long holidays, and a 35 hour working week.


One teacher looks on with an indulgent smile. English professor Jenny Lowe took to the barricades herself in May 1968.

All it could take is one careless spark for this howl of existential anxiety to explode
She remembers the romance of it all, the joy as the workers joined in the revolt the students had begun against an ageing right-wing president and a government they despised.

"We thought anything was possible then," she says, "but these days, it's rather different," she gestures at her students.

And Jenny Lowe is right. As the world around them changes at a baffling rate, her students want the old certainties back - but these are certainties France can no longer guarantee.

No country and no government could. Yet the belief in an all-powerful government is a very French creation, an attachment that goes deep.

"The government must create jobs," Victor, an economics student tells me as he prepares to march again.

He will walk alongside his parents at the next protest, the first time the family has demonstrated together since 1995.

That is when the young Victor was taken for his first taste of people power - then the French got rid of Prime Minister Alain Juppe and his plans for economic reform.

Mr Juppe's latest successor Dominique de Villepin is receiving conflicting advice from his own MPs on what to do next to avoid the same fate.

Hold firm, say some. We need a French Margaret Thatcher right now. Give in, others advise, listen to the streets because in France you cannot govern without them.

And it is true that politically, a war has begun for the very soul of France, to decide how it faces the future.

The left here senses a weakened president, and a prime minister perhaps mortally wounded by his battle with cabinet rival Nicholas Sarkozy for the ultimate prize - the nomination for the presidency next year.

De Villepin, say his foes, is ready to drag down France to achieve his ambition: gaining the Elysee Palace.

Existential anxiety

And France today does feel like a tinder box, a nation dancing on a volcano - just as it did in the troubled suburbs last year.

Dominique de Villepin
The employment law is Dominique de Villepin's pet project
As the students march, the "casseurs" or hooligans are gathering again, but this time in the heart of the city.

Last week they indulged in an orgy of violence near the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, the intellectual heart of Paris.

All it could take is one careless spark for this howl of existential anxiety to explode.

And yet, Paris still feels like the Paris of old. The front page of Paris Match carried an iconic photograph.

Shot on a slow exposure, as if smudged by moonlight, a couple dance near the River Seine.

Behind them is a row of riot police, shields aloft, like a guard of honour.

The girl's long hair fans out in the evening air as she is twirled around in a late-night last waltz, by a young Frenchman with a smile and his arm around her waist.

And just faintly, comes the echo of May 1968 and a reminder that in France, even revolution for a mortgage and a pension has its own mysterious allure.

Caroline Wyatt reports on France's political crisis and the position of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin for BBC Radio 4's new series Profiles, which looks at people in the news. Hear the programme on Saturdays at 1900 GMT (repeated on Sunday at 1740 GMT)

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 March, 2006 on BBC World Service. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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