Judging by how France's political leaders suddenly caved on Monday after standing firm in the face of nearly two months of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, the students may get whatever they want. Though de Villepin had stood by the move as an effective means for battling a 23% unemployment rate for people age 25 and under a level climbing to 40% for unskilled workers in that category students and unions called it discriminatory by denying young people labor protection others enjoy. By Tuesday night, parliament was scheduled to debate a hastily crafted replacement proposal to help the country's young people find work. Instead of giving businesses more flexibility to fire youths during their first two years of employment, the new measures would provide the country's youngsters with increased vocational training and give businesses financial incentives to hire them.
The biggest loser in the whole episode seemed to be Prime Minister de Villepin and his principal backer, President Chirac, who took a calculated risk by pushing the measure only a year before France's presidential and legislative elections only to back down in the face of popular pressure. During a TV interview Monday night, de Villepin defended his defunct law, asserting that both it and his motives "hadn't been understood."
But as legislators, clearly relieved to be putting the crisis behind them, rushed the new proposals to parliament, de Villepin sounded more credible during the interview when he contended he has "no presidential ambitions." As for de Villepin's rival, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, his ambitions are probably more realistic now. After presenting himself all along as more sympathetic to protesters' complaints, Sarkozy's approval ratings have remained high even as those of other conservatives sag, and Chirac and de Villepin's flirt with record lows.
Still, while clearly relishing the moment, Sarkozy and his team took pains to avoid sounding victorious. "This had become a big enough issue and danger for French society that it goes beyond political jockeying or maneuvering," a Sarkozy adviser said. However, he acknowledged that Sarkozy "came out of this better than most have."
In truth, no one came out of the standoff better off than France's uncompromising younger generation once again. Many observers view the current revolt, in contast to ideologically driven predecessors in French protest, as a symbol of a spoiled generation unwilling to deal with basic economic realities. The more radical protesters, however, retort that they are blazing a trail against globalization, and there is no denying that they managed essentially to block the country's much needed economic liberalization.
"There will be some action continuing on, but nothing like before," explained Sylvain, a 24-year-old Sorbonne student of history, who asked that his last name not be used. "We have to keep some pressure on, because we're still against some of the reforms they've passed before. That said, I sort of doubt they'll try anything like this between now and the elections in a year." In other words, France's political elite has learned their lesson, the hard way.