Eclairs and anti CPE activity liven up my Parisian life

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March 12th 2006
Published: March 12th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

March 12, 2006

Hello everyone, I haven’t updated my blog in a while but all is well with me. A few things that have recently happened to me: I discovered the Library at the University Paris VIII and now my need for a library to study in has finally been quenched. A life saver for two reasons: one because I can stay awake longer reading when I have other students to look at, and two because I can watch films there for free. My next discovery is my until now hidden love for éclairs, I now think about them almost every time I pass a patisserie - which is quite often. Third, I discovered the revolutionary spirit of French students. And this is actually what I want to discuss since the éclair subject is exhausted after a few brief comments on how delicious the creamy interior is, and if hot chocolate or coffee is a better accompaniment to this creamy delight. (I would go for coffee by the way). So, on y va! Here is what is going on in France in terms of protest, discontent, and political action. I hope I don’t bore you, but to encourage you on this is one of the most stimulating events that I have experienced since arriving in France.

This semester I am taking 3 courses at one of the many Paris universities, this has the oh! so inventive name of Paris VIII. As I have explained to some of you, Paris VIII is a result of the student protests in France of ’68. Certain professors at the time got together to try to create a university according to their ideals for education that broke away from traditional education which they saw as stale and unproductive. I have not taken classes anywhere else, but as far as I can see the University isn’t that different from all the others in France except for the 70s style architecture that is hideous and also riot proof thanks to the fears that such a liberally based university creates in a government. However the classes are very interesting, the campus is the closest campus to my house, and I love going there to check out how exactly French students act, talk, dress, speak etc. Yup, I am totally enchanted and mystified by the “Frenchness” of the French even after 6 months of being here.

Monday morning I arrived at Paris VIII to find the students blocking the entrance to all classrooms. After listening to students and professors taking turns speaking at a microphone and reading several newspaper articles that were on display I began to piece together why I was not allowed to get to my cinema class. (not that I was that disappointed - this “blockage” was rather like a great big party - but a party with a cause).

Basically the students where angry because the Prime Minister Dominique du Villepin had announced his intention to push the CPE “Contrat première embauche” - or “First Employment Contract” through the French legislature without taking it to vote or putting it under discussion (a certain article 49-3 allows him to do this in times of urgency. I guess the urgency is the fact that there is a 20 % unemployment rate among young people, almost double the national average of 10.2% - and just to compare the rate of unemployment in the US is at 4.8 right now - thus unemployment is clearly a large problem for France and many people are very nervous about keeping their jobs). The CPE allows employers to hire anyone under the age of 26 for a trail period of 2 years during which time the employee can be fired for any reason.

This didn’t shake me up, I said to myself .... “hey! that is normal in the US and we seem to be doing fine, so what is the big deal?” Villepin thinks the CPE will encourage employers to hire young workers since they won’t have to guarantee employment for over two years - the students feel that a) pushing the CPE through the legislature in this manner is undemocratic, b) that it is against the concept of job security that they hold dear c) that it discriminates unfairly against them. The debate here has made me start to reconsider whether or not job security is a good thing.

For me the job market in France seems to be a bit stagnant, people seem to get caught up in one job and then because it is difficult to be fired or to be re-hired they stay in the same jobs even if the job is uninspiring for them. Employees seem to be less enthusiastic and less motivated than in the states because they really can’t be fired unless the company is experiencing economical difficulties. I think the fear of being replaced by someone else motivates Americans to really put their best energy into their job, often meaning they are willing to work overtime or take their work home with them, answer business calls on the weekend or on vacation and receive and send work e-mails at any time including after business hours etc. Here in France the attitude is much different; work is not as important and personal life and enjoyment of whatever that personal non- work life is, is sacred to the French. Lunch breaks, weekends, and vacations are important and should not be tainted by work affairs (this is my impression - but obviously I am no expert).

So the good part of this philosophy is that it seems that the French can actually separate themselves from their jobs, downside is that everything seems to run slower: supermarkets, buying new phones, subscribing to the library etc --- and in my opinion this general sluggishness is possibly created because of the lack of competition in the workplace. So the question is: should people value their job or their personal life more? And does the job security in France create high unemployment rates?

The media here has been interesting to me in that it doesn’t seem to be reporting the events correctly. Thursday the Minister of Education said 8 universities had been blocked and 26 “perturbed” (out of 84 universities in France) while the president of the student union UNEF reported that 45 universities are on strike. The government is also trying to downplay the number of people who are greatly upset about CPE by saying that it is only a few radicals who are feeding the fire here, and that these radicals are acting dangerously. I have attended a few debates, a huge protest between La République and Bastille and talked to some French students and this is not at all what I have observed. It seems that the vast majority of the normal (not necessarily only radical) students and young people are anti-CPE, that they are peaceful but frustrated, and that many universities are on strike.

On Friday I attended a 4 hour student debate at Paris III, which has been “blocked,” i.e. no one can go to classes, for the past 2 weeks. This was a fantastic experience and apparently has taken place every day since the blockage of the university. The auditorium was packed during all 4 hours and students could sign up to speak for a maximum of 3 minutes to debate whether or not CPE is good, if the University should stay blocked, if it should stay on strike (block takes the strike further in the sense that students physically stop other students from going to class), and how to continue on in trying to recall CPE. Although there were several students strongly against continuing the strike, absolutely no one spoke who was for CPE. For the most part students had prepared a 3 minute speech and most were very well written - although students also addressed issues spontaneously as they arose. At the end of the debate the propositions that had been suggested during the debate were voted on. Friday, among other propositions, voted to continue the strike and continue blocking the University.

This debate was intensely interesting to hear. The feeling at both Paris VIII and III - as well as at the protests - reminds me of what it must have felt like to be in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement. It is a really energetic, optimistic atmosphere geared towards creating a change for the better. The students are really angry that the law has been pushed through with article 49-3 and are trying to establish the fact that the government needs to listen to them.

After leaving Paris III I walked over to the Sorbonne where another protest was taking place. Wednesday the police closed of the Sorbonne and locked its doors. About 60 students refused to leave and had been there with no food since Wednesday. On Friday a huge group of students had assembled to support those on the inside - some windows where opened and several people got up on a tall moving truck and began to throw provisions to the students inside - you know the essentials: food and cigarettes, well at least essential in France! Then people hopped the fence and opened up the windows on the first floor so that several hundred (200 as the report goes) got into the building. Before the riot police, which are called the CRS, arrived in their buses the windows where closed and all sign that people had entered hidden. The CRS lined up across the breadth of the street and began to push the crowd backwards. I don’t understand why they did this and it seemed to be simply to aggravate the crowd. At one point they advanced so quickly - and this is with batons and plastic shields and face masks / helmets; to say the least extremely intimidating - that I had to run to get out of their way. When the CRS tried to push forward the crowd tried to stop them and I definitely saw some batons flying in the air - though I haven’t heard about this in the news.

Eventually I became fatigued by the arctic conditions - it was freezing and raining - and so I returned home. But apparently Saturday morning around 4 AM the CRS went into the Sorbonne and used teargas and their trusty batons to help evacuate the 300 protesters. The reason being that the students where devastating the Sorbonne. However the media, who are the only ones allowed to enter, reports that damages where limited, and that protests had been written in chalk and adhesive tape. Chairs, books and windows had been broken / ruined. Sounds like a state of extreme urgency.

I must say gathering was quite an experience and at one point I actually thought the CRS were going to whip out their batons and started preparing how to defend myself: “Hey!!! I’m American!!! Don’t beat me, the US won’t be too happy!” But then I couldn’t decide if this approach would just make them really lay down the baton more.

I think the Sorbonne incident made it into the “New York Times” so you can check it out there - and if you speak French you can try to read the newspaper “Libération” online which has a good description of what I saw with the riot police at the Sorbonne- the article is called “La Sorbonne occupée s’occupe du CPE.”

Alright, I hope I haven’t bored you all with this information but for me these protests and debates have been very stirring and I have really liked trying to figure out what is going on. The debates are a great way to learn more about the French political situation and how the French think differently than Americans. I would love to have anyone’s comments on job security in the US or in France - or anywhere really. Having not really worked much (well - except in Dad’s business - but job security works a bit differently when you work for your Dad) I would love to hear from any of you who have actually worked and have an opinion on job security.

Alright, best wishes to all! After all this reporting I am famished and I am off to search for an éclair, with coffée s’il vous plaît !
Cheers, Winnie

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