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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

The protesters claimed the revolutionary mantle of 1968, defying the
government and symbolically occupying the Sorbonne. President Chirac,
rightly described by Jon Henley as having achieved nothing of substance during his long tenure in
office, stood firm to his principles: when the going gets tough, cut
and run to save your skin. Yesterday’s climbdown by
Chirac’s prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was therefore entirely
predictable. The only surprise is that Chirac endured two months of
plummeting poll ratings before finally buckling to demands from
students and trade unions that a new youth employment law be withdrawn.

The leader of the Socialist party duly greeted "the climbdown by the
powers-that-be". The Communist party hailed it as "a great victory for
the people". But it is nothing of the sort. Yes, the street won, but
the people on the street were privileged insiders defending their
vested interests, not a popular uprising of the dispossessed. As I
noted in a previous post,
although the government’s proposed "contract of first employment" was
half-baked, the protesters do not have right on their side. They are
set against the root-and-branch reform that France is crying out for –
and buoyed by their latest victory they are in a stronger position than
ever to resist change. Under the egalitarian pretence of job security
for all, the French system that the protesters defend swells the ranks
of the long-term unemployed and the permanently excluded, creating an
economically wasteful, politically fractious and morally distasteful
underclass.

With the mainstream and even the extreme left fighting for the
interests of one set of insiders against another, the true outsiders in
French society have no champions, and scarcely even a voice. In that
respect, they are worse off than the American underclasses at whose
plight the French recoil in horror. The desperate rioting that spilled
over from France’s suburbs last year provoked fear and loathing, not
understanding and reform. So even though the left has won its latest
bunfight with the right, the real losers are those on the margins of society that the left ought to be fighting for.

Posted 11 Apr 2006 in Blog, France

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