Case Study: France: February – April 2006

IssueJune - July 2018
Comment by Thomas Fortuna

Goal: The repeal of the First Employment Contract (CPE) law.
GROWTH: 3 / 3
TOTAL: 10 / 10

January 2006 in France was a tense time. Economic growth had been unexpectedly poor. National unemployment was at nearly 10 percent, totalling more than 2.5 million people. People under 26 suffered a joblessness rate of 22–23 percent nationwide and 40 or 50 percent in France’s poorest communities. Urban riots at the end of 2005 led to a two-month state of emergency.

Business leaders claimed they were reluctant to hire young workers because of France’s strong employee protection laws.

On 16 January 2006, French prime minister Dominique de Villepin introduced a new work contract for citizens under 26.

The ‘First Employment Contract’ (CPE) created a two-year trial period during which workers’ employment could be terminated without cause or explanation. Existing trial periods ranged from one to three months.

The CPE also gave employers an exemption from their social security contributions for young people employed for more than six months.

Students and trade unionists were unconvinced, believing that the law would make it even more difficult for young people to find permanent employment and that it could be abused by larger employers. They organised protests in over 150 cities and towns across France on the day the bill was scheduled for debate in the national assembly, 7 February.

According to the trade unions, approximately 400,000 people came out to oppose the CPE. After 43 hours of debate, with the Socialists stalling, the prime minister used emergency powers to force the bill through the lower house without a vote. The legislation was then sent to the senate. By the end of February, students at 13 universities were on strike in order to help coordinate protests against the law.

“Between one million and three million demonstrators joined the strikers that day”

On 7 March, the day after the senate approved the bill, students and unions were able to organise between 400,000 and a million protesters in 160 locations around the country, including Paris, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Rennes, and Grenoble. Transportation in 35 cities was disrupted; between seven and 15 percent of education workers went on strike for the day; and almost two-thirds of the French population supported the protests.

The next day, students began occupations that would spread to almost half of France’s universities within just three days. French riot police were sent into the Sorbonne university in Paris to drive out over 200 occupiers. The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, condemned the use of tear gas and batons against the largely peaceful protest.

On 16 March, between 250,000 and 500,000 protesters again took to the streets, perhaps 120,000 in Paris alone, demanding that the law be revoked. Violence did erupt in certain areas, with clashes resulting in at least 50 police injuries and 300 arrests. Prime minister de Villepin announced he would meet university presidents to discuss solutions, though he still refused to repeal the law. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million students, workers, pensioners and families rallied across the country to voice their dissatisfaction with the law. As with earlier protests, a day of largely peaceful protests was followed by a night of violence, as clashes led to at least 24 injuries and 160 arrests.

The next week, between 220,000 and 450,000 mostly peaceful protesters demonstrated against the law. Clashes involving several dozen violent rioters led to injuries for 60 people (including 27 police) and 420 arrests. The prime minster, supported by the president, refused an ultimatum by union leaders to repeal the law or suffer a general strike.

General strike

On Tuesday 28 March, the unions followed through with their nationwide general strike, seriously disrupting the country’s transportation, utilities, hospitals, print press, schools and universities, post offices, banks and government offices. With just four percent of those polled wanting the CPE kept unchanged, between one million and three million demonstrators joined the strikers that day in what was possibly the biggest protest turnout in French history.

On 31 March, president Chirac delivered a nationally-televised address in which he announced that he would be signing the bill, but proposed reducing the probationary period to one year and requiring employers to provide a reason for firing workers. On 2 April, the bill officially went into effect. Because amendments were expected, the government asked employers not to apply it yet. The proposed amendments did not placate the CPE’s opponents, and two days later between one million and 3.1 million protesters took part in more than 200 rallies around France to again demand its full repeal.

Labour unions maintained that unless the CPE was revoked they would stage another nationwide general strike. In the face of unwavering opposition, the president, prime minister and other senior ministers held a meeting on 10 April. They decided to rescind the CPE. In a live television address, de Villepin, whose popularity had eroded over the crisis, lamented that he had not adequately articulated the reasoning for the law and reaffirmed his determination to combat youth unemployment.

The protests quickly drew comparisons to the iconic May 1968 protests in France. However, most sources agree that the 1968 protests rejected traditional society and were driven by hope of a more liberal morality, whereas the 2006 protests were a defence of existing societal expectations and driven by fear and insecurity.