MARGARET WARNER: The strike against France's new employment law began peacefully today, with more than a million people taking part in marches across the country. Airlines had to cancel a third of their flights; trains and the Paris Metro were also curtailed.
But late in the day, after the march in Paris reached the large Place d'Italie, young men began throwing stones, tearing street signs, and scuffling with plainclothes police. Scores were arrested.
For two months, students and trade unions have been staging demonstrations against the bill, which is intended to encourage the hiring of people under 26 by letting employers dismiss them without cause during their first two years on the job.
President Jacques Chirac told a televised audience last Friday he would sign the bill, despite the protests, because it would help France compete in a globalized economy. But he did order two key changes to soften it: He reduced the trial period on the job for younger workers from two years to one, and said employers must give reasons for terminating them.
The protestors are demanding the law be scrapped entirely because it would loosen labor and social protections that have been guaranteed for generations.
PROTESTOR (through translator): This is a large sector of France who live precariously, especially amongst the young, and we are adding another layer of precariousness, and we will not except that.
MARGARET WARNER: The protests have provoked some ridicule in Britain and the U.S., where labor laws allow layoffs with little or no warning. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who introduced the measure, told parliament today something had to be done to address France's 22 percent jobless rate among young people. And he insisted the government, quote, "would not throw in the towel."
DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN, French Prime Minister (through translator): The priority -- and we're all conscious about that -- is to get out of the current crisis. It is in nobody's interests, and especially not the young people who are looking for a job and waiting for solutions to their difficulties.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet there were signs the French government may be ready for additional compromise. A cabinet minister said negotiations with the unions would open tomorrow and there won't be any limits to the talks. The law won't take effect until parliament approves Chirac's changes.
And now the longer view of all this from two long-time observers of France and Europe. Jim Hoagland is a foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post and a former Paris bureau chief for the Post.
And Stephan Richter is editor and publisher of The Globalist, an online daily that covers international economy and politics. He also writes a monthly column for the French business paper Les Echos.
Did I say that right?
STEPHAN RICHTER, Editor, The Globalist: Correct.
MARGARET WARNER: Les Echos.
So, Stephan and Jim, welcome. As we know, many Western European countries have far more generous social benefits than the U.S., yet several have trimmed them without this kind of outcry. What is it about France that explains this violent reaction?
STEPHAN RICHTER: Revolutionary traditions, 1789, 1848, 1968. It's part of the French identity that you sometimes need to be on the barricades, as we see today. It's also, unfortunately, a feeling that the French have a sense of that they're a little bit better than the rest of us, never mind the Americans.
But in Europe, whether it's the Danes, the Germans and lots of countries have gone through severe adjustments following, really, the United States, where in our life here change is a daily occurrence. It's not a cosmic event. We know it's a founding condition of this country.
And the Europeans, at long last, have embraced this message, not willingly, but because they realize, with the onset of China and everything else, there was no choice. And in this sense, America actually has led the way, not that the Europeans on any other matter willingly follow the United States, and they do it grudgingly on this one, but I think it's important that that has worked.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Jim Hoagland, it is about France that makes this a flashpoint?
JIM HOAGLAND, The Washington Post: Well, the French do have, as Stephan said, a tradition of protest. This is the country, after all, where the philosopher Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Many of the French feel, "I protest, therefore I am."
It's a way of proving the existence of a certain kind of solidarity that the French say that is very unique in their society. The feeling of being together is under such siege right now in France, because of the pressures of globalization, because of a failing government that is in serious political trouble.
And because of other factors, these pressures all come to bear on the French sense of identity, on the French sense of work, the changing nature of work, the relationship between work and leisure. One of the pieces of graffiti that has been on the walls in Paris is "Work Less to Live More."
That's a very French attitude. They feel that there is a way of life, an identity that is being threatened by all of these pressures.
MARGARET WARNER: But now, Stephan, this weekend, as we saw, French President Chirac did offer the students have a loaf. I mean, he went halfway in his speech. He said, "I understand the concerns of these French students and their parents. I want to speak to them."
Why wasn't that enough? I mean, what he's proposing now is fairly mild.
STEPHAN RICHTER: It is, but he just doesn't have any credibility anymore. This, after all, is the man who, for the first time, was prime minister of France in 1974. He's been with most French people as one of their leaders for as long as anybody can remember.
It takes him until the year 2006 to mouth words about we're not just glorious France, but we actually do need to change. There's a world out there. We have to react like everybody else.
Pardon me, but, you know, sir, you've had two full terms in office which, in the case of France, are seven years each. He has not done this until now; his predecessors have done it. He has failed the country. He has misled the young people, the old people, everybody.
He has pretended France is such a glorious place. And as Jim described, it is a wonderful place to be, you know, to vacation. Many Americans who can afford the airline tariffs these days enjoy it, as well.
But the need to change is there, and politicians ought to lead that change. And he has been the biggest failure at liberty, then removed prime ministers, which is the prerogative of the president of France, is always blame somebody else. If it wasn't the Americans and bad market capitalism, it was prime ministers and so on. And that's just not cutting it anymore in today's world.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Jim Hoagland, The Economist magazine, which, on the one hand reported that there was a poll saying three-quarters of French university students would like to work for the government sector, but on the other hand, it also reported that French private companies saw their profits jump by 50 percent last year.
Why can't the French companies give more?
JIM HOAGLAND: Well, if you looked closely at those statistics of the French companies, you'd find that many of those profits come from overseas, which is true for companies in any country today. So it's money-losing propositions at home are financed by profits that come from overseas now.
The details, the economic details of this particular struggle have been overtaken now by the test of wills that is involved now between the government on one hand and the unions, the students, on the other.
The government has adopted a strategy under Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of trying to change the psychology of the French. I think the prime minister sees this as the kind of test that Margaret Thatcher faced in Britain in the early '80s when she beat the unions. And he's trying to set up the situation to do that in France.
It is much tougher in France. And the importance of these demonstrations today, the immediate importance, is that the momentum was not lost. As many people turned out today as turned out last week. The government was counting on the demonstrations to begin to fizzle. You then have the spring break.
MARGARET WARNER: After Chirac gave his concessions, partial concessions.
JIM HOAGLAND: That's right, or perhaps it became more violence, then the government would see a law-and-order response from the population; neither of those things has happened.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also wrote Sunday, though, that you think, despite the particular nature of France, that this is also tapping into something much broader.
JIM HOAGLAND: Well, I found some echoes really in what's going on in France, in this test of wills, and the changing nature of work, and the kind of social contracts that we need to have.
One of the hidden features of this conflict in France is that the young people, people under 26, are being discriminated against with this law. This law applies only to people in their first job who are under 26. It withdraws protections from them that all of their elders have, that people who are older have under French law.
So there's a feeling of discrimination. There's a feeling of the sacrifices that globalization is demanding of people is being disproportionately applied to the young.
There's an echo of what's going on in this country with the huge budget deficits, the trade deficits, the passing on of the bill for the future to young people. So that's one echo.
Another echo is the way in which the globalization, which is, after all, the movement of people, of ideas, of goods across porous national borders now, that globalization is putting pressures on the workplace that we don't understand very well.
We see this, in terms of the protests, the arguments that are going on here over immigration. Immigration is a phenomenon that increases with globalization, will continue to increase. And we have to find ways to accommodate it in this country, I believe.
Efforts to stand against it, to be King Canute ordering the tides to stop, very much like the French government's reaction, trying to do tinkering with their social model, which has been overtaken already by globalization.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Stephan Richter, that this is a symptom or a manifestation of resistance to kind of this new global capitalism that we are seeing in other countries, even the U.S.?
STEPHAN RICHTER: Where the French protest too much, we protest too little. I mean, we've had pensions totally disappear and lots of other things. We don't even have health security for most people for a vital part of America. And even those at large companies, it's shrinking and shrinking. So there is a fair balance in the middle.
But I think what is important also to remember is that, as much as we want to talk about globalization, globalization means change; change means evolution. It's been the human condition since way before the Romans.
And what we don't understand, in the case of France, the tragedy really has been that, in order to move a society, it's better if you had a left-of-center government, in the case of Germany, the case of Denmark, various Scandinavian countries.
You need to bring after these decades of big benefits for workers, you need to bring the unions along, and left-of-center governments have a much better chance to do that. And France has had the tragedy to have right-of-center governments who never had the courage and had to risk general strikes, which is sort of what we're a little bit close to now, and other countries have had the good fortunes to have more, wiser leftist leaders.
MARGARET WARNER: So the Nixon-to-China syndrome. Very briefly, how do you think this is going to end? Will the government fall?
STEPHAN RICHTER: I hope not, because it doesn't make a difference. And if the socialists who are hoping for it are asking to be in government, they'll face the same things plus some. So somebody has got to resolve this mess that the French have gotten themselves into. And it takes a leader, whoever that will be.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you think it will be resolved?
JIM HOAGLAND: I think the law will be withdrawn.
MARGARET WARNER: You do?
JIM HOAGLAND: I do.
MARGARET WARNER: The government will cave?
JIM HOAGLAND: The government will eventually cave, if the protests continue at this same kind of momentum.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jim Hoagland, Stephan Richter, thank you, both.
JIM HOAGLAND: Thank you.