Global Economics

Memories of 1968 Prompt Sarkozy Retreat


In response to youth protests across the Continent, the French President is backing down from key initiatives in hopes of cooling the atmosphere

As disparate but linked militant youth protests simultaneously erupt in a number of countries across the continent, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has retreated on two controversial pieces of domestic legislation out of fear that a spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of 1968.

Mr Sarkozy, the outgoing chairman of the six-month rotating European Union presidency, has dropped plans for changes to high school curricula and Sunday retail opening hours in dread that the "Greek syndrome"—the two-week-long youth riots that have rocked the Hellenic Republic in the country's most widespread unrest since the overthrow of the military junta in 1974—could spread to France, or even across the continent.

"We can't have a European May '68 for Christmas," the French leader said to his cabinet, according to reports in Le Canard Enchaîné, referring to the left-wing student protests and general strike in France in 1968 that led to the eventual collapse of the government of Charles De Gaulle.

Similar protests took place that year around the world, particularly in the United States and Germany, but the 'événements' of '68 hold a unique place in the French political imaginary.

"The French could upturn the country—look at what's happening in Greece," Mr Sarkozy reportedly told deputies from his party, the UMP, during a lunch at the Elysée Palace, according to French daily Le Figaro.

Barricades

On Monday of last week, his government reversed itself over plans for increased Sunday shopping, resisted by the Catholic Church and the trade unions.

The next day, in the wake of militant protests by high school students, plans for the re-organisation of the secondary school curriculum were postponed indefinitely by education minister Xavier Darcos at the insistence of the president.

"I don't want the schools reform to become hostage to social tensions, worries, anxieties that are not connected to the schools issues," the minister said, announcing the move.

The month-long protests by high-school students' unions against the education changes that saw school buildings barricaded across France, boiled over in Rennes in the west of the country in particular, turning violent.

Despite the announcement of the withdrawal of the legislation, protests continued, attracting larger numbers than the week before. While the demonstrations were for the most part peaceful, Lyons and Lille saw a number of arrests after some cars were burnt.

The French National Student's Union, UNEF, following the government's decision, also made the link between French protests and the events in Greece, declaring its "solidarity" with Greek youth "against police repression".

"After the 'CPE Generation' in France," said the student organisation in reference to the widespread French protests in 2006 that resulted in the defeat of the Contrat premi?re embauche (First Employment Contract) law that would have allowed employers to more easily terminate young workers' contracts, "it is the '€600 Generation' in Greece demonstrating with the same refusal of precariousness and feeling that we have no future."

The Greek protesters have described themselves as the '€600 Generation', mocking their low average monthly wage, even after years of post-secondary education.

The €600 Generation

"Things are heating up everywhere in Europe, in Greece, but also in Spain, Italy and even in France. The slogan of the Greek students about 'the €600 Generation' could easily catch on here," President Sarkozy told his ministers.

"When you see people confront each other with such violence, when you see the pillage," he is reported to have said, "...in a country like Greece, obviously it makes us think twice."

In recent weeks, demonstrations, occupations of universities, and even the blocking of railway lines have spread across Spain in protest at the Bologna Process, an EU-inspired series of university and college reforms.

The Bologna Process has also provoked significant student opposition in Italy, Finland and Croatia, with hundreds of thousands of students, professors and parents descending on Rome on 30 October for the largest student protest the country has seen since the sixties.

Echoing the 2005 riots by black and Maghreb young people across France, in the last few days on a albeit on a much smaller scale in Malmo, Sweden, there have been running battles between youth and police.

On Thursday (18 December) Immigrant youths and left-wing students protesting the shutting down of an Islamic cultural centre threw stones at police and set fire to vehicles and refuse bins.

The 'Greek Syndrome'

According to Britain's Daily Telegraph, the French president conferred with his counterparts at the December EU summit in Brussels about the youth protests, returning to Paris even more worried about a pan-European 'May 1968'.

Raymond Soubie, a councillor of the French president, said: "In my forty-year career, I have always refused to say that the spring or the autumn will be hot."

The Hot Autumn of 1969-70 was a massive rolling series of strikes in northern Italy that has since in the continental press referred to other autumns—or any season—with a larger than usual amount of industrial action.

"But today," he continued, "I think that all could be hot."

French and European leaders are all the more worried, as while the youth actions are likely to fizzle out in the short term, they have kicked off before the economic crisis really begins to pinch and could return with a vengeance if unemployment rates soar.

Leading member of France's Socialist Party, Laurent Fabius, told i-Tele: "The 'Greek Syndrome' menaces all countries today, as we find ourselves in a truly grave crisis with an explosion of social inequalities."

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