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l THE pictures of black smoke covering buildings at the Esplanade des Ivalides and drifting towards the Eiffel Tower in Paris were a dramatic warning that the stand-off between the French government, young people and students, and the unions, is escalating dangerously. Yesterday's fruitless talks between the prime minister and the CFTD union underlined that there is no meeting of minds. The nationwide strike called for next Tuesday is likely to draw massive support on a scale that only the French seem any longer able to mount in these supposedly apathetic times. There is a parallel to be drawn between the young protestors in the streets and the politicians who represent France at international meetings such as the European Union summit which ended in Brussels yesterday. France is being accused by some of its fellow EU-members of being unwilling to respect the principles of the EU free market by modernising and opening up its somewhat sclerotic economy to activity and competition from companies and citizens of other EU countries. It is usually thought that those who defend the old way are out of touch with ordinary people, especially the young. But in the protests of the young French one sees resistance to change that would release employers from rigid regulations. The source of the trouble is a government proposal by the relatively reformist prime minister Dominique de Villepin that would make it possible for employers to dispense with the services of young employees within two years without giving any reason or entering into contractual discussions. This would open up the static job market and also help the many young immigrant family jobseekers to whom employers are reluctant to give a binding contract without a period of probation. The social protection which successive French governments have built for their citizens have led to a nation that is apparently nervous of change and innovation. Yet change cannot be resisted. On Thursday President Chirac walked out of a Brussels meeting of businessmen when a French official said that he would speak in English because “English is the language of business”. President Canute may not like it, but what his compatriot said is true. Change happens.
By Monitor.