'We Will Not Be Thrown Away!'
Back in November, when the forests of tower blocks in the Paris suburbs were lit by rioters torching cars, Floréal Mangin woke each morning to count the blackened metal wrecks outside her bedroom window. She watched the gangs of boys in tracksuits and hoods who were setting light to all they could find. They had grown up with her, and some were in her class at school. "They were on self-destruct," she says. "They were destroying their own neighborhood, smashing their families' cars, but they had no other way of telling the world they existed."
Now Mangin, a slight 17-year-old in a sweatshirt with a cartoon on the front, is one of the organizers of a new youth rebellion in the banlieues, the suburbs beyond the moat of Paris's ring-road, where its poor and immigrant populations have been traditionally confined. And this time, they will not be ignored. Cars are burning again outside Mangin's classroom in Seine-Saint-Denis. It is places like this--where the youth unemployment of 50 percent is the highest in Western Europe--rather than the cafes of the Latin Quarter that are the motor for what is now being called the 2006 uprising.
On March 8, for the first time since 1968, students occupied the Sorbonne before being tear-gassed out three days later in a dawn raid by riot police. Since then, a whole district of Left Bank Paris has been sealed off behind metal barricades by thousands of RoboCop soldiers from the CRS--the riot police--fearful that the building will become the focus of violent revolt, as it was in '68. Two-thirds of France's universities have been occupied, on strike, blockaded or closed; hundreds of secondary schools have been taken over; and a middle-aged trade unionist, knocked unconscious during clashes between police and rioters, hangs between life and death in a coma. No one knows where this will end--not the teenage suburban lycée students, not the university students occupying their campuses, not the embattled poet-prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.
This is not like May '68, when Paris was at the center of a joyous global student revolt against capitalism, imperialism and the Vietnam War, as well as the universities' antiquated regulations. Then, as paving stones were hurled at police, the philosopher-rebels demanded the right to break free from their superiors and live their dreams, chanting, "Under the paving stones, the beach!" Now Mangin, whose father is unemployed, sees nothing under the concrete except more concrete.
She is one of the accidental teenage leaders of France's new student uprising, which began slowly on January 31 and has shaken the country. Mangin is standing with her sixth-form comrades in the engine room of the "movement," a ramshackle warren hidden up a spiral staircase behind a street of halal butchers near Paris's Gare du Nord. It is from these back rooms, littered with pamphlets, that sixth-formers (16 and older) have coordinated in painstaking detail their "actions" to paralyze hundreds of French schools. Every surface is weighted down with the paraphernalia of revolt: spray-paint cans, sheets painted with slogans, megaphones. A fog of smoke hangs in the air as teenagers, fueled by cigarettes and chocolate biscuits, man assembly lines stapling placards. Some have parents who are unemployed, others are at prestigious feeder schools for France's top universities. "This is not a bourgeois movement; this is a movement of the people. The suburbs and the center of the city come together," says an artist's son who is planning to apply to the Sorbonne.
On the surface, this is a strange revolution. It was sparked by opposition to an "easy-hire, easy-fire" contract designed to ease France's crippling youth unemployment. The contrat première embauche, or CPE, is a "first employment contract" that the prime minister believes will spur employers to hire young workers safe in the knowledge that they don't have to keep them on. It allows them to fire workers under 26 after two years and without giving a reason, bucking all the traditions of the French paternalistic state, which prides itself on jobs for life. Current employment terms are prohibitively expensive for small businesses, making them reluctant to take young people on. For young people who already found themselves with no choice but to take some form of short-term contract, the CPE was the last straw.
The young rebels are fighting not for change but for the status quo--they want the same rights and benefits their parents enjoyed. They do not put flowers in their hair but take to the streets with nooses round their necks, carrying mock gallows and coffins, chanting, "We are disposable pieces of shit!"
But the festering anger goes deeper than the CPE. It's fury at what they see as the lie of the Republican ideal of liberté, égalité, fraternité. This is a country where, because everyone is supposed to be equal, and equally French, ethnic minorities are not counted. But most young people believe that no matter how many degrees you have, your chances of a decent job are nonexistent if you have a non-French name or an address in an immigrant suburb.