'We Will Not Be Thrown Away!'
In late March Mangin and her classmates voted to end the blockade of their Seine-Saint-Denis high school when two burning cars were pushed toward the front gates. They see teenage boys traveling with baseball bats to the center of Paris to join otherwise peaceful demonstrations, throwing petrol bombs at police, torching cars, being tear-gassed and hauled off in vans. "It's starting again," she says. "We can feel the burning starting again in the suburbs. It never really went away. The government has done nothing to address the hell of life in the poor suburbs--no jobs, prison, broken homes. And one name gets them back on the street and into a frenzy of fighting--Nicolas Sarkozy," the interior minister and presidential pretender who vowed to clean up the suburbs with a power hose last fall.
As always, the media are looking for a photogenic young revolutionary leader, a modern replica of '68 pinups like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, "Danny the Red." But the teenager who more than anyone is pulling the strings of the schoolyard revolt isn't interested in fame. Karl Stoeckel, 19, could not be further from the romantic, preening revolutionaries of '68. He emerges from his tiny back office in a neat sweater, beige trousers and polished shoes, apologizing for the mess left by his comrades. "The '68 leaders were completely different people," he says. "Maybe they were more romantic. But I would not want to become what they have turned into now. It's a little tragic when you see some of them. They are the greatest capitalists in the world." The leader of France's biggest union of sixth-formers, he has survived on four hours' sleep a night for weeks, going to the barricades to motivate striking schoolkids, sending daily press releases from his office tallying the number of schools that are paralyzed. The fight over numbers is at the heart of the struggle; the education ministry's figure is, inevitably, at least a third less than Stoeckel's.
Stoeckel, who was briefly arrested at a student roadblock, is trying to study in spare moments so he doesn't slip in his baccalauréat grades. He wants to study law at one of France's top faculties. Like Cohn-Bendit's, Stoeckel's parents are immigrants: His father is German, his mother Malaysian. His father, an engineer, is now unemployed. "He's over 50. There is age discrimination in France and he can't find a job. He won't really talk about it," Stoeckel says. He believes France is going through a catastrophic period, that people are being left out in the cold. "I am not a revolutionary," he says. "This is not romantic at all--it's important and it's very serious. We are doing this for the future of all the generations who are going to follow us."
Cohn-Bendit, now a member of the European Parliament in Germany, has dismissed the new movement as the "no" generation, with none of the optimism and ideas of the '68 radicals. For once the right in France agrees with him, claiming that Stoeckel's revolution symbolizes all that is wrong in the French psyche. To them, it is students again scuppering the necessary reform governments have tried to introduce for twenty years. The young, they claim, want to remain cocooned in thirty-five-hour-a-week jobs for life, with employment laws that make it almost impossible to get rid of staff.
But Julie Coudry, the photogenic, floppy-hat-wearing leader of the breakaway student confederation, disagrees. To her, the '68 revolutionaries had the luxury of fighting for their dreams because they had comfortable homes and jobs for life awaiting them. "The '68 crowd had a lot of utopia and dreams; now we are having to deal with the reality," Coudry says. "Our generation is saying we are angry that the ['68 students] didn't find a lasting solution. People say we are like Communist or Marxist revolutionaries, but we don't want to cut with economic society.... We are not just an 'anti' generation. We just want to build our own future, and we're ready and waiting to put forward our ideas."
Perhaps the biggest media star to emerge from the protests is Bruno Julliard, the square-jawed and straight-talking head of the largest student union, UNEF, who has taken his place alongside France's union leaders to deliver ultimatums to the government. When a loose coalition of students demanded on March 26 that the whole French government resign, Julliard was careful to distance himself from the call. He took to the airwaves, saying he did not want any "victors or losers" in this battle, just the withdrawal of the CPE. Accused at the start of the protests of spending more time talking to the cameras than talking at the barricades, Julliard, whose mother is a Socialist mayor, sees himself as a public spokesman for a movement that is really being driven by the protesters on the ground.
The question now is where the movement will go. French President Jacques Chirac passed the law on April 2, amending it so that young workers could be fired after one year, not two, and stating that employers must give a reason. The law will not come into effect until the changes are made. Interior Minister Sarkozy has been charged with initiating talks among the government, unions and students, but many think the protests will continue. Trade unions and student leaders estimated that on April 4, 3 million protesters took to the streets across France. One student tells me the anti-CPE movement has become the flag of a "dispossessed generation," sick of a society run by a permanent elite where so many people have no place. Universities are now calling for an amnesty for all rioters who were rounded up in the suburbs after car-burning sprees in the autumn. "They were just making their stand to change society. It is no good locking them up," says one Muslim student at Nanterre, where the '68 revolt began.