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.
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.
Even a Sorbonne degree is no protection from the relentless “daily racism” that many feel permeates French society. Mohammed Konate, a Sorbonne law student who was born in Ivory Coast, says the color of his skin would put him at the back of the queue for jobs. Others say CVs are thrown in the bin if they come from troubled banlieues. Yamina, a Moroccan law student at another prestigious Paris faculty, says: “A nonwhite woman? From the banlieu? In a head scarf? I don’t think the odds are stacked in my favor, do you?”
In 1968 police brutality played a major role in transforming what started as spleen-venting by a few hundred privileged but radical students into a mass movement that threatened to turn French society on its head. Last autumn the riots in the suburbs were sparked by the deaths of two teenagers who were electrocuted after running from police and hiding in an electrical substation. At a March 28 demonstration, new banners appeared, demanding Justice for Cyril Ferez, a 39-year-old trade unionist lying in a coma since he was struck, according to witnesses, by riot police after a Paris protest on March 18. Pictures of him joshing with the riot police one minute and lying unconscious on the ground the next have stirred protesters.
There is a feeling that France is dancing on a volcano: that if there is a death, if someone is martyred in the protests, things could really erupt. Graffiti on the boulevards of Montparnasse, not far from the huge steel barrier the army erected to seal off the Sorbonne, says One Cop, One Bullet. Sarkozy has warned that the protests could light the kindling of unrest among violent kids from the suburbs. He has poured riot police into the center of Paris, where students have also attacked police, telling his officers to arrest as many people as possible, but warning they will be “judged on their cool.” He has broken with his potential presidential rival, de Villepin, in preaching compromise and dialogue, but the young protesters have so far judged him only on the police. The multiracial groups of teenagers from the suburbs who watched plainclothes police grabbing and frisking their counterparts in hooded tracksuits at the March 28 protest clenched their fists in silent rage. The spray paint on the walls of the Latin Quarter reads Put Sarkozy to the Wall.
Outside the metal fortress that surrounds the Sorbonne, where police riot vans still line the cobbled streets, Alexandre Duclos, a 25-year-old PhD student in philosophy, is on the twelfth day of a hunger strike as we go to press. He has tried student sit-ins and street protests; now he is taking a drastic measure against “the army’s occupation” of the Sorbonne. “It’s not the police–they do their work, they obey orders,” he says. “The question is, Who is giving them those orders? This society is extremely fragile. When have you ever seen a sight like this? A Western European army taking over a university, shutting it down and sealing it off behind a steel wall? This movement isn’t just about resistance to change and employment law. This society has failed.”
The French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard has spent his life warning of the dangers of the “media simulated” reality we take for truth. But he saw last autumn’s riots and the burning cars as “a sort of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honor of the Unknown Immigrant,” an anger that won’t go away. President Chirac may not have a plane waiting on the tarmac, as de Gaulle did to flee in 1968, but it remains to be seen whether his party can calm the storm.