A nation at war with itself

Observations on Paris

It is unwise to put civil service mandarins, however renowned, in charge of government. They find answers but they also miss political wrinkles, and the wrinkles may turn into ruts, then into chasms that cannot be bridged. This is the sad story of Dominique de Villepin, a fearless prince of the state imposed on France last year as prime minister. It is not only about personal come-uppance. The conflict in which he is engaged brings to a head what ails France.

It is no coincidence that students are on the front lines. The heaving population of the state university system has been forcing the hand of French governments since 1968. When a million and more take to the streets in protest, as they did last weekend, alarm bells ring loudly. They ring louder still when the unions join in and paving stones begin to fly.

The target of youth's anger is not mere education reform but a new labour law that goes to the heart of the nation's social anxieties. Even compared with the car-burning riots in big city suburbs across the country at the end of last year, which were a release of youthful ghetto frustrations, this looks dangerous. No wonder news crews from around the world are lining the Paris boulevards two-deep to record how ugly things get.

Villepin's priority has always been to break the spell of chronic unemployment, long set at 10 per cent nationally and more than twice that for young people under 26. After serving for many years as chief of staff to President Jacques Chirac, who named him a cabinet minister then prime minister, Villepin has been a bundle of mandarin energy.

As he sees it, the law he came up with in the new year to get the young into a first job achieves two objectives: it puts those to work who most need it, and it gives a touch of flexibility to France's extremely rigid labour code. As voted by parliament, his scheme encourages private sector employers to hire people under the age of 26 by enabling bosses to dispense with them within two years of hiring, without running foul of labour protection rules. Just the ticket, reasoned the patrician Villepin, for it is apparent that those stiff rules scare employers from hiring.

Had he properly consulted the political pros in his cabinet, he would have seen them count the wrinkles and heard them say "whoa there". But this was his solution, one that would give him weight as a successful reformer and help him fight off a true political beast - Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister - in the presidential contest next year.

Alas, it seems never to have struck Villepin that French fears of job insecurity have turned so feverish that the young would throw the gift in his face. A free hand for bosses to fire without cause! Discrimination in the job market! The unions support the backlash; they, too, were ignored in the preparation of Villepin's scheme, and they have programmed national strikes to derail it.

The enduring social response to employment fears is to hunker down behind the state protection screen. The scores of thousands of French youngsters who have crossed to England to find jobs in banks, hotels, shops and pizza parlours are an adventurous exception; their employment may be ten times more precarious than anything now offered by the Villepin scheme, but they have decided that, in any event, there are no openings at home. Perhaps the most revealing statistic on French society, so a recent poll finds, is that three in four young people without a brilliant education or special skills aspire, above all, to a safe, civil service office job.

There is an incredible social collision here between frightened conservatism and radicalism. Young people have interpreted the new labour law their way, and in the time-honoured manner that invariably makes French governments surrender, they have taken to the streets to kick it out.

But Villepin is not the customary government leader with well-tuned political antennae that inform him when the game is up. This prince of the state has a further mission: to defend democracy itself. He won't act like his cowering predecessors. "He would make a good prime minister in time of war," smiles one, the conservative Alain Juppé. Perhaps that will sound inspiring to Villepin. For war is what he has brought on himself.