Why are the young people of France choosing the unpopular paths of civil disobedience and confrontation with authority?
Outwardly, the nation's escalating unrest is being driven by a controversial youth labor law that makes it legal for an employer to hire a person under 26 and then dismiss her without cause during the first two years of employment.
To most Americans and all who champion the free-enterprise system, this revision in French law is just common sense. Allegedly, unemployment is over 10% in France, with even a higher proportion of young adults unable to secure entry level career opportunities.
Employers have been loath to hire young people because of the unyielding requirement of tenure from the first day on the job. This financial obligation causes caution and unemployment, retards the economic vitality of French companies, and perhaps is leading to lack of competitiveness in global markets. The French approach of guaranteed employment from the first day on the job smacks of socialism.
Guaranteeing long-term employment to new hires in the U.S. is anathema to this nation's widely supported "at will" employment contract, which for most nonunion jobs means that an employer can eliminate a job or employee without cause or justification at any time. Ironically, this tradition has had significant impact on middle-aged American Boomers, with layoffs and dismissals of millions over the last fifteen years in tandem with the growing popularity of outsourcing.
Somewhere in all this troubling news coverage is a lack of historical perspective of how quickly civil disobedience can sweep across a nation when authorities become entrenched and defiant of change ... when a government stops fully addressing the wishes of the governed.
In 1968, French colleges had been simmering for many years because of harsh conditions on campuses - both autocratic and overcrowded. Within the span of a few months, college students boiled onto the streets of Paris.
Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States, the student revolt began in January when a group of just 25 students demonstrated against unfair educational practices at the University of Nanterre.
On March 22nd, students occupied the 8th floor faculty lounge at Nanterre. On May 2nd, protest marches moved to Paris and to the Sorbonne, closing that august institution for the first time in 700 years. On May 6th, 1000 students gathered at the Sorbonne to escalate the visibility of their complaints against authorities. On May 13th, trade unions joined students to denounce and defy authorities. Civil disobedience then enveloped France as hundreds of thousands flooded the streets for weeks of confrontation and conflict.
These acts of civil disobedience were carried out by the parents of today's young protestors. Baby Boomers, called 68ers in France, ultimately had a powerful and critical impact on the outdated laws and traditions of that society. May 1968 led to reform, not revolution, and successfully ushered French business into the late 20th century dominated by global trade and competition.
Although I cannot pretend to understand the complexities of the current confrontations, to know who is right and who is wrong, I see parallels. I recall a bellicose cohort of Boomers in 1968, defying French authority and traditions to make education and economic opportunities more available to a wider population. I recall that these altercations were fundamentally caused by a breakdown in communication and the unwillingness of those in authority to listen to and then compromise with the next generation of leaders.
Civil disobedience and violence in 1968 began primarily because young people were disregarded and diminished by older adults and a patriarchic, entrenched system that restricted opportunity. History is repeating, and this time those who are apparently not listening carefully enough are the same as those who once stridently protested for social changes.
It's time for Boomers of all nations to recall the intensity of being young, the yearning for equality, the quest for meaning and opportunity, and then to listen to what the youth of France are saying and communicating with their actions. Guaranteeing them jobs for life seems ludicrous. Understanding the fears and anxieties driving such demands seems imperative.