Match to a haystack

It appears that it is written into the French DNA to be the ones to open up new avenues or at least set developments into motion; even when things are apparently calm on the surface, a single event is usually enough to release simmering forces within society. For the third time in a year, France has lived up to its reputation as Europe’s political laboratory. In a referendum in May 2005, the French rejected the European Constitution. Last fall, there was an uprising by disaffected suburban youth. Now, student sit-ins at universities are confirming that traditional revolutionary fervor is alive and kicking. However, the deeper causes lie in the accumulated dissatisfaction of the lower middle classes that are seeing their incomes decimated and their labor rights undermined. A pervading climate of insecurity usually serves to contain any desire to protest on the individual level, but it also creates conditions for social upheaval. The Villepin law was simply the last straw, the match that set the haystack alight. This time the protesters are not the children of Muslim immigrants but of the petit bourgeois French families who see that their career dreams will most likely never be realized. Only six in 10 university graduates are expected to find jobs related to their studies. It is precisely that sense of futility that has enraged French youth. Although it is difficult to predict the course of events, there are signs that the situation is escalating – not because of the unions, but the involvement of schoolchildren. The crucial question is whether the fire will spread to Germany and Italy, which are both in a state of social upheaval. If that happens, Europe will be swept up by a wave that will force it not only to review its course but to make deep changes.