Paris, 8 January 1998 (RFE/RL) - Yesterday, the day the new Hollywood film "Titanic" opened in France, the prestigious daily "Le Monde" ran a front-page cartoon depicting the Left Government as the ill-fated ocean liner steaming towards an iceberg covered with protesting unemployed.
By no coincidence, yesterday was also the day when thousands of the several million French jobless, whose month-long protests have already shut down 55 unemployment offices across the country, marched through Paris and many other cities to demand increased government aid. In the capital, they chanted, "We're fed up without a job" and "Those who sow misery will reap anger." In the northern town of Arras, a group of unemployed occupied a bank, while in eastern Rennes they took over the city hall and in southeastern Bordeaux occupied the local chamber of commerce. At a leisure park near Poitiers, in central France, demonstrators claiming "the right to culture" forced their way in for free.
Over the past several weeks, too, there has been a quantum leap in what is called "random" street violence by gangs of youths --mostly unemployed and of North African origin-- in French cities and suburbs. More than 100 cars were burned over the New Year's weekend in Strasbourg suburbs alone. Few arrests were made, for fear that would spark additional violence.
For when the French take to the streets in this manner, as they have been doing periodically for more than 200 years, Left and Right governments alike pay great heed, quake and usually cave in to protesters' demands. French memories of street actions date back to the 1789 revolution that tumbled the monarchy, with the freshest in mind the 1968 student "cultural revolution" that shook the middle class to its bones and eventually forced President Charles de Gaulle from power. What's more, according to recent public-opinion polls, this time the jobless protesters enjoy the sympathy and support of close to two-thirds of the entire population --most of whom have a relative or friend on the dole.
How many are actually unemployed today in France? The Government, which only a few years ago changed the criteria for designating the jobless, admits to more than 3.3 million, or 12.4 percent of the registered work force. But more objective observers, including the International Labor Organization and the French government's own statistics office, point out that these figures do n-o-t include several important categories: those receiving government support for training programs, the long-time jobless who no longer even bother to seek work, and part-time workers seeking full employment.
When all these and other so-called "hidden" unemployed are figured in, the actual jobless number adds up more than double the government's figures --that is, over one-quarter of the potential work force, or about seven million. This is occurring in a country of 58 million people whose full-time employed don't exceed 25 million. Of them, no less than five million --including two million teachers-- are employed by the state. In addition, of the up to seven million out of work, more than a third have been on the dole for more than a year, and 25 percent of them are young people from 16 to 25 years of age mostly looking for their first job.
The chief reason for this remarkable but long-time social deficiency is the rigidity of what economists call the "labor market" in France. That term includes the high social welfare costs employers must pay for those who have worked for them more than six months, and the already high --compared at least to Britain and the U.S.-- unemployment and welfare benefits the state pays out to the jobless. High unemployment has persisted for years despite successive Center-Right and Left-led governments subsidizing job-creation programs, which have regularly eaten up 10 percent of the national budget.
Whatever the causes, it's no wonder that cartoonists reach for the "Titanic" metaphor. For several years now, analysts and commentators have been wondering when France's next explosion would occur in the streets. It now seems clear that, whatever the force of the explosion, it will come from what the French call "the excluded" --jobless and often homeless men, women and young people.
The Socialist-led Government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin certainly knows this. That's why, after meeting with jobless and union representatives this afternoon, Jospin will probably announce tomorrow a substantial increase in unemployment benefits. The protesters are asking for a rise in minimum welfare benefits for those jobless --numbering in the low millions-- who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. They also want an end-of-the-year bonus, similar to most full-time employees' "13th month" allotment, of about five hundred dollars.
The protesters are likely to get much of what they are demanding. Unfortunately, that will do nothing to resolve the basic jobs problem in France, which most analysts say can only be achieved by overhauling the social charges and welfare system and loosening the rigid and over-regulated labor market.
All French politicians are unwilling to do that, for fear of being swiftly kicked out of office. To justify their inaction, they point to the number of people below the poverty level in relatively job-rich Britain and the U.S., saying that's why they'll keep their vaunted "social model." Perhaps, say numerous critics, they ought to take a more honest look at how many are actually impoverished in France.