France’s Jobless Take Demands Into the Streets


She is university-educated, well-spoken and exquisitely polite, but citizens such as Beatrice, an auburn-haired Parisian who finds herself without steady work as she faces middle age, are making the French government tremble these days.

On Tuesday, the unemployed Frenchwoman and thousands like her were in the streets, demanding a less precarious present and a more secure future.

“I’m no longer being given a chance because I am 44,” complains Beatrice, who despite degrees in Spanish and English and a background as an executive secretary is now able only to find occasional work as a temp. Paid $366 in monthly unemployment benefits, she can no longer afford to put gasoline in her car. She uses a home computer to bone up on the latest work-related software but admits her hopes of finding a steady job are dwindling.


“And what’s going to happen when I’m 50?” asks the sad-eyed woman, who did not want her last name printed. “Nobody is going to want me.”

In what might be termed France’s Revolt of the Have-Nots, now in its second month, some of the country’s long-term unemployed such as Beatrice have been taking collective action to pressure authorities into doing more to solve their problems.

Some analysts have seen a parallel with the sans-culottes, the hungry and ill-clad Paris masses that pushed French revolutionaries toward the Terror more than 200 years ago. Opinion polls show the jobless have the support or sympathy of two-thirds of the French, many of whom are wary about where globalization of the economy and European integration may lead.

On Tuesday, the jobless marched in Paris, Marseilles, Arras, Grenoble and other cities, with as many as 10,000 on the pavement in the capital alone. About 300 invaded the Paris Commerce Exchange in the Halles quarter, and several dozen people, believed to be mainly young anarchists who had nothing to do with the demonstration, trashed office equipment and dumped files on the floor. Eleven police officers were injured, two of them seriously, when protesters hurled fire extinguishers, wooden planks and pails loaded with gravel, officials said.

In other locations across France, including Quimper, Nimes, Ales, Montauban, Reims and Troyes, jobless men and women and their sympathizers occupied government or private offices or staged sit-ins.

“People who used to be just statistics have finally raised their heads,” Richard Dethyre, president of one of four national associations of the jobless, said in Paris.


The protests have blown up into the biggest political challenge to face Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin since he took office eight months ago, as well as caused the widest fissures yet in his coalition government.

Caught napping by the jobless sit-ins, which began Dec. 11 in Marseilles and its environs and quickly spread, Jospin last week brandished both a carrot and a stick.

On Friday, the prime minister, a former economics professor, announced a billion francs in increased emergency aid to people without work. The next day, the government sent in police to evict occupying demonstrators from employment and benefits offices. It didn’t work.

“We’re not at the end of the story. On the contrary, this is the beginning of a movement,” Malika Zedari, vice president of the Assn. for Employment, Information and Solidarity for the Jobless and Precariously Employed, predicted to a Paris newspaper.

Combating joblessness, now running at 12.4%, more than twice the current U.S. level, has been the avowed priority of France’s government since it captured power from the center-right in June. But the linchpins of Jospin’s program--a proposed law to reduce the workweek to 35 hours from 39 and a government-supported jobs program for 350,000 young people--haven’t kindled great enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, the number of people without a job for a year or more has increased, to more than 1.1 million, and benefits to some of the unemployed, including a year-end “bonus” of $500 that had been handed out in some regions, have been trimmed.


“I’m fed up with unemployment and with living from day to day,” said Martine Vonck, 48, of Paris. “It’s three years that I’ve been without a job, after 20 years in retail and marketing.” The recipient of $350 in monthly unemployment payments, Vonck says she now buys used clothes and eats bread and cafe au lait instead of steak.

The conflict has provoked unprecedented public divisions in Jospin’s Cabinet: Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, the only member from the Greens, approved the strikers’ actions as “legitimate,” while Martine Aubry, the Socialist in charge of the powerful ministry of employment, initially deplored their tactics as illegal. Communist leader Robert Hue, whose party comrades hold two ministerial portfolios, has endorsed the demonstrators’ demands.

The protests, and a simultaneous rash of violence in the poor neighborhoods of some French cities, have been an unexpected boon for conservative President Jacques Chirac, who has been uneasily sharing power with Jospin.

Chirac’s job as head of state gives him a lofty pulpit to sympathize with the jobless and lambaste Jospin, while as head of government, the bespectacled Socialist must wrestle with day-to-day economic and social problems.

“If the movement lasts, it will give greater margin of maneuver to Jacques Chirac,” said Etienne Schweiguth, a specialist on French society at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris.

In another blow to Jospin, this time from the right, France’s leading business barons warned that his government’s blueprint to reduce the workweek to 35 hours, a measure supposed to create employment, is doomed to backfire. “That is something that will work against jobs, that will break the recovery we see now,” said Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of the CNPF employers association.


Since the revolt of the unemployed began, Chirac has said France’s prolific government regulations must be eased so the private sector can create more jobs. “Is it reasonable that we are the country where public sector employment has the most progressed over the last 20 years, while the creation of jobs in the private sector was the least numerous?” he asked.

Official statistics recently showed that France’s registered jobless are only the most visible part of a swelling underclass of 7 million who must make do with part-time or casual employment. Despite Chirac’s arguments, many of these men and women are now expecting Jospin and his government, and not the market, to improve their lives.

“The fact there’s a government of the left changes the deal,” said Zedari, the official with the association of the unemployed. “After all, this government got itself elected out of the fear of unemployment. We want the government to succeed, but it’s got to give itself the means.”