“Be realistic, ask for the impossible” was one of the slogans that turned the French riots of 1968 into the symbol of a generation. A widespread struggle against laissez-faire capitalism, the Vietnam War, and stagnant social institutions, the riots were ignited by Sorbonne University students in an attempt to ‘defend’ their alma mater. Oh, college!
Similarly, this past weekend, the French police have evicted Sorbonne students trying to revive the uprising, this time in response to a bill from the conservative government attempting to relax labor laws for young employees. Despite the remnants of Romanticism rooted in our young souls, the struggle of 2006 is mistaken in means and ends, just like the 1968 turned out to be.
Last month, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin managed to create a First Employment Contract, which liberalizes employment for young adults up to 26 years old. The law only affects small companies, but promises a type of contract that can be broken by the employer any time within two years of hiring without an explanation. Unions, socialist representatives, and Sorbonne students alike immediately cried bloody murder, claiming that they deserved the same opportunities and work protections their parents enjoyed.
But as baby boomers on both sides of the Atlantic begin to go on welfare and as birth rates continue to fall and life expectancy to rise, the state will already have a terrible time retiring our parents. European welfare might indeed be a symbol of true development, of care for the disfranchised, and even of superiority to the American model, but it cannot be sustained as it stands. Therefore, despite the popular backlashes, reforms must advance.
The young and unemployed in France make up more than 20% of the population ,and small businesses are not willing to deal with the extra costs of huge marginal tax rates, compensation, and other labor costs. The bill might be incompatible with post-World War II standards, but just like Germany and Italy, France has to adapt in order to save its precious safety net. If reforms do not pass, the whole European project is at stake. This is about adaptation or extinction.
In 1968, amidst the barricades that inspired Jean Paul Sartre, ideals rotted because of extremism and ideological stagnation. Beautiful dreams turned into anarchism, burning books, and Jacobin violence. Today, Michel Houellebecq, a prominent French writer, points out how even the utopian sexual revolution was perverted into a quasi-capitalist system of inescapable repression and perversion. So much for college dreams.
According to another ’68 slogan, beneath the cobblestones, the beach lay. The beach is still there, waiting for the “days of wine and roses,” and the promise of rejuvenated welfare. But burning books and occupying universities is not the way; the French police were right to intervene. France needs to be more practical and less ideologically stagnant. The crux, however, is that both sides of the Atlantic need to open eyes to the fact that we will never enjoy our parents’ benefits (or idealism, for that matter) unless we adapt to the economic reality facing us. Unfortunately, at the Sorbonne, that seems to be asking for the impossible.
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Thayer Hall.