Chapter 16: My friend the CPE
Are you seeing the footage of the strikes and riots here? I'm not sure how much I need to explain. Basically, this is the deal: forty per cent of French youth (26 and under) are unemployed. This was one of the main reasons for the riots last fall, which were labelled "suburban" but which included burning stores and breaking windows in downtown Lyon.
France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, in response to said riots and the general griping in the country about unemployment, came up with the CPE -- First Employment Act? -- under which employees under the age of 26 can be fired with little to no explanation during a two-year trial period. "Without explanation" is arguably the only sticky point in an otherwise smart initiative; under France's current employment laws, it's terrifying for a boss to hire anyone because employees are so well protected and so expensive to upkeep that the employer can be stuck with awful workers and impossible taxes for life. So obviously they don't want to hire anyone and obviously there's unemployment.
Does the CPE need to be adjusted? Sure. Should Villepin have been so final in his presentation? Probably not. Is he kind of sleazy and creepy and an interview bully? Well, yes. But is all this strike action justified?
"Aargh!" cry the angry young people, "we are angry! You aren't listening to us!"
"I am open to dialogue," says Villepin, as he has been saying since the beginning. "I'd like to talk about this and maybe find a compromise."
There is a nervous silence as the young people rack their brains for something to be angry about, in the face of this reasonable proposition to find a solution to unemployment.
"Aargh!" they cry triumphantly. "You're too late! We don't want to talk anymore!"
And they continue to set fires in department stores, throw large rocks at the riot police and block the universities so that all the students who would like to continue their own journey towards unemployment by finishing their degrees have to organize their own counter-demonstrations.
In other words, the CPE is just an excuse to rage against the machine. I'm sure there are a few people who really think it's a bad idea and could argue against it using full sentences and not pepper spray or the word "putain," but they aren't being interviewed; "Villepin sucks!" is pretty much as intelligent as I've heard. They charge out into the streets with signs and torches, occasionally with viking costumes or large Disney-style mascots, though what a bear suit has to do with the CPE remains unclear.
A few weeks ago there was a demonstration downtown around a monument that had just gone up in the name of the Turkish-Armenian "conflict"; the Turkish protestors were not okay with it being called a genocide. (There were no Armenians present to defend their side of the argument, having all been killed in the not-genocide.) As it happens, the CPE demonstrations had just finished in the same neighbourhood, having started that morning at the university on my street and blocked my subway access and thus my route to work -- but I digress. The demonstrators, perhaps keyed up from a day of Villepin-hating, joined the Turks and turned a mild crowd into a stomping, chanting, charging mob. Riot police were called onto the scene, news cameras caught the action.
Now, what the HELL were these kids doing at the Turkish demonstrations, cause-hopping like that? This isn't a game. Except that it is, and that's just the problem: all they want is something to get angry about, to claim that rights are being abused. Actual human atrocities in, say, Darfur or Guantanamo, are just really far away and nobody's too clear on the stories anyway, so... CPE it is! Down with the CPE!
What's interesting is that the demonstrators are all the middle-class university students who have never had jobs before (school is state-funded and few students work) and will get jobs when they graduate, as the employment statistics demonstrate. They enjoy endless strikes -- which, funnily enough, never include demonstrations on the week-end -- while the young people who are actually in the work force and struggling against reluctant employers are hoping to hell that these whining students just SHUT UP ALREADY and the thing goes through. Fire me in two years if you must; at least that gives me two years of work and a boost towards finding a new job.
Also not demonstrating are foreigners, and not just because they want to mind their own business and not be arrested or assaulted by the police for someone else's cause. I think it's mostly because their being from the outside gives them some perspective.
1. French people need all the help they can get finding jobs, since it's impossible without the exact right diploma, including volunteering in a day care, which I am not allowed to do -- despite having done summer camps of all ages for ten years and I'm not exaggerating -- because I do not have the B.A.F.A. diploma. My colleague’s nephew was a ski patrol mountain rescue guy but he had an accident and now he can't ski. You'd think he could find a job in the city, maybe first aid-related, something with the ambulance or fire brigade, something in sports or fitness training, but he can't. Sorry, your diploma says the word "mountain" on it and absolutely can not be adjusted to match any other job. Welfare for you, and dammit if our taxes aren't off the charts! Why does this keep happening?!
2. When you're unhappy about something, there are many ways to express your feelings. You can write a letter to the newspaper, say, or accept the prime minister's repeated invitations to talk things over; a strike should be your last resort. I don't feel that striking three days a week at random, shutting down public transit, the post office and the airport and causing riots (because people are stupid, have always been so, and can't help their mob mentality) are particularly good or thoughtful solutions. I wouldn't hire you either, you bunch of jerks.
3. What the rest of the world is okay with is that sometimes you have a crappy job. Often, even, when you're young. Your internship is temporary (the cause of last month's rage and strikes), you have to do some menial tasks and maybe work a week-end every once in a while, and you suck it up because you never expected to be the CEO at age 23. You EARN job stability and raises in pay and if you're really bad at your job, you will probably lose it. That's how it works.
I understand that they want to preserve their nice number of hours and vacation and pay and security and all the rest -- who wouldn't? -- but they can't do all that without unemployment. You have your crepe or you eat it, mes amis, it can't be both. I want to be sympathetic to the cause: this is a first step towards -- steel
yourselves -- CHANGE [gasp!] and I guess it can seem threatening. But their way of going about it is so frustrating and unprogressive and self-righteous that I'm turned off by the whole thing. Why don't you try a new approach to your economy and actually WORK for a change? Huh? There won't be time for demonstrations, which might be a problem for you, but I think it just -- might -- be worth a try.
Anyway. That was in case any of you were hearing things about France losing its mind and maybe saying to yourselves, "I wonder what our Kathryn has to say about all of this." Now you know. What I have to say is: "blech."
The apartment is kind of a hassle these days. First was the water: it's heated by a big white thing over the toilet, whatever that means to you, and the white thing has been leaking since November. Our landlord finally got a replacement, waited for me to come home from Canada and Franck from Marseille, then came and shut off our water. It was supposed to be just hot water and just one day, but of course he didn't want to pay for a plumber and he knew what he was doing (read: he had no idea what he was doing.) He muffed it up and ended up banging and smashing things in our narrow little hallway for five days, blocking the toilet so that I was always panicky about not being able to pee. And no hot water, which meant boiling water and pouring it over my shampooed head, not as romantic as I had imagined. (The tricky part is when you realize you didn't boil enough: do you take your wet self out into the freezing cold kitchen and wait for a new pot to boil, or do you just use the ice water in the shower to rinse off your head? Neither one is really a happy solution.)
This is obviously nowhere near as traumatizing as the plumbing problems I hear from Julie in Moldova or Clara in Mexico, but suffering is relative and our apartment is COLD. I've never been so happy to see someone leave: I washed the floor with cold water, so desperate was I to live in a clean and chaos-free space.
We had some early-morning visits -- all unannounced, despite my repeatedly writing down my phone number and saying "make an appointment" -- from the pipe-fixing guy, as the rain water gathers in our broken pipe and floods the girl downstairs. (Her cigarette smoke has made my wardrobe -- nay, my life -- smell like an ashtray, so I think the floods are just what she deserves and am in no hurry to help. Call it karma.) On his third visit, when he buzzed at 7:45 a.m., we decided to show him who's boss and pretend we weren't home. So the super intendant let him in! Super jerk! They tried to scold us for intentionally sabotaging their fix-it project but I tore into them about courtesy and respect and how dare they barge into our home when we have specifically asked them to call and arrange a time. Franck's favourite part was "I'm standing here talking to you in my nightgown. Do you think that's normal?!" The guy happened to finish his work that morning and never had the chance to sheepishly ask me when he could come by again, so all I can do is fantasize. In one version, he cries.
I gave my three months' notice -- that's right, he asks for three months -- later than planned, so I'm hoping the landlord will find someone to move in before my official leave date so I don't have to keep paying rent. A girl came to visit, though, and I told her how much he had jacked up the price (from our 490 euros to 600! It's highway robbery!) and that the hydro bills were really bad and it's freezing in the winter... After she left, Franck said, "so -- do we NOT want to find someone for this apartment, then?" We agreed that next time I'll go for a hot chocolate down the street while the apartment's being viewed.
I have more to say, believe it or not, so consider yourselves warned that another e-mail is soon to follow. But the bell's ringing for class and I have to come up with something to do with the little buggers -- anyone have a grade six lesson they want to share?