'We French do love to demonstrate'

Women walk through a fog of tear gas in Paris Image copyright EPA
Image caption Women walk through a fog of tear gas in Paris

The French government and unions have reached stalemate over a new labour law so it's protest time again on the streets of Paris, and politics is the conversation du jour while shopping or over lunch, writes Joanna Robertson.

Josiane Bertrand has a small family business - a neighbourhood charcuterie selling sausage, poached pigs' trotters, pate and jellied pig snouts. Her ham, she says, is the best in Paris and her queue of customers is long.

Despite the ceaseless rain outside - among all its other woes, France is now flooding - it's a convivial crowd waiting to be served, and the animated conversation is all about strikes.

If the opinion pages of Le Monde are to be believed, the charcuterie queue is a pretty accurate reflection of the mood of the country. Split, roughly half and half, between those for the Work Bill and those against.

Philippe's 28. He's landed what most French would regard as a dream job. He's a fonctionnaire working in local government. A fonctionnaire is an employee of the French state in almost any form of public administration and service.

It's a job for life - with solid pay and conditions, fixed working hours, a good pension, generous holidays. So, what many young French people aspire to is not to change the world - explore, create, set-up alone - but, with self-employment difficult and taxes punitive, they dream of becoming steadily employed bureaucrats.

Philippe knows he's lucky. And he's against any change. "I'm happy," he says. "I know exactly where I am and where I'll be in 40 years' time, with a good pension."

Eleonore, who has four children, two of them dancing around the shop as they wait, is in her early 40s. As a secondary school teacher she has also got a job for life and generous state benefits. But, unlike Philippe, she's all for change. "It can't go on like this. For every person like me, there are 20 or more with no hope at all," she says.

A quarter of all French people under 25, many of them well-qualified, have no work. A large number of those are from immigrant families, making their chances of employment even slimmer. These are the kind of people who voted Francois Hollande into the presidency in 2012, with his pledge to end the country's employment troubles.

Image copyright AFP

Now he's made a new promise, putting his own political career on the line - he's not running for re-election next spring unless he cuts unemployment. A bold move for a president with an approval rating of only 14% in a country riven by industrial disputes.

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Along with his prime minister, Manuel Valls, and Pierre Gattaz - known as the "boss of bosses", president of Medef, the largest federation of employers in France - Hollande stands against the combined power of the country's two biggest unions.

The proposed Work Bill runs to over 500 pages. It aims to simplify and liberalise the French Work Code which, at 3,689 pages, is a vast labyrinth beset with perils for employers.

The unions won't even consider negotiations until the bill is removed from parliament. The president and his allies refuse to change a word of it. "It's a good law, good for France," says Hollande. The result? Total stalemate. An ongoing siege.

Just after one o'clock on the glassed-in terrace of a popular restaurant on the Boulevard Montparnasse, and everything begins to go quiet. The traffic disappears from the street. Cordons of riot police move in, three columns deep, flanked by armoured vans. There's a whirr of helicopters overhead.

Image copyright AP

In the distance, a gathering roar and blare - the protesters. The noise becomes deafening. The riot police take up positions. Frederique, the waiter, temporarily locks the doors - and those having lunch find themselves exhibits in a kind of transparent, gastronomic showcase along with various grilled fish, bottles of wine and assorted desserts.

Looking in from the outside, hundreds of protesters passing down the boulevard, some marching, others ambling, a few dancing to music booming from the accompanying floats.

Looking out from the inside, the lunchers. The lunchers comment on the demonstrators, the demonstrators wave cheerily at the lunchers. There's general resigned, amused talk amid the eating - "Here we go again," and "Where will this round end?" And self-deprecating comments such as, "We French do love to demonstrate…"

Then it all subsides, passes on, the noise, the marchers, the red balloons and pounding music, leaving a trailing wake of litter. Frederique unlocks the doors. The conversation leaves the political, returns to the personal.

Similar reforms have already been implemented in Italy and Spain. Germany did so long ago - its unemployment, at 5%, is less than half that of France, which according to some commentators here now stands alone as the last bastion of 20th Century-style socialism in Europe.

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