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Protests Over French Labor Law Expose Social Chasm

Urban vandals, who see the debate as symbolic of a privileged society that has little to do with them, add a volatile element to the crisis.

April 11, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The promise of action lured them from distant housing projects to the capital's historic Place de la Republique, where tens of thousands of marchers had gathered for a day of protest.

Lionel Morellon and Johan Ardenne dressed for the occasion in the baggy street uniform of casseurs, or urban vandals. Morellon's long-sleeved red shirt bore a map of his native Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean island. The bushy-haired 20-year-old concealed his face with a scarf. Ardenne, 19, tall and rangy, his hair arranged in short African braids, wore a dark hooded sweatshirt with the same map. As the subway train neared its destination, he turned up his hood.

The crowds were assembling for a demonstration March 28 against a new labor law. But Morellon, Ardenne and two teenage friends had no interest in that. For them, the day was about hunting prey among protesters and passersby. And they ended up in jail.

Strikes and street skirmishes involving student protesters are traditions in France. But robberies, beatings and lootings by hundreds of casseurs from the projects who infiltrated protests in Paris and other cities have added a new and volatile element to a political crisis over labor reform.

The new law, proposed in response to nationwide riots in immigrant areas last fall, was intended to help young men like Morellon and Ardenne: dropouts with criminal records, no jobs and few prospects. As far as most youths from their bleak neighborhoods are concerned, however, the politicians and the protesters are symbiotic representatives of a privileged French society that has little to do with them. And the demonstrations have become tempting targets for gangs.

According to confessions and court testimony, the four young men surrounded a man on a subway platform and demanded his MP3 player and cellphone. Morellon punched the man repeatedly in the face before he and the others stomped him. Caught in the act by police on foot patrol, one assailant tossed a dagger onto the tracks.

The police confiscated three stolen MP3s from Ardenne. Morellon first claimed that he had come from Corbeil-Essonnes, south of Paris, for the demonstration against the labor law, known as the CPE. But when police asked him what the CPE was, he said, "I don't know."

Morellon and Ardenne each received a 15-month prison sentence. Rampages like theirs are a reminder that France's immigrant-dominated industrial suburbs remain on edge. Riot police still patrol many of the recovering areas. Authorities and residents fear that a clash with police, a death, even a rumor, could ignite new unrest.

"We are never safe from that possibility," said a top intelligence official. "What's key is a triggering incident. And media coverage. Sometimes incidents seem bad but don't get coverage. Others do, and the desire to emulate sets in."

There have been some positive political repercussions from the November riots. A campaign by actors and singers has increased voter registration in riot-torn areas among French-born young people and older immigrants. Television networks have put minority broadcasters in prominent roles. The government has pushed anti-discrimination efforts such as removing names from resumes, a response to studies showing that employers are five times more likely to interview a job applicant with a French name than a similarly qualified applicant named Mohammed.

In addition, the government had advanced the law that would have curtailed stringent labor regulations that, employers say, freeze young people into hard-core joblessness. The measure would have created a two-year probationary period for workers under 26 to encourage employers to take a risk on new hires without the long-term commitment of most job contracts.

But critics called it a ruse intended to dismantle a welfare state that ensures job security, long vacations and other generous benefits. On Monday, the government promised to withdraw the most disputed aspects of the reform.

Nonetheless, despite the protesters' rhetoric about defending all workers, the debate has exposed a social chasm between middle-class students of French ancestry and young people from immigrant housing projects racked by unemployment.

"They say the students are marching because they are fearful about their future," said Sadika Nhari, director of a social service center in a large housing project in Argenteuil, northwest of Paris. "Our kids don't have a future."

Mario, a 23-year-old of African origin, said that hopelessness bred the violent nihilism of the casseurs.

"The kids who break everything don't think further than the end of their nose," he said, looking up from a sports newspaper in a shopping mall where idle young men roamed. "They see the present day and tell themselves they have nothing to win or lose."

The severe, institutional-looking mall, located in the middle of a housing project in the high-crime Paris suburb of Sevran, has been pillaged in the past by vandals using cars as battering rams.

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