While angry students clashed with police in Paris over a new labor law, the daily life of soccer and smoking hashish among youths of North African descent went on as normal in the poor suburb where France’s wave of rioting broke out last year.
This time, the suburbs have been relatively calm — and it was student protests in Paris and other cities that devolved Thursday into stone-throwing clashes with police and car burnings.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin had unemployed youths from troubled suburbs like Clichy-sous-Bois in mind when he concocted the “first job contract” to make it easier for companies to hire — and fire — young workers as a remedy for sky-high youth unemployment rates.
The contract allows employers to fire young workers within their first two years in a job without giving a reason — a strategy to encourage companies to hire thousands of such people to bring down their 23 percent unemployment rate.
But the very youths the law is designed to help show little enthusiasm for it.
“This contract just means two years of anxiety,” said Mohammed, 20, between kicks of a soccer ball Thursday at a Clichy-sous-Bois shopping center. “Villepin is lying when he says it’s for us.”
Fear of reprisal
Rolling a hashish cigarette, an unemployed sanitation worker who gave his name only as Mourad criticized the law as a sop to companies and a sellout of youths. He would not give his family name, because he and others said they feared reprisals by police or disgrace to their parents.
“We agree with the students,” said Mourad, 26, who spent a year in prison for trafficking a stolen passport — a charge he denies. “But if we join them, with our darker skins, the cops will massacre us.”
Although the French are used to generous job protections, officials argue that youths understand the benefits of the new measure.
“Suburban youths are not afraid of the first job contract, because they’re sick of job insecurity,” Azouz Begag, the equal opportunities minister, was quoted Friday as saying in Liberation daily. “They say it’s an extra lever, a tool to lower unemployment.”
The northern suburb of Clichy is a world away from the ornate Sorbonne University in Paris’ Left Bank, an epicenter of violence Thursday night. France’s three-week wave of rioting erupted here in October after two teenage boys were electrocuted while hiding from police in an electric substation.
Edgy nights on the streets
Not much has visibly changed since the riots, Clichy-sous-Bois teens say. Police come round a bit less often; identity checks are a bit more rare. Nights are still edgy, though, and dozens of cars on average are still burned each night in France. When the suburban violence hit its peak, more than 1,400 cars were torched in a single night in early November.
“We had a crisis in the suburbs — we quickly forget — several months ago,” Villepin said in a prime-time TV interview Sunday to defend the new labor measure. “Unemployment among suburban youths is 40-50 percent. What do we tell them? That’s the question we must answer.”
The message is not getting through here. Youths do not expect any quick results from the contract and wonder how it is any different from temp work. They insist it does not solve the real problem for them: discrimination because of their foreign-sounding names and addresses in the troubled suburbs.
“Before the riots, at least companies sent a letter back — albeit saying ’no’ to my CV,” said Mohammed. “After the riots, several didn’t even respond.”