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French pension strikes highlight youth jobs malaise

Retirement is a distant horizon for a 23-year-old, but that has not stopped French youths from bringing their anxiety about the future into the heart of a protest movement against pension reform.
/ Source: Reuters

Retirement is a distant horizon for a 23-year-old, but that has not stopped French youths from bringing their anxiety about the future into the heart of a protest movement against pension reform.

The thousands who marched in protests this week magnified the fears of a generation facing high joblessness, years of fiscal austerity, an aging population and the prospect of working much longer careers than their parents, analysts said.

Their participation caught French media by surprise, coming ahead of the start of classes at many major universities and despite government efforts over the summer to appease students by boosting grant payouts.

"Why are young people in the streets?" asked a banner headline in Le Parisien daily on the day of the strikes.

Anne Muxel, an expert in youth movements at Sciences Po' university in Paris, said youthful concerns about pension reform were symptomatic of deeper anxiety about their prospects.

"This is a generation that feels deep anxiety about its future, that is afraid," she said. "It's a general anxiety that encompasses the job market and (youths') professional prospects, but also in the longer term the idea of retirement."

High social costs and rigid labor laws make employers reluctant to offer youths long-term work contracts. Studies are long, and few students hold jobs. On average, French youths start their career at 27, later than in Germany or Britain.

This has fed youths' worries about how long they will have to contribute to their pensions, as the reform calls for extending the pay-in period to 41.5 years from 40.5 by 2020.

Many argue that an aging population will force them to work for longer and longer -- more than the two-year increase called for by the reform -- to pay for an ever larger pool of pensioners from the baby-boom generation.

"This reform is meant to be led in the name of young people but we will be the hardest hit," said Marion Oderda, 24, a student at Paris XII university who joined the protest.

The government has said that without its reform, the pension system will lose 45 billion euros ($60 billion) per year by 2020. A draft of the reform bill has been approved by the lower house of Parliament with final passage expected next month.

PRACTICAL ANGER

While students remain a powerful force in French society, their motivations have changed since May, 1968, when student-led protests sent President Charles de Gaulle into hiding.

This generation is more practical.

"I am just worried about finding my first job, not to mention starting to contribute for my pensions," said Gaelle Loiseaux, 22, a university student in Paris.

Thursday's images of youth protesters recalled, on a much smaller scale, scenes from February/April 2006 when weeks of student protests forced the government of President Jacques Chirac into a humiliating climbdown on a youth jobs contract.

The prospect of a similar uprising seems to worry politicians at least as much as the Thursday's protests, which drew between 1 and 3 million protesters, according to estimates from the police and trade unions, respectively.

When Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the ruling U.M.P. party, was asked on I-Tele television whether the strikes could turn into a re-run of 2006, he said: "Well, I hope not."

On Friday, trade unions announced another round of protests on October 2. Some are pushing for rolling strikes and the student unions have vowed to stay mobilized.

"If the government stays deaf after the protests of September 23rd, there will be consequences," Jean-Baptiste Prevost, leader of the UNEF student union, told Reuters.

Science Po's Muxel hinted at the possibility of student radicalization if no concessions were given on the reform text.

"If the anti-reform opposition manages to tap into their malaise, then possibly we could have the sort of mobilization we saw for the CPE (youth jobs contract) in 2006," she said.