Washington The French and protests go together like horse and carriage, love and marriage and other natural partners. But look again at the million and more demonstrators who have taken to the streets in France in recent days. In their marching and shouting, there is a hidden message for us all about coming generational and cultural conflicts.
France has moved into one of its periodic dangerous seasons, in which a conservative government has acted as if its fate and the chances for the country's future economic growth depended on facing down or outlasting massive street protests. Both 1789 and 1968 remind how such calculations can misfire in France.
Protesters have filled the streets this spring to define themselves and their nation more clearly and aggressively than most of the world would ever care or dare to attempt. The young rebels follow the Cartesian rigor taught in the universities that they are boycotting: I protest, therefore I am.
This struggle concerns, as so many things do for the French, identity. They are a society of individualists who take pride in an entrenched sense of solidarity. That solidarity is under such intense pressure from the forces of globalization that it must be proclaimed in the streets if it is to survive at all.
But for all its Francocentricity, this labor upheaval sounds echoes of the recent demonstrations staged by Hispanic immigrant groups in the United States and our own debate over alien workers. In all developed countries, the forces of globalization are changing the rules and even the nature of work - just as demographic patterns are forcing a re-examination of the implicit social contract between young and old.
Politicians naturally respond to the challenges posed by the easy flow of goods, people and ideas across frontiers by pretending these challenges can be met with isolated exercises of political will and legislation. The harsh anti-immigrant laws proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives defy not only common decency and humanity, but the very way in which the global economy works today. The laws prove that change is too important to be left to politicians.
The global connections need to be grasped and articulated if societies are to do a better job of dividing the fruits of the prosperity that globalization brings for some of their citizens and the burdens of unemployment or low wages that others experience.
Even less commented on by the politicians of the world is the looming conflict between the economic interests of the young, who are just starting careers, and of their elders, who are in or moving into retirements that almost no industrialized country has set aside the funds to finance.
That is where we all have something to learn from the springtime confrontation in France, which also stems from narrow local factors such as internal power struggles, missteps by an embattled government and wishful thinking that the country's expensive and generous social welfare system can be maintained forever without big sacrifices. This is, after all, a public that has been educated by political leaders of both the right and left to distrust free market reforms.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin thought he could do something for France's young when he rushed labor law changes through Parliament. His objective was to cut youth unemployment, which is about double France's national rate of 10 percent, and to show that the government had swung into action after rioting last autumn by unemployed immigrant youths.
But the young concluded that Villepin was doing something to them, not for them. By giving private employers the right to fire workers under 26 without cause within two years of being hired, the government effectively denied younger workers labor protections that are deeply entrenched for their elders. President Jacques Chirac suggested Friday that some terms of the law would be softened before he signs it, but this was immediately rejected by protest leaders.
Gray-bearded academics and other seniorish citizens have rushed to the streets to join Villepin's political foes and union leaders in showing support for the students. How could they, in good conscience, do otherwise?
A broad generational conflict over the allocation of resources is taking shape in many industrial nations as their working populations age. In the United States, the profligacy of galloping budget and trade deficits has convinced many younger workers they will never have the kind of Social Security protection their parents enjoyed.
It is time to forge new global and generational social contracts to recognize and mitigate the inequities that a new world of change fosters. By raising their voices, France's young and America's migrants have called attention to that need.