The protesters claimed the revolutionary mantle of 1968, defying the government and symbolically occupying the Sorbonne. President Chirac, rightly described in Jon Henley's post as having achieved nothing of substance during his long tenure in office, stood firm to his principles: when the going gets tough, cut and run to save your skin. Yesterday's climbdown by Chirac's prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, was therefore entirely predictable. The only surprise is that Chirac endured two months of plummeting poll ratings before finally buckling to demands from students and trade unions that a new youth employment law be withdrawn.

The leader of the Socialist party duly greeted "the climbdown by the powers-that-be". The Communist party hailed it as "a great victory for the people". But it is nothing of the sort. Yes, the street won, but the people on the street were privileged insiders defending their vested interests, not a popular uprising of the dispossessed. As I noted in a previous post, although the government's proposed "contract of first employment" was half-baked, the protesters do not have right on their side. They are set against the root-and-branch reform that France is crying out for - and buoyed by their latest victory they are in a stronger position than ever to resist change. Under the egalitarian pretence of job security for all, the French system that the protesters defend swells the ranks of the long-term unemployed and the permanently excluded, creating an economically wasteful, politically fractious and morally distasteful underclass.

With the mainstream and even the extreme left fighting for the interests of one set of insiders against another, the true outsiders in French society have no champions, and scarcely even a voice. In that respect, they are worse off than the American underclasses at whose plight the French recoil in horror. The desperate rioting that spilled over from France's suburbs last year provoked fear and loathing, not understanding and reform. So even though the left has won its latest bunfight with the right, the real losers are those on the margins of the society that the left ought to be fighting for.



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