"The most dangerous thing about student demonstrations," the late French president Georges Pompidou once said, "is that adults take them seriously."

How seriously, as Nicolas Sarkozy suggests major constitutional change is the only way out of the current crisis and Dominique de Villepin calls for an urgent return to calm, should we take what is fast becoming France's biggest wave of student unrest since May 1968?

Not very, suggests the president of the Sorbonne. Jean-Robert Pitte told Le Point magazine last week that the youngsters, including secondary school pupils, so spiritedly marching and manning the barricades around France were fighting not for dreams, but for illusions.

"I'm very angry about the demagogy, the ignorance and the stupidity of the young and of the French," Dr Pitte said in comments that understandably caused some fuss in France. "To dream is to want to accomplish something difficult that is a challenge. Instead, these youths believe they have a right to everything, and if things don't go the way they want it's someone else's fault."

You have to admire their passion, of course. But as they chant, sing and wave their wittily post-soixante-huitard banners, it's worth also remembering that, according to one recent poll, the greatest ambition of very nearly three-quarters of these youngsters is to become civil servants - because in the French civil service, you have a job for life. What they appear to want most in life is a level of job protection that not many even of their parents' generation enjoyed.

Why such anxious conservatism? In part, it's true, because they face a job market in which nearly one in four of their number is unemployed. But in part also because they have grown up in a country which, while boasting a dozen or so of the most expansionist, successful, profitable and aggressively capitalist multinationals in the world, claims largely to believe that the market is a Bad Thing.

In another poll last year, which attracted little attention at the time, just 36% of the French said they thought the free market economy was, while admittedly not perfect, probably the best system available, compared (perhaps unsurprisingly) with around 70% of British and Americans, but also with 65% of Germans, whose economy, welfare system and labour laws were until very recently built along exactly the same high-cost, high-protection model as the French.

So, at a more superficial level, maybe we shouldn't take these protests too seriously. There is an argument for saying they are mounted by idealistic but wildly unrealistic and, worse, deluded youths living in a place that, in its persistent hostility to the system that - like it or not - makes the world go round (and, incidentally, makes their own country the fifth richest in that world), has turned into Planet France.

But there are plenty of reasons for taking today's protests very seriously indeed, the principal of which is a question: if such a small, relatively inconsequential (if clumsily implemented) reform prompts so forceful a reaction, what chance will there ever be of pushing through any more wide-ranging changes?

The last time I wrote on this site that France needed reform, it was pointed out to me that France was a fine country with a wonderful lifestyle and far better public services than ours, which was why lots of Britons want to live there. It is indeed, if you are a relatively wealthy Briton living there thanks to the profit made on your UK house sale, or indeed a relatively wealthy French person, in work and with a sound private healthcare top-up insurance scheme.

The problem is that one in 10 French people is not in work, and that figure has remained more or less unchanged for 30 years. One in four young people are jobless, and sometimes one in two residents of the sink estates that went up in flames last November. Nor is a sensible freeing up of the labour market necessarily caving in to capitalism (viz Denmark, Sweden, even Germany); it helps create jobs.

By marching today, France's young protesters are helping ensure that their contemporaries in the banlieues will find it even harder to get work. They may also be making it more difficult for eventual reforms in the tertiary education system, which, for a French workplace obsessed with people with just the right qualifications, churns out hundreds of thousands of people mostly with the wrong ones. Finally, they may be helping ensure that France's politicians, as they have done for many years, continue to resist telling the truth about the way the world works nearly 40 years after May 1968.

For all those reasons, we should take these protests seriously.



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