How French Protesters May Get Their Way

  • Share
  • Read Later

It's rare that any politician actually wants to see their landmark pieces of legislation overturned by courts, but that is the unique, unenviable position French prime minister Dominique de Villepin now finds himself in. Pressure on de Villepin to ditch a controversial labor law grew dramatically Tuesday, when nation-wide protests produced an unexpectedly high turnout of nearly three million demonstrators. In Paris alone, more than a million transport workers, civil servants, and an array of public sector employees heeded union calls to stay away from work and join demonstrating high school and college students.

But ironically, the outcome in this high-drama showdown — and perhaps the survival of the de Villepin government — will be decided neither in the streets, nor in the corridors of power. Instead, the disputed law's fate will soon be determined when an independent commission issues its ruling on whether the law is even constitutional. The 12 justices on France's Constitutional Council are set to deliver their judgment late this week on the legality of de Villepin's controversial law—which seeks to reduce chronic youth unemployment levels of over 20% by allowing businesses to fire workers aged 26 and under after less than two years on the job without having to dole out hefty severance pay. Detractors argue that the law ignores French constitutional guarantees of equal rights and treatment for all citizens — a general principle some claim would be violated if labor protection other workers enjoy were denied to younger employees.

If the court does actually throw the law out, it would provide de Villepin a convenient way to defuse the crisis without backing down Once passed by parliament, laws can only be derailed if ruled unconstitutional, reversed by new legislation or if they are blocked by a president citing a rarely-used executive privilege. The latter two options would mark political capitulation, for both de Villepin and his backer President Jacques Chirac, and "seriously undermine his leadership authority with the public only one year before the presidential election," says Stèphane Rozés, deputy director of the CSA polling agency.

In the wake of the enormous protests across France today, Chirac cancelled planned trips out of Paris at the end of the week, when the key ruling is expected. If the courts rule in favor of the law — which for all intents and purposes would be against de Villepin — Chirac's protege could soon see his planned trip to the Presidential palace permanently cancelled.