Sorry, your browser is unable to play this video. Why is France being racked by strikes and protests over its labour bill?
This couldnt have come at a worse time for the French president, nor for Europe at large.
Franois Hollande hopes to be re-elected next year but his ratings are the worst of any postwar French leaders. His Socialist party is split, one side favouring market-oriented reforms, the other holding fast to radical-left or anti-capitalist views.
Mainstream rightwing opponents are capitalising on the scenes of chaos. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National which
gained 7 million votes in last Decembers regional elections is ready to cast herself as the person to restore order. All this is happening with France still in a state of emergency after last years terror attacks.
The countrys European partners are closely monitoring events. With less than a month to go to the UK referendum, the Brexit camp could profit from scenes of instability across the Channel.
Germany and the European commission, who have long pushed for labour-market reforms in France over worries that the country may become the next weak link in the eurozone, are scrutinising Hollande: will he backtrack? He has said he wont, but he is also notorious for wavering. He fears another dramatic upheaval in the country something resembling the massive
1995 strikes, or even the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs.
It would be a mistake to read the latest events as a popular uprising against austerity measures supposedly dictated from Brussels or to draw parallels with movements such as
Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. The occupation of a central square in Paris by the Nuit debout student movement that began in March may have been compared to other insurgent movements, but it has failed to attract similar crowds or to widen its appeal.
Its true there is strong anti-establishment sentiment in France, but it tends to benefit the far-right more than the far-left. After the 2008-9 financial crisis struck
Europe, France did not go through the radical economic restructuring, nor the wide-ranging public spending cuts, that some southern EU countries experienced. Public spending, among the highest in the OECD countries, has continued to grow.
France suffers high unemployment,
reaching 24% among 18- to 24-year-olds (and 46% among unqualified young people). Liberalising the labour market is meant to make it easier to hire; but it will also make it easier to fire people.
Frances labour system is very much two-tier: one part of the population benefits from strong protections and solid, open-ended contracts; the rest find themselves either out of work or in precarious jobs.
French trade unions represent only 7% of the active population, mostly employees already in highly protected sectors partly because trade union finances are closely connected to the public sector and large enterprises.
This produces paradoxes: Frances political culture is such that young people are prone to mobilise against any kind of reform, especially if they believe it damages their chances of entering protected sectors. Many fail to see how labour reforms make it easier for them to get a job in the first place. This has often been described as Frances preference for mass unemployment, over more flexible and perhaps less well paid work.
So this may be crunch time for France. Hollande all but wasted the first two years of his presidency by failing to make significant economic reforms. Belatedly, just one year ahead of the next presidential election, he is trying to push forward. But his strategy has zig-zagged and confused everybody. Now he has run into a
radicalised trade union, the CGT whose roots go back to the heyday of Frances Communist party which has decided that actions such as blocking refineries can put it at the forefront of a new class war. The other key player in the union movement, the more centrist CFDT, has come out strongly in favour of the labour reform.
Within the French left old disputes have returned with a bang. Never before, under the Fifth Republic, has a socialist government been confronted with this degree of social unrest. Its true there is political polarisation, as elsewhere on the continent. But one specific ingredient is that France has hung on rigidly to its welfare state, while other countries moved to reform theirs years ago. Nothing like Thatcherism ever happened there, and thats surely a good thing. However, France has also been unable to adapt to globalisation in the way others in Europe have done, as if social rights could only be protected if nothing changes.
Current events boil down to a show-down between two currents of the left, one reformist, and the other backing a labour system the country can no longer afford at least not in the way it has existed for decades. Hollande is hoping most French people understand that, but his performance has been unconvincing.
Fast-track legislation and bypassing the parliament hasnt helped. Yet giving up entirely on reforms would not only spell the end of Hollandes re-election hopes, it would set France backwards and Europe would soon feel the effects.