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French angst reflects anxiety in Western Europe as a whole

PARIS—Sitting on a curb just outside a barricaded entrance to the University of Paris-Sorbonne last week, Pauline Artega, 21, wondered whether France—and Western Europe—is dying.

Three events in the past year have rocked French society: French voters' rejection last May of the European Constitution, the October riots in Parisian suburbs by young Muslim men and, in recent weeks, students' street protests against a proposed employment law that would have made it easier for businesses to fire young workers.

Union leaders and workers pushed for the defeat of the European Constitution, the forgotten poor staged last autumn's riots and the next generation of the French elite mounted the current round of protests.

But Artega sees unity in the disparate groups.

"We are united by a hatred, and a fear, of where France is heading," she said as another protest march passed by her. "We cannot see a future where we will be able to live as well as our parents. We are all afraid of the future, and we are not alone."

On Monday, French President Jacques Chirac agreed to scrap the law and promised to replace it with one that offers government subsidies to businesses that hire people younger than 26. It was unclear whether massive street rallies planned for Tuesday still would take place.

Even so, experts around Europe are convinced that the discord in France is unlikely to end soon, and that it's a reflection not only of French qualms over needed economic restructuring but also of similar worries throughout Western Europe.

"France is a front-runner, but the tendencies exist elsewhere," said Rob Boudewijn, an expert on European culture at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch research center. "Europe hasn't been this desperate since the postwar period. People are feeling lost in an ever-growing European Union. They feel that economically they've already lost to China, and they have no idea where they fit into the world anymore."

The source of this malaise is recognition that change must come to an economic system that's long guaranteed cradle-to-grave government services, employment security and benefits such as six-week vacations and large pensions. European businesses complain that they no longer can compete with foreign companies whose workers don't demand such perquisites.

Finding a way to change how Europe does business, however, is wrenching.

In France, for example, unemployment among people younger than 26 is 23 percent, much higher than the national average of 10 percent. The French government had hoped to cut into that rate by making it possible for employers to fire anyone under age 26 within the first two years of employment.

But students took to the streets in protest. The government still approved the bill, but Chirac immediately offered to amend it to cut the probationary period to one year. That didn't calm the students, however, who promised more demonstrations.

So on Monday, the government retreated.

Analysts say the retreat won't make it easier to revise pensions, unemployment compensation or health care.

"This is a top-to-bottom problem in France. It is not a mood or a moment, it is a deeply felt resentment for the government, for the changes that are coming," said Richard Whitman, an expert on European politics at Bath University in England.

But the dismay and the need for restructuring aren't confined to France. Nearly every Western European country faces similar difficulties.

At the root of the problem are two issues that define much of life in Europe: immigration and globalization. Europe hasn't dealt well with immigrants in the past and is increasingly worried about their future impact. The worry stems from the fact—observed in France's autumn riots and in the protests over cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in Danish papers—that Europe has failed to integrate immigrants fully into society.

Even immigrants from other European countries are worrisome. Last year, the "Polish plumber" was the bogeyman of the campaign that defeated the EU constitution in France.

Eric Thode, a labor economist at the German Bertelsmann Foundation, said the great social societies of Western Europe created "insiders" and "outsiders" in their economies. The insiders found jobs that were secure and paid well. With high salaries, they funded national social programs—generous employment, pensions, health care, welfare—that not only protected themselves but also eased the pain to those outside the economy.

Globalization has changed that, however. Industrial jobs across Europe, just as in the United States, have been flowing to less expensive labor markets, particularly in Asia and eastern Europe. As more jobs vanish, the financial underpinnings of European welfare states begin to crumble.

That's what's driven the protests in Paris. "There is no longer the belief among the young . . . that it is possible to get inside the economy," Thode said. "But it is also clear that the social society is changing. They feel trapped."

He said the problems were just as great in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, among other nations. The French simply are the quickest to the streets.

"To be honest, I see my future elsewhere," said Inam Akil, 17, one of those marching in a protest last week. "I mean, France is a beautiful country, and Paris is a beautiful city, but there's not much to look forward to here, is there?"

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): YOUNG UNEMPLOY

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