French politicians fear youth violence along Greek pattern
Friday Dec 19, 2008 - 19:17 GMT
PARIS: Firebombs and breaking glass, tear gas and burning cars. The images from Greece this month were enough to put the fear of youth into the hearts of European leaders.
That dread was palpable in France when President Nicolas Sarkozy abruptly delayed for one year a plan to overhaul France's high schools, after students from Bordeaux to Brittany took to the streets in protest.
Those demonstrations haven't turned violent yet. But French history, and the example of Greece, suggests they might. At least that is what people like Laurent Fabius, a Socialist Party leader, are saying on French radio.
"What we see in Greece is not out of the realm of possibility in France," Fabius said on Europe 1. "When you have such an economic depression, such social despair, all it takes is a match."
An editorial in the daily newspaper Liberation said the decision to delay the education law - which would change schedules and academic requirements for the last three years of lycee, or high school - was purely defensive. "One senses among the team in power a hesitation, a dread of riots, a fear of explosion," wrote Didier Pourquery.
The rapid rise in unemployment among people under age 25, particularly in southern Europe, is one concern. In Spain, for instance, youth unemployment shot up from 18.4 percent in August 2007 to 28.1 percent in October 2008. The average jobless rate for young people in Italy, Greece and France is well above the average for the European Union, according to Eurostat, the Luxembourg agency that collects EU statistics.
"All these events have at their core a sense among youth that their lives are not going anywhere, and they have nothing to lose," said Ken Dubin, a visiting associate professor at University Carlos III in Madrid.
But economics alone doesn't explain the restlessness in universities and high schools. Students, after all, have no jobs to lose.
Experts speak of another worry, which is the seemingly anachronistic resurgence of vague radical movements, loosely called anarchist, which hark back to the destructive ideology of Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century Russian revolutionary, and to the rebellious rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s.
Some of it isn't that threatening, like recurring play of the 1979 song, "Another Brick in the Wall," by Pink Floyd, on Alpha radio during the week-long protests in Athens. "We don't need no education / We don't need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom," goes the angry refrain.
But the violence wasn't far behind the slogans. By the third day of rioting, the estimated damage in Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece's two biggest cities, was more than €1 billion, or $1.4 billion.
The riots in Greece began as spontaneous protests to the killing of a 15-year-old student by the police in Athens on Dec. 6, after a group of youths stoned a police car. It spread to university centers around the country, quickly morphing into a wider contest between young people and the police and by extension, the government. Tens of thousands of people continued the protests on Thursday.
Greece has a history of violent demonstrations that dates from the colonels' junta in the 1970s. The National Technical University in Athens, known as the Polytechnic, has been off-limits to police in homage to the events of Nov. 17, 1973, when the government sent a tank crashing though the university gates, igniting a popular uprising.
Now the Polytechnic is again occupied by protesters, who have built barricades from broken marble and paving stones, and stockpiled Molotov cocktails and other weapons.
The role of these so-called anarchists in the weeklong protests is still not clear. But their message - loaded with anti-capitalist, anti-government and anti-globalization themes - is unmistakable. Also clear is their bent for violence.
"What they provide is a template that others with less ideological commitment can use," said Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University. "If you have a demonstration where 10 of them start throwing stones, soon the 500 others following them will join in."
France isn't the only country nervously watching the events in Greece. Students in Italy and Spain have also staged protests against proposed changes to schools and universities recently. In Madrid, Barcelona and Seville, they took over administration offices this month in opposition to changes mandated by the EU that would link higher education to marketable job skills.
In Italy, hundreds of thousands of angry teachers, students and parents mobbed Rome on Oct. 30 to protest an overhaul of the education system, in what was described as the largest student demonstration since 1968.
Each country brings its own issues, and history, to these demonstrations; like Greece, France has a tradition of street protests turning ugly.
In October 2005, youths in the suburban and largely Muslim ghettoes of Paris went on a rampage, causing €160 million in damage, after two teenagers were killed as they were being chased by police. In 2006, university students staged demonstrations that dissipated into random violence, as hundreds of thousands protested a proposed law that would create flexible work contracts for young people. The government eventually withdrew the legislation.
This year's "lycee" protests also carried hints of escalating violence. A high school principals' association in the Bouches-du-Rhone region warned on Dec. 5 of "an unheard-of aggression and near-impossibility of dialogue" with protesting students. Philippe Guittet, head of the association, told the newspaper Le Monde that he suspected the protests were propelled by "militant forces" working behind the scenes.
France chose to defuse the situation by withdrawing the contested schools legislation. In Greece, the government, eager to restore calm, has decided for now to cede the Polytechnic to the protestors.
That might buy peace for now, but it won't necessarily soothe the anger.
In the meantime 2 hours ago: Protests pile pressure on Greek government
Masked youths smashed up a French cultural institute in the Greek capital Friday, as students and trade unionists staged new protests nearly two weeks into a crisis sparked by the police killing of a teenager.
About 20 youths broke into the Institut Francais around midday Friday and overpowered the caretaker while they broke windows and threw a petrol bomb, police and diplomatic sources said.
Nobody was hurt in the attack which lasted five minutes.
"Clearly, it was an organised attack," French ambassador Christophe Farnaud told journalists as he inspected the damage. But it was too early to speculate on who might be behind it, he added.
The Institut Francais is in the centre of the capital, near the site of the current unrest.
It was just the latest incident in nearly two weeks of violence across Greece triggered by the fatal shooting of a teenager by an Athens police officer on December 6.
Elsewhere in the capital however there was no sign of trouble at separate demonstrations organised Friday by students and trade unionists.
A few hundred union activists gathered peacefully outside parliament in Athens against what they called an "anti-workers" budget up for vote on Sunday. Large numbers of riot police and other officers kept watch on the demonstration.
A few hundred metres (yards) away more than 500 school and university students attended a concert in front of Athens University headquarters.
Earlier Friday, about 1,000 students and communist activists marched in a city suburb where another teenager, the son of a union leader, was wounded in a mysterious shooting incident on Wednesday night.
School and university students in the northern city of Salonika also marched to protest the shooting.
After rioting in Athens Thursday which left city centre residents choking in tear gas, the main opposition Pasok socialist party again called for early elections, arguing that the government had lost control of the situation.
About 100 leading figures including academics, magistrates and economists launched a petition calling on the government and the political world as a whole to get a grip on the situation to re-establish confidence.
The press too expressed growing concern, with both the Socialist daily To Vima and the liberal Kathimerini critical of the government's inability to end the crisis.
Even the right-wing daily Eleftheros Typos wrote: "The majority of conservative deputies are calling for immediate changes, the time for a reshuffle has come."
Athens police said they had arrested eight youths -- none of them school or university students -- after several hours of street battles with dozens of militants in the city centre Thursday.
They had broken off from an orderly left-wing demonstration of about 5,000 to confront police officers. During the course of Thursday's clashes three cars, a Greek flag and tables and chairs from neighbourhood cafes were burned.
Police said that two of those they arrested were minors.
Student representatives said they had continued their occupations of several universities and 700 schools across the country. The education ministry put the figure at about a hundred establishments.
Protests have rocked cities across Greece since the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos.
One of the two policemen arrested in the case faces homicide charges.
NOTE: Riots since the December 6 shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos have destroyed hundreds of shops, banks and cars, rattled the conservative government and shaken investor confidence in the 240 billion Euro economy (USD 333 billion) as the global crisis bites.
Nikos Deja Vu