Eloi Laurent, in his biographical sketch of Rama Yade (see previous post), raises an interesting point:
[Yade] carries the hope that
will finally acknowledge cultural harmony as the defining issue of its future, leaving aside the national obsession with generational conflict inherited from May 1968. France
This is a penetrating comment, but it risks being misinterpreted if read hastily. May '68 symbolizes generational conflict in two senses. Most obviously, it was a revolt of the generation that came of age in the 60s against its elders. More profoundly, however, it marked the advent of a new cohort, the group born around 1945, whose destiny was to be markedly different from that of later as well as earlier cohorts. The most thorough interpretation of this shift, as well as of the new conflict it portended, is that of Louis Chauvel, Le Destin des générations : Structure sociale et cohortes en France au XXe siècle. Chauvel notes among other things that this cohort reaped disproportionate benefits from the rapid expansion of "superior" positions for which the chief qualification was the possession of an advanced educational certificate of one sort or another. Access to such positions became more difficult for members of later cohorts with equivalent educational credentials. A mismatch between the educational system and the labor market thus led to generational resentment against the May '68 generation.
To some extent the resolution of this conflict is independent of the political shift of which Eloi takes Yade as the symbol. The impending retirement of la génération '68 will to a degree eliminate the blockage. The shrinkage of the state, which Sarkozy's structural reforms will entail (reductions in the number of functionaries in various administrations, most notably education and finance, have already been promised), will have the opposite effect, however. Cadre-level positions will vanish, and it was the expansion of such posts that absorbed so many soixante-huitards. To be sure, the hope is that the private sector will take up the slack, and that university reform will result in a cohort of graduates with profiles better suited to the skill requirements of private-sector employers. There is no assurance that this will happen, however.
If graduates continue to find entry-level jobs commensurate with their own estimate of their worth elusive, resentment will persist, but it may cease to be generational resentment. The problem will no longer be that suitable jobs are already filled by elders intent on feathering their own nests at the expense of the young and hungry. It will rather be that the positions no longer exist, and how blame for that eventuality might be apportioned is anyone's guess. Such bitterness might in fact exacerbate the racial divide that Eloi hopes a newfound "cultural harmony" will alleviate. One saw this kind of division in embryo during the anti-CPE demonstrations, which only accentuated the cultural gap between the university students in the vanguard of that action and the suburban youths who had preceded them into the streets some months earlier.
Indeed, as Eloi points out, Yade symbolizes a classic form of upward social mobility in France: meritocratic ascent via the institutions of the state. If competition for a dwindling number of places intensifies, however, the educational system, as the guarantor of merit, will be placed under increasing pressure to lock down the gates. Those most disadvantaged at the start will have the hardest time elbowing their way through the narrowed portals.