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In France, systematized revolt

A million people took to the streets Tuesday, but the leaders treated the 'crisis' as part of the political process.

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In its choreographed and time-honed fashion, much of France went on strike Tuesday.

A predetermined number of buses, subways, and trains did not run. Schools were ostensibly open, although teachers in certain grades had warned parents beforehand that they would skip class. In scores of cities and towns, about 1 million people marched peacefully - with only scattered post-march clashes between youths and police. No one expected to have mail delivered and, for the most part, they were right.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, whose jobs plan for young people was the target of the nationwide protest, was already planning for the morning-after. He said he was open to discussing the details, but not the legitimacy, of his plan, and invited student and union leaders to meet when everyone goes back to work on Wednesday.

Indeed, for all its clamor and disruption, the latest political confrontation in France has a certain predictability to it.

Over the past 15 years, strikes and street demonstrations have become an integral part of the way public policy is made or, as is often the case, unmade, in a country that simultaneously fears and yearns for change.

With presidential elections scheduled for next year, the clash over the new labor contract has taken on the aspect of a dress rehearsal for the battles to come between Mr. Villepin, a potential candidate, and his rivals on the left and right wings of French politics.

But the latest eruption of public protest also has many people worried that politicians have lulled themselves into viewing such demonstrations as simply a form of popular referendum, especially after the surprise French rebellion against the European Constitution and the riots by suburban youth last year.

"Demonstrations are no longer even seen by the government as a sign of open crisis," says Danielle Tartakowski, a historian and professor at the University of Paris.

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