The Wall Street Journal has an excellent backgrounder (subscription required). Key graphs:
The uproar began as a protest against a new law designed to relax a rigid French labor market that makes it difficult to fire anyone. In the process, however, the unrest has crystallized a deeper French anxiety. In better economic times, France maintained an elaborate system of social protections that cushioned citizens from the demands of the free market. The new law, which students call a symbol of “precarite,” or precariousness, undermines that idea.
France’s most famous period of violent protests in 1968 saw students rioting against what they saw as a rigid and smothering state. Today, it seems, they want the state back. Serge July, director of France’s main left-of-center newspaper, Liberation, and a ’68 veteran, says his country is gripped by “anguish about the future.” It is also suffering from, he says, a “crisis of identity.”