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ISR Issue 47, MayJune 2006
"Struggle pays off"
By JESSE KINDIG, with JOHN MULLEN
AN EXPLOSIVE movement against job insecurity and the disintegrating social safety net that erupted to challenge the French government and its policies of neoliberalism, forced “a humiliating political defeat for both President Chirac and his political protégé, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, underscoring the paralysis of their center-right government
3 months before presidential elections.”1 Beginning in February, students and workers took to the streets in the millions, occupied schools, and went out on strike in defiance of a new anti-worker law. As of April 10, 2006, the new law is “dead and buried,” in the words of union leader Jean-Claude Mailly.
Images of student barricades, burning cars, and striking trade unionists have been flashed around the world, and from Le Monde to the New York Times to the students arguing strike tactics in their general assemblies, the spectre of a new May 1968 was raised. That extraordinary month thirty-eight years ago saw a mass revolt against the order of society, and against French capitalism in particular. Beginning with students setting up barricades and fighting with police, the movement spread spectacularly to the factories, encompassing ten million workers in an all-out month-long general strike, almost forcing General de Gaulle from power, and briefly posing the question of the possibility of revolution in an advanced European country. The movement also led to the flowering of left-wing and revolutionary politics in France.
This battle was not that extreme, but to be sure, there were more than echoes, as riot police occupied the Latin Quarter in Paris; the government —increasingly enamored of its own power—put up a façade of intransigence to public opinion, and workers and students took to the streets together in the millions. Whatever differences it has with 1968, this movement was locked in a battle with the government that will determine the future of the employers’ offensive, the class struggle, and of the Left for some time to come.
Chomage, précaire, exploité
The background to the revolt lies in the economic situation for youth in France. The past decades have seen the implementation of neoliberal, pro-business policies which have begun to shred French social services. The rate of unemployment among French youth is at 25 percent, and is twice as high in the impoverished suburbs, or banlieues, of major cities. Among those under twenty-five years of age, the rate of unemployment has stood at 20 percent for an entire generation. In part, it was anger at this précarité, or insecurity, that fuelled the massive “non” vote to the referendum in 2005 against the European Constitution, as well as the riots of mostly Black and Arab youth last November in the suburbs of Paris.
The immediate trigger for the protests came from Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who in a bid to reinvigorate the faltering employers’ offensive, proposed in January the loi sur l’égalité des chances, or equal opportunity law, which includes the Contrat Première Embauche (First Employment Contract), known by its French initials as the CPE. The CPE included a two-year trial period during which workers under twenty-six could be fired without any cause. Under previous French law, the trial period lasted one month, after which job security was relatively protected.
Villepin’s law, which he rushed through parliament as an emergency law without any debate, was part of a political ploy to gain the confidence of the employers in the lead up to the upcoming presidential elections in 2007.
Villepin claimed that the law, by reassuring employers that they could fire at will without paying benefits, would lead to a wave of job hirings. Students quickly saw the bill for what it was. Activists have renamed the CPE Cadeau Pour l’Employer (Gift for the Employer) or Chomage, Précaire, Exploité (Unemployment, Insecurity, Exploitation). Said one protester, “[Villepin] pretends to help the youth in the banlieues, but in fact he’s giving a gift to the employers!”2 Another young worker said, “I’m already fed up with my mother having to live on an estate which stinks of urine. If on top of that I come back home with a shitty job, it’ll be just too much to bear!”3
The proposal of the CPE in early January led to immediate denunciation by the organized Left and the trade unions, but it was the students who turned the anger into action. In February, university, high school, and even middle school students took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, culminating in a mass nationwide day of protest March 7, in which over one million students and workers marched in 160 towns. In Paris, demonstrators gathered at the Place de la République, and marched towards the Bastille—site of the hated prison torn down during the French Revolution and now a monument to the barricades thrown up in the revolution that overthrew the French monarchy in 1830—chanting “Les vieux dans la misère, les jeunes toujours précaires, on en veut pas de cette société là!” (Old people in misery, young people in insecurity, we don’t want this society!).
The movement is radicalizing a whole new generation of young activists. Marie, a seventeen-year-old high school student from Lyon explains, “I’m not part of a party. I demonstrated for the first time in 2002, against [fascist presidential candidate Jean-Marie] Le Pen, between the two rounds of the presidential election. It was an electroshock. I realized that it was too late to be sitting and complaining without doing anything.”4
After Villepin pushed the law through parliament March 9, the students exploded. General assemblies (known by their French initials as AGs)—the democratic mass meeting that originated during the French Revolution in 1789—were held in universities to discuss the next step. In Poitiers, 4,000 students held their meeting in a local rugby stadium, and meetings attracting thousands were the rule rather than the exception. The AG at each school took on a different character; at Toulouse-I, the barricades did not forbid students from attending class. Sophie, a delegate of the AG there, remarked, “Villepin said that he does not want to step aside. That means the movement must be strong. We will prepare.”5 Bordeaux-III declared their university an “autonomous zone” in a sign of solidarity with Latin American social movements; at the Grandmont high school in Tours, the AG is the highest decision making body for the strike. One student Nicolas explained, “The AG is sovereign. We do not have just one leader who makes decisions for everyone else.”6
In Paris, hundreds of students held a sit-in in front of the Arc de Triomphe, one of the busiest intersections in the city, blocking traffic for an hour before marching across the river Seine to occupy the Sorbonne for the first time since May 1968. For three days, walking around the Latin Quarter, you could see banners made of sheets hanging out the windows of the Sorbonne, anti-CPE and revolutionary graffiti decorating the stone façades of the buildings, and numerous solidarity demonstrations, chanting “On s’est battu pour la gagner, on se battra pour la garder—La Sorbonne, elle est à nous!” (We fought to win, and we’ll hold on to victory, the Sorbonne is ours!). The students held out for three days, blocking the doors with tables and chairs, supported by sympathizers bringing in baguettes and coffee, until the police forcibly ended the occupation with tear gas and set up metal gates around the school in an enforced lockout.
The Sorbonne was not the only university to be occupied. By March 10, the student union was reporting forty-five out of France’s eighty-four universities were on strike or occupied. The semi-spontaneous general assemblies organized committees to produce leaflets, organize film series on political topics from Latin America to feminism to gay liberation, set up die-ins, visit local high schools, and build for the next major protest. Universities previously known as “conservative” joined the strike, including a school in Toulouse that had remained untouched in May 1968. Law students in Lille, angry at government comments that only “privileged students” were against the new contract, turned up at unemployment offices to discuss the issue with job seekers, who assured them of their full support. Students even occupied trains to ferry protesters to Paris.
Far from involving only middle-class students, it became a protest of all French youth, drawing in high school students of all social classes throughout the country. For example, anti-CPE blockades and strikes (as well as administrative closings to avert them) on March 21–22 involved hundreds of high schools across France—by some estimates a quarter of the total.
Next, it was the turn of the trade unions to join the fight. Having suffered a major defeat on pensions two years ago, many unions were at first hesitant. But France’s largest union federations, along with the student movement, put out a joint call for a united protest. The joint student-worker day of action on March 18 drew 1.5 million people into the streets. Chants of “Étudiants, salariés, tous ensemble solidaires!” (Students, workers, together for solidarity!) rang out, and student contingents cheered upon seeing banners from the clerical workers at their universities. A month and a half of continuing demonstrations gave the movement a festival-like camaraderie: In Paris the crowd chanted “Libérez nos camarades!” (Liberate our comrades) as prisoners in a jail next to the parade route clanged their window bars in support, students sang anti-CPE songs to Edith Piaf tunes, and supporters unfurled banners from balconies along the march route.
A poll by the French newspaper Libération found that 71 percent believed the issue to be a profound social crisis, with 73 percent in favor of retracting or amending the CPE.7 Yet despite these figures and his own falling polls, Villepin declared a full retraction “impossible,” denouncing the protesters as inflexible and unwilling to engage in a “social dialogue.”
In a blow to the government’s usual divide-and-conquer tactics, the heads of the five main union federations, the CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC, and CEG–not always known for their left-wing stances—walked out of a meeting with the prime minister after it became clear that he wanted to discuss amendments of the law rather than a full retraction. “Meet to do what?” asked Mailly, head of French union federation Force Ouvrière. “If the Prime Minister accepts a full retraction, we will be ready to receive him to discuss the problem of unemployment amongst young people. But if he wants to meet to continue last Thursday’s conversation and propose simple amendments, we won’t surrender!” Instead, unions, students, and the Left put forward a call for a national general strike March 28 to force the government to retract the CPE.
The general strike March 28 saw no postal service, no newspapers, and—for those in metropolitan areas—one-half to one-quarter of public transport halted. The main news radio station played classical music. Autoworkers, chemical workers, and teachers went on strike, as did workers at the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opéra, ruining sightseeing for eager tourists in the French capital. But there was something much better to see: almost three million people marched all over the country: 700,000 in Paris alone and 40,000 in university towns like Montpellier and Pau in the south.
This unity among trade union federations has been unheard of in France for almost fifty years, and for those who remember the Communist Party-led CGT’s decision in 1968 to accept government concessions rather than extend the general strike, the solidarity and tenacity of the union leaders is astounding. The French government has usually been able to break movements by finding a “moderate” union leader who will sign a compromise agreement and split the movement into pieces.
However, the support among workers and the French public for a retraction of the CPE was immense, and any union leader who would have given in to the government’s concessions would likely become infamous among workers. Union leaders refused further meetings with Villepin, and instead organized into coalitions with the more radical student confederations to mobilize for the general strikes.
In perhaps the most sensationalized images of the confrontation, street battles with the police followed the general strike, and had been almost nightly occurences in the major towns of France throughout March and early April. Pictures of smashed windows, burning cars, police tear gassing young people, and beating up a protester took precedence over pictures of the protests themselves. As the New York Times seemed to think, the street fights were “the volatile chemical that could ignite an even bigger crisis for the government than the impasse over the law itself.”8
In fact, the “casseurs,” (fighters or smashers) as they are called, were a very small part of the picture. They were made up of a mélange of angry protesters, anarchists, right-wing fascist thugs looking to beat up protesters, and gang youth only political in their general alienation from society. As happened in the mid-1990s, there were youth gang members who used the demonstrations as an opportunity to beat up isolated protesters and steal cell phones. But these elements were marginal and the media coverage they received was far out of proportion to their numbers, which were in the hundreds, compared to protests involving hundreds of thousands, and even millions.
The threat of the casseurs was being used to stir up racist fears of “gangs of youth from the suburbs,” recalling images of last November’s riots of North African youth. However, far from being nests of casseurs and thugs, the suburbs—which face up to 50 percent rates of youth unemployment—were among the driving forces of the movement. From Clichy-Sous-Bois, where the riots began last November, to Montreuil, high school students and technical university students in the mostly Black suburbs of Paris were occupying their schools and marching alongside their fellow classmates in the elite Grandes Écoles.
Rather than falling prey to the racism of the media, the movement adopted the cause of undocumented immigrants, or sans-papiers, as a new immigration law is set to be decided in April. High school students at Utrillo, a school in Seine-St.-Denis, a suburb of Paris, organized a demonstration of 600 on March 17 in between national anti-CPE days of action, to protect the rights of two of their sans-papiers classmates.9
Although you wouldn’t have known it from listening to the French police chiefs or from reading the press, the question of the casseurs was far from the main problem of the movement. Where necessary, activists organized their own security for demonstrations. The movement mainly decried the incredible violence of the national police and the bellicose language of Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy (infamous for referring to the youth of last November’s riots as “scum.”) Sarkozy’s thugs put one demonstrating union worker, Cyril Ferez, into a two-week-long coma, and activists and Ferez’s union, the SUD-PTT, took up his case in denouncing the street violence of the police, not the youth in the streets. A distinction must be made between what were legitimate reactions by angry youth to police brutality, and small groups that attack and beat up protesters. An additional, and deliberate, confusion was introduced by the fact that the police sometimes acted as provocateurs, dressing in plain clothes and blending into the demonstrations, only then to attack protesters and make arrests.
Crisis and confrontation
From its inception, the movement sharpened, coming up against the intransigence of the state; the hated CPE, the neoliberal project, and social insecurity were the main issues, but the movement also demanded the removal of Villepin, President Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy. “Chirac, Villepin, et Sarkozy—votre période d’essai, elle est finie!” (Chirac, Villepin, and Sarkozy—your trial period is over!) became the preferred demonstration slogan, and the March 25–26 bulletin of the National Student Coordinating Committee (meeting every week with delegates from eighty universities) read, “The government must leave at the same time that they retire their project.”10
The crisis became so profound that even some members of France’s right-wing parties were beginning to abandon the prime minister to his hard-line stance. Perhaps Villepin sensed the threat a defeat would pose, not just to the CPE and to his hopes for a presidential bid in 2007, but to his job and to the neoliberal project in France, because he chose to take a hard line. The night of the general strike, he announced from his palace in Matignon that he would refuse to “retire” the CPE, but that amendments “may be possible.”
“Deaf to the world!” read the headlines of the French papers the next day. Students redoubled their efforts, voting to extend strikes, and the conflict escalated, with fifty-nine out of eighty-four universities on strike or occupied, along with 420 high schools.11 The movement put out a call for another general strike, April 4, and the parties of the Left—from the far-from-revolutionary Socialist and French Communist Parties to the Green Party to the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR)—came together for the first time in many years to issue a statement calling on President Chirac to retract the law. Said Olivier Besancenot of the LCR, “the country will be paralyzed and we will carry on striking if the government does not give in.”12
President Chirac—usually distant from internal affairs and concerned solely with French foreign policy—promised to address the nation with his decision on the CPE after the French parliament demanded the “immediate promulgation” of the law. In the Place de la Bastille in Paris, over 2,000 activists gathered to hear the president’s Friday night speech to the nation, erupting into both tears and angry chants when he announced his intention to sign the measure into law, albeit promising the rapid introduction of another law to reduce the trial period to one year. Immediately, the eleven united Left parties circulated a petition renewing the call for a retraction of the CPE and for a general strike April 4.
Rather than burning out the movement, the escalation of actions only increased the determination of activists to win. The April 4 general strike brought two million into the streets of France for the second consecutive week, in a similar carnival-like atmosphere, closing museums, train service, schools, and forcing the Paris Theater and Opéra to cancel their evening’s productions once again. Said Jules, a history student at Poitiers, during an AG mass meeting in the local stadium after the demonstration, “Our movement is united and legitimate. We scored a victory over conservatism, against those who said the youth were depoliticized.”13 The AG voted by a large majority to continue the occupation of the university.
The morning of April 5 saw the construction of l’Intersyndicale, a coalition of twelve of the main movement forces—trade union federations, student unions, and the national student strike committee—who vowed to accept nothing but a full retraction of the law by April 17.
The struggle isn’t over
According to a poll taken March 21, 66 percent of French people favored a retraction of the CPE, and 85 percent sympathized with the Left.14 A poll taken just after the second general strike, by French newspaper L’Express, found that 45 percent of French people wanted Villepin to resign.15 Far from losing steam, the movement was moving forward with each action. The pressures on the anti-CPE movement were immense, and the major question was who would give in to the government’s giant game of chicken. The movement succeeded in destroying Chirac’s plans for a “new Grenelle,”16 the concessionary agreement signed by union leaders and the government to put an end to the 1968 crisis. Union leaders held firm in not accepting half-measures or a “CPE lite.” It was one task of the organized Left to be a bulwark against any concessions that fell short of full repeal of the CPE, but also to articulate more generally a clear strategy forward against the neoliberal attacks on the French working class and poor.
At a mass meeting the night of the first general strike, Besancenot called for turning the “social struggle into a political struggle” and turning the anger in the streets into a viable tool to counter the current government’s neoliberal attack as well as the electoral strength of the French far Right. The united petitions of the eleven left-wing and revolutionary Left groups was the first step towards that. During the crisis, demands to join the Left parties were rolling in, and the general radicalization among the movements—particularly the students—was incredible.
The protests shook French society like no event since 1968—prompting former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to warn that the “normal functioning of institutions must be re-established” by scrapping the law. This was the latest of many such statements from the French political establishment recognizing, in contrast to de Villepin’s continuing bluster, that the law would have to be withdrawn.
“It’s the first retreat by this government,” the LCR declared in a statement. “It bodes well. It’s the first time since the election of Chirac in 2002 that power has conceded under the pressure from a mobilization of youth and workers. Struggle pays off.”17
While the CPE is dead, the struggle isn’t over. Soon, the government will announce plans for replacing the labor law. The National Student Coordinating Committee for the university strike—which meets in a different city each week, and whose delegates are re-elected every week in mass meetings at each striking university—has declared that de Villepin and his government must go, along with the CPE. They also want the government to lift other laws controlling the conditions of youth employment—for example, a law similar to the CPE passed last August.
The French struggle has shaken Europe and set an inspirational example of how to fight against the bosses’ neoliberal agenda. Now the question is how the movement will react if the government tries to re-enact the CPE under another name—and how its left wing can broaden and deepen the radicalization to continue the fightback.
Jesse Kindig is a member of the International Socialist Organization studying in France
1 Elaine Sciolino, “Chirac will rescind labor law that caused wide French revolts,” New York Times, April 11, 2006.
2 Quoted in “La violence s’invite dans les manifestations,” Libération, March 24, 2006.
3 John Mullen, Red Pepper, Spring 2006.
4 Quoted in “Propos des manifestants,” Libération, March 17, 2006.
5 “Les universités portées a ebullition,” Libération, March 14, 2006.
6 Mourad Guichard, “Les lycéens en ordre encore très dispersé,” Libération, March 14, 2006.
7 LH2-Libération poll, Libération, March 20, 2006.
8 Elaine Sciolino, “Violent youths threaten to hijack demonstrations in Paris,” New York Times, March 30, 2006.
9 “Le bahut de toutes les luttes,” Libération, March 29, 2006.
10 “Appel de la coordination nationale d’Aix, les 25–26 mars 2006,” printed in RED, paper of the Jeunesses communistes révolutionnaires, no. 66 (March 27–April 2): 2.
11 “Crise du CPE: Chronologie,” Nouvel Observateur online, http://permanent.nouvelobs.com/social/20060326.OBS1858.html.
12 “Déclaration d’Olivier Besancenot,” March 31, 2006, http://www.lcr-rouge.org/breve.php3?id_breve=608.
13 Libération, April 5, 2006, http://www.liberation.fr/page.php?
14 CSA/Le Parisien et Aujourd’hui en France/I-Télé poll taken March 21–22, 2006, published in Le Parisien, “L’électorat de droite veut garder le CPE,” March 24, 2006.
15 “France hit by new day of job protests, despite concessions,” April 4, 2006, Tocqueville Connection online, http://www.
16 “CPE: Chirac promulgarait le loi dès vendredi en cas de
non-censure, selon des sources parlementaires,” Associated Press, Paris, March 30, 2006.
17 “Chirac and the government eat their words,” LCR statement, http://www.lcr-rouge.org.