France : Biggest young people’s movement since 1968

A mass movement is sweeping France, uniting workers and students against the vicious right wing government of Dominique de Villepin, the suave and distant prime minister who has never even stood in an election.

Student organizations and workers’ trade unions organized together mass demonstrations across France on Saturday 18th March. Over a million people marched in  160 towns, against the government’s new Youth Labour Contract scheme. These new contracts, voted through parliament in early March,  allow employers to insist on a two-year trial period for workers under 26 years old. During this period they can be fired without a reason being given. The law includes other attacks, such as allowing employers to make workers as young as fifteen years old work night shifts.

« We don’t want to be dependent on our parents till we’re 26 » said one demonstrator. Others pointed out that with this kind of contract no young woman would dare become pregnant, no young worker would dare join a union. In addition, they said, landlords often insist on a solid work contract before renting out flats, and if you can be fired any day, you are unlikely to get somewhere to live.

Millions of students also work to pay for their studies, so are not tempted to believe government reassurances that bosses would use the new contracts « in a responsible manner. »

The government claims that only privileged students are against the contracts, contracts which would help poorer, less educated youth. Opinion polls and reports in the media show this is a lie. « I’m already fed up of 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 » said one young apprentice.

With the government still refusing to budge, all the major union federations have called for a national day of strike action on Tuesday 28 March. Such unity, including the most « moderate » unions is unheard of. Governments have normally been able to divide the unions in the past, and persuade some to negotiate and provide a cover for attacks. For the moment, union unity is holding, under great pressure from the movement.

These new contracts come on top of widespread exploitation and pressure on young people. Youth unemployment is high. Unpaid « training periods » which can last months are very common, and employers frequently use unpaid trainees to replace other workers. Short term contracts, often repeatedly - and illegally - renewed, are rife.

The government think that  attacking young workers’ first is a good way to get workers used to poor conditions. Twelve years ago the government of the time tried to introduce a special, lower minimum wage for young people, but in the face of massive demonstrations over several weeks, they caved in. Now once more, young people are protesting in their hundreds of thousands. The new Youth Labour Contract (Contrat Première Embauche or CPE) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the ruling class is more determined than before and demonstrations alone will not win this time. Fortunately, so far, the movement is extremely determined too.

Explosion

The revolt started off slowly and for weeks it was far from clear  whether it would really take off. A few provincial universities were on strike. Then once the law was voted, the student strikes and occupations exploded. Sixty seven of the 88 Universities are now on strike, most are blockaded and some are occupied.

Mass meetings vote on how the movement is to be run. In Poitiers, 4 000 students held their meeting in the local rugby stadium ; mass meetings of two or three thousand are now quite common, while there are dozens of meetings of 500- 1000 every day. Commissions are chosen for writing leaflets and bulletins, for studying the law, for organizing film shows and political debates, and for many other tasks such as visiting high schools and leafletting railway stations. In some meetings, university staff have been invited to talk about their working conditions - cleaning staff  have been able to speak out, and students have learned a lot.

In some universities, inspiring programmes have been set up. At Nanterre, films and debates on women’s working conditions filled the lecture theatres on Thursday. On Friday, the history of Gay Liberation was the theme of the day. On Wednesday a series of films on May 1968 were being shown. In Reims, debates on globalization or on the history of young people’s rebellions are on the programme.

Universities previously known as « conservative » joined the strike as the momentum rose, including one of the Toulouse universities which had even carried on business as usual 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 with jobseekers, who assured them of full support.

Conservative students organizing demonstrations against the blockading of the universities gather two or three hundred people at their rallies, and it is clear that the vast majority of young people support the movement. Hundreds of students occupied night trains without paying to go to national demonstrations in Paris.

In the middle of March, Secondary School students (15 to 18 year olds)  joined in. By the 22nd several hundred schools were on strike and blockaded, including half the schools in Paris. Direct action is on the rise - dozens of trains and main roads have been blocked by sit-ins, while other students allowed motorists to travel by motorway free by blocking the tollbooths, or occupied the offices of bosses’ organizations and right wing parties... and a group of students invaded the auditioning studios of Pop Idol to sing songs about... the withdrawal of the new contracts.

Support came from unexpected quarters when the national council of university presidents asked the government to suspend the application of the law for six months.  By this time 70% of the population (including over 80% of young adults, and even 38% of supporters of the right wing parties !) thought the government should retreat.

Tuesday’s strikes will go ahead if the government doesn’t withdraw the law. Branch federations of trade unions are declaring their support - in the last few days transport unions, oil industry unions, teachers, gas workers, bank workers and airport workers have all announced they will join the strike. It is clear that the strike will be huge.

Context

The conflict goes well beyond the hated new contracts, just the latest in a series of attacks. In 2003, long strikes in education, and million-strong marches failed to stop the government adding two and a half years to the age of retirement in public services. At the key moment, union leaders had not wanted to « provoke a social crisis ». The following year, major cutbacks in health care were announced.

Then in 2005, the tide seemed to turn. A massive united Left campaign led to a defeat for the Right in the referendum on a free-market oriented constitution for Europe. This was a great victory, but a victory in a referendum is easier to win than one which forces bosses to treat workers better. If we can win against the new labour contracts it will be much more important still.

This is why the Prime minister Dominique de Villepin is highly determined to force these contracts through despite the opposition. The contracts are the first step in a major programme to « modernize » French labour law - that is to take away the protection for workers, which is somewhat better in France than in other industrialized countries.

The political context is favourable to the movement. The extremely moderate Socialist Party is keen to rebuild its image after its leaders had called for a « Yes » vote in last year’s referendum. They are especially keen to do this as 2007 and 2008 are big election years - first the president then the parliament will be re-elected. And the right wing government is handicapped by competition between two would-be presidential candidates - the aristocratic poet and present prime minister, and the young Berlusconi figure of Nicolas Sarkozy (famous for describing young people in poor suburbs as « rabble »).

The media across the world have preferred to emphasize the fighting between hundreds of demonstrators and riot police after the demonstrations, rather than the hundreds of thousands involved. The fighting is marginal for the moment, and should be seen as an understandable reaction to the complete contempt shown by the Villepin government for the movement. « For many school students, going to these demonstrations is just like going on the streets because France has won a football match, » claimed the Education minister, Gilles de Robien. Nevertheless, a few of the demonstrations have presented new problems to the movement, as small bands of thieves attacked demonstrators, stealing mobile phones and indulging in counterproductive violence against other young people.

Despite the government generally wanting riot police to keep a relatively low profile to avoid enflaming the situation, police thugs left a 39 year old trade unionist in a coma and fighting for his life after receiving severe head injuries from riot police at the end of a demonstration last week.

The revolt, so soon after the riots of last November, underlines once more the need for a political outlet to mass discontent. There is the space for a new radical Left party, including sections of the Communist Party who want to concentrate on the class struggle, large parts of the revolutionary Left, and thousands of people on the rapidly growing non-party Left which has been very much boosted by the Referendum victory and by the anti-CPE movement.

The size, radicality and duration of the movement means we are seeing the rapid reemergence of a new generation of Left activists among young people, who are learning in days what often requires decades. If victory is ours this time, we will have taken a big step towards going much further.

John Mullen
Activist in the LCR  http://www.lcr-rouge.org
and Editor  of  the review Socialisme International
http://www.revue-socialisme.org
 

NB : An inspiring collection of photos and videos of the movementcan be found online at http://permanent.nouvelobs.com/social/20060207.OBS5503.html

This article was written for the magazine Socialist Alternative (Australia) in March 2006

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