France : Echoes of 1968… and of 1984

The media has preferred to show burning cars rather than the depth of the political mobilisation sweeping France. What are its causes and  likely effects? John Mullen in Paris gives his view.

The right wing French government has decided to make of its latest “reform” a test of strength of the kind that Margaret Thatcher won in Britain in the 1984 miners’ strike. The result of the present conflict will mark French politics for years, and establish among millions of people a new taste for resistance or a new demoralization.

The protests against the government’s new Youth Labour contract scheme, which allows employers  to sack workers  under 26 without giving a reason during the first two years or employment have turned into a historic trial of strength. At the end of March, President Chirac threw his weight behind the government, proposing only small modifications (reducing the trial period to one year), proposals immediately rejected by all the trade unions. At the same time, the Interior minister pushed for heavy sentences to be imposed in emergency court hearings on students arrested after the demonstrations - two months prison for obstructing a police officer, in one example. The Education minister, for his part, called on headmasters to call in riot police to open blockaded high schools.

The battle lines have been drawn. On March 28th over two million marched against the new contracts in 135 demonstrations across France. Teachers, journalists, train drivers, air traffic controllers, workers in local government, the oil industry, the post office and many others struck for the day. The main news radio station played opera music because its journalists were on strike, while the Paris opera houses were closed due to striking technicians!

The government, despite some dissension in its own party, refuses to retreat, and all the major trade unions have now called for a further day of mass strike action on Tuesday 4 April, which might turn into a more prolonged strike. Around 80% of the population are against the law, according to opinion polls. The whole of the Left from the Socialist Party to the Revolutionary Communist League have issued a joint statement calling for the movement to go on.  Such unity is unheard of. Governments have almost always been able to divide the unions, and persuade some to compromise and thus provide a cover for attacks. And the Socialist Party has rarely called for mass mobilization.

Youth unemployment in France 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.

 « 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, and gay workers would hesitate to be open about their sexuality at work.

Prime minister De Villepin claims that only privileged students are against the contracts. Opinion polls and reports in the media show this is untrue. « 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.  In some of the occupied universities, “liaison committees” have been set up to make links with unemployed young people in the poor suburbs “We are fed up of the government trying to divide young people” said one of them. And indeed, the demonstrations saw marching side by side the elite universities (Grandes écoles) and the mostly black contingents from technical high schools in the poorer suburbs of Paris.

Context and prospects

The movement started with a few thousand students in provincial universities.  Then once the law was voted, the explosion came. Over sixty of the 88 Universities in France 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 ; 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 liaising with local trade unions, for organizing film shows and political debates with sympathetic lecturers, 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.

« Open University » programmes have been set up by some strikers. At Nanterre, films and debates on women’s working conditions, on Gay Liberation or on May 68 filled the lecture theatres. 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. 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.

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 - scores of train lines 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. One group even invaded the auditioning studios of Pop Idol to sing songs about... the withdrawal of the new contracts. Even the national council of university presidents, and the Archbishops of Lyon and Marseilles, asked the government to suspend the application of the law.

Workers were slower to join the movement, having still in mind the harsh defeat in 2003 over pensions, when millions of strikers and marchers failed to stop the government from raising the retirement age by two and a half years in the public sector. But at the end of March, huge sectors of the workforce are on the move.

Links

We are seeing levels of self-organization, and links between students and workers which we have not seen for many decades. The National student coordination, which meets  every weekend with elected delegates from 86 of the universities called at the end of March for a general strike, insisting that « our movement like all great social movements can turn the tables on employers and the government and allow us to win new rights for employees and for young people. »

About half students in France have to work to pay for their studies, and so understand the world of work. As one railway worker commented « Our children go to university, and at my station it’s part-time students who sell train tickets, so the links are easy to make ». It is difficult to judge, as we go to press, how far this movement will radicalize, but it is reasonable to expect the unexpected.
 

Politicization

The present government had previously succeeded in its attacks :  in 2003, the raising of the retirement age, the following year major cuts in healthcare. 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. Defeating  the flagship Youth Labour contracts would carry much more weight, and could put the whole edifice of Thatcher-style “reform” here in jeopardy.

The political context affects the movement, and vice versa. The Socialist Party, though slowly edging towards Blairism,  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. So their 140 Members of parliament are opposing the CPE, though its leaders can hardly be said to be enthusiastic about the movement. Segolène Royale,  a possible PS  presidential candidate referred to the present situation as « a terrible waste » explaining that « whenever young people’s energy is focussed on something else rather than developing our country, it’s a dreadful shame.»

The Communist party is very active organizing support for the movement. Having participated in the Socialist government from 1997-2002, a generally disappointing experience for the Left, the PCF is torn between rebuilding a governmental alliance with the Socialist Party or concentrating on much more combative alliances with the very big non-party Left and with the revolutionary organisations.

The revolutionary Left has an influence way out of proportion to its actual size of a few thousand activists or to its electoral results. An opinion poll carried out by the biggest polling organisation in France, IFOP, at the end of March, showed that 43% of French people consider the revolutionary Left organizations « to be useful » and that they « make a fruitful contribution to debates ». Olivier Besancenot, young postman and spokesperson for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire is one of the most popular political figures in France. He received recently 50% of positive opinions in a poll, and it is not unusual to see him interviewed on prime time television.

The PCF, the LCR, and the non-party Left have been building united committees to help spread the movement against the new contracts. In this way they have been continuing the united work which was so successful during the successful referendum campaign last year. This radical Left unity could be the base for a single radical Left candidate for the presidential elections of 2007. Many on the Left in the « Committees for an Alternative on the Left » and in certain wings of the LCR and the PCF are keen to have a united candidate, and use this as a lever to build a combative but broad radical Left movement.  Nevertheless institutional conservatism from the PCF (keen to keep its  12 000 elected posts in local and regional government) and other forms of conservatism and purism on the trotskyist Left mean that such a perspective cannot be guaranteed.

The revolt, so soon after the suburban riots of last November, underlines the need for a political outlet to mass discontent. There has been a real political awakening in some poor suburbs after the riots, and many young people have formed action committees or signed upon the electoral lists. The size, radicality and duration of this 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.

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

This article was written for the UK magazine Red Pepper

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