France : An exciting young movement transforms French politics

The British  media preferred to show burning cars rather than the depth of the political mobilisation which swept France in March and April. John Mullen in Paris gives another view.

The right wing French government decided to try make of its latest “reform” a test of strength of the kind that Thatcher won in the 1984 miners’ strike. The result is a deep political conflict and a victory which will mark French politics for years, and has established among hundreds of thousands of people a new taste for resistance.

The protests against the government’s new Youth Labour Contract law (CP),  allowing  employers  to sack workers  under 26 during  the first two years of employment without reason, 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 and suggesting that some explanation for sackings would be needed. The  proposals were immediately rejected by all the trade unions who are opposed to the principle of inferior work contracts for young people, and judged Chirac’s promises deliberately ambiguous. Only ten days later, Chirac was forced into a humiliating retreat and withdrawal of the Youth Labour contracts.

Over two million marched in early April in the 5th national day of action against the new contracts. « 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.

With the government at this time mixing concessions and repression,  the Interior minister Sarkozy pushed for heavy sentences to be imposed in emergency court hearings on young people arrested after the demonstrations - two months prison for obstructing a police officer, in one example. Fifty nine young people have already been given prison sentences. The Education minister, for his part, asked headmasters to call in riot police to open blockaded high schools.

United youth

The biggest youth movement since 1968 has seen over  60 of the 88 universities in France closed or blockaded - some for months. Students from the elite Grandes Ecoles have been marching alongside ordinary universities and the mostly black, working class students from technical high schools in the poorer suburbs. De Villepin claimed that only privileged students opposed the contracts, but opinion polls give a figure of  80% of young people. « 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. Law students in Lille turned up at unemployment offices to discuss with jobseekers.

The revolt began with the students in some provincial universities, and exploded once the law was passed through parliament in early March. Secondary school students (between 15 and 18 years old) joined a few weeks later. Soon several hundred schools were on strike and blockaded, including half those in Paris.

Finally the unions moved in with days of mass strike action which saw millions marching against the CPE (Contrat Première embauche). On the 4th April, there were over 200 separate demonstrations, and strikes in education, transport, industry, the media, airports, local government, electricity and gas and the Post Office, to name but a few. 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!

United unions
All the twelve major union federations, even the least radical, are mobilizing. Such unity of the different  federations has not been seen since the Second World War. The main explanation lies in the dynamism and popularity of the students’ movement -no union leader wanted to be known as the one who abandoned this struggle. Secondly, the issue of more unstable contracts for young people is a relatively easy one to unite people around. Hardly anybody seriously believes such a measure would reduce youth unemployment (even many employers don’t see the point). Thirdly, the least radical trade union federation, the CFDT, was feeling a need to regain credit lost when they abandoned the fight three years ago on pensions, thus helping the government push through a rise of two and a half years in the public sector retirement age. This defeat on pensions in 2003, despite marches of millions and several day long mass strikes, also explains why workers were slower to move than students on this new issue.

Although comparisons with 1968 spring to mind, many elements have changed. Today there are 2.3 million students in Higher Education in France - a far cry from the relatively privileged group in 1968. And more than a third of students also have a job to help pay for their studies. This has two consequences - firstly students understand the reality of workplaces and so won’t believe government assurances that employers would not be unreasonable about sacking people. Secondly, links with workers are much easier to make. As one railway worker commented « Our children go to university, and at my station it’s part-time students who sell train tickets». After a visit from 200 students, three quarters of the workforce of one huge factory in Cherbourg struck to join the demonstrations.

The trade unions’ united front was matched by an equally unusual united front of the Left - from the hardly radical  Socialist Party to the surprisingly influential far Left (a recent poll showed 43% find the far Left “makes a useful contribution”.) The basis of this was laid by  the successful campaign of an unusually united campaigning left to defeat for the Right in the May referendum on European constitution, which also attracted many new supporters to the radical left. Groups of activists from different Left parties within the No campaign went out together flyposting, with each party flyposting everyone else’s posters as well as their own! Meetings of thousands were organized in towns where old-time activists were used to seeing the same two dozen people at every meeting. The Socialist party leadership lost a lot of credibility at that time when they campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote to the neoliberal European constitution (the Noes won easily). They are keen to win some of this back, especially with major elections next year, though they are also worried about the increasingly radical movement profiting more to the Communist party and the Revolutionary Communist League and its fiery young postman spokesman, Olivier Besancenot.

Last November’s riots also prepared the ground for the student movement by creating a  sense of crisis and of the urgent need for new solutions.

Direct democracy

It is the nature of the movement that the British media seemed to miss completely. Grass-roots based, democratic and rather chaotic, it has taught many young people lessons that no courses could ever teach.

Mass meetings in universities and high schools 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. These meetings create commissions 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, such as cleaners and porters have been invited to talk about their working conditions.Young students, (mostly women as far as I have seen, and far from all white) have rapidly learned public speaking and chairing meetings, dealing with university administrators and organizing serious stewarding for marches occasionally in danger from police or from gangs of young thieves.

« Open University » programmes have been set up in the most radical colleges. 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. At Tolbiac, immigration and the media are on the agenda.

With the growth of the movement, came the rise of direct action.  Scores of train lines and main roads were  blocked by sit-ins, while other students allowed motorists to travel by motorway free by blocking the tollbooths. Others occupied (and occasionally wrecked)  the offices of employers’ 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. As I write, plans are going ahead for the organization of ... a football match on a blockaded motorway.

The students developed a National student coordinating committee, which meets every weekend in a different town. Seven delegates (re-elected every week in local mass meetings) from every blockaded university, and three from any other university, discussed all night to come up with ideas for action and press releases. At the end of March, their statement read « 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. » A week later (with 114 universities and colleges represented) they called for a general strike, and called on workers to add their own demands to the movement.

Unlike the movements of 1994 and 1986, students from Left political organizations are not rejected because of their party card. But the movement is trying to invent new forms of democracy.  For several weeks the coordinating committee refused to elect a spokesperson on principle, but in later weeks spokespeople were elected. I heard one of them speaking in my local town hall in Montreuil, loaned by the mayor. “Wednesday I want every student in a workplace, talking to the workers” she insisted.  “If we can’t persuade them all to strike, at least let’s persuade them that these contracts have to go.”

Politicizing a new generation

A whole generation is being politicized.  Nevertheless it is a politicization which is marked by the defeats of the last thirty years. The slogans are generally “Resistance!” not “Revolution”. This is not to say that a general questioning of capitalist society is not possible in and through this movement, but it is tentative and slow. In 1968 maoism, guevarism, and to some extent trotskyism had more credit.  If students wear stickers from the Communist party or the trotskyist parties, it is because they like the organizations more than their theories. The general perception is that marxism in all its variety  has been  discredited. The   ideological offensive against marxism and the Left has been particularly severe in France. If protesters certainly believe that “Another world is possible”, they are not in a great hurry to go into details. Many of the debates organized in universities were limited to discussing Employment Law...

The size, radicality and duration of this movement does mean we are seeing the rapid reemergence of a new generation of left activists among young people, They  are learning in days what often requires decades. A significant minority are already joining the Left wing parties or unions because of the movement, and this continues a trend of rising politicization of young people since the riots of last November. In poorer suburbs, campaigns to get young people to sign themselves onto the electoral register have had considerable success.

This is the continuation of a process of radicalization and polarization in France over several years. The rise of the non-party Left since 1999 ( in particular the birth of ATTAC, a Left “movement for popular education and action” with over 20 000 members) was the first phase of this recent radicalisation.. The explosion of anger against Le Pen when he got through to the second round of the presidential elections in 2002 represented phase two.

The successful campaign against the European constitution was phase three.


The future for the Left in France is exciting. The new generation is already shaking up the old parties. If the present movement is completely successful, and the youth contracts are discarded, not only will the government have to shelve a dozen other attacks they have in mind, but the building of much bigger political organizations on the radical Left will seem a much more realistic prospect. Already the “No to the European constitution” committees, which did not disband after the referendum victory, are pushing for a single radical Left candidate to stand against the Right and the Socialist Party in next year’s presidential elections.

The Youth Labour contracts are the issue in France right now. But in other European countries similar attacks are in progress, each government blaming “European competition” to explain the need to tighten our belts. The European Social Forum in Athens in a few weeks’ time will enable activists across the continent to exchange notes and ideas, and the French movement will be a major inspiration in Athens.

John Mullen
Activist in the LCR
and Editor  of  the review Socialisme International

This article was published by Red Pepper in April 2006

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