“The student movement did not start with a single blow. At first it was just the students of Rennes who dared to bet that their strike would snowball, and who shut down their university, on their own for a week.
“It will be the same among the workers...”
So resolved the 300 university and high-school student delegates who met in Lille on 1-2 April to plan the way forward for the struggle in France.
The movement started two months ago, with a small minority of students who ventured to take action against a government measure cutting job security — at first sight just another of dozens of similar measures imposed in France, as in other countries, one after another for twenty years now.
On 4 April, on the seventh of a series of days of action since 7 February, the movement is still growing. As Lutte Ouvrière, one of France’s revolutionary socialist groups, reports:
“The demonstrations of 4 April were even bigger than those of 28 March... The mobilisation of university and high school students is not weakening, and a larger number of workers, especially from the private sector, took part in the demonstrations”.
The Lille student assembly — and, more vaguely, some union organisations — had called for strikes on 4 April to continue into the following days, in the same way as France’s giant general strike of May-June 1968 started with workers continuing to strike and occupy their factories after an official one-day action called by the union federations on 13 May.
As we go to press, it looks as if that hasn’t happened yet. Not this time, anyway. The possibility of such a full-scale working-class explosion developing from the current movement still remains.
The official union leaders say: “The movement will not end with this day [4 April]. As from Wednesday [5 April] we will be calling for a continuation of the movement, with new forms of action to take account of the school holidays” (Bernard Thibault, CGT). “May is too far away”, added Jean-Claude Mailly of FO. “We need a rapid response. Otherwise it’s playing for time”.
The student assembly’s call was for:
• Wednesday 5 April: students to go to factories and offices — as they often have done already in some areas, over the last two months — and try to get workers’ meetings to discuss the next steps.
• Thursday 6 April: blockades of the main rail lines — again, something students have already done in many areas.
• Friday 7 April: a day of action against repression, demonstrations at courthouses, preparations to maintain the active blockades of universities and high schools over the Easter holidays.
• Saturday 8 April: they call on the unions to co-organise worker and student demonstrations.
• Thursday 11 April: another day of action with strikes.
The action has expanded into a general revolt against neo-liberalism. Already its demands have spread beyond the defeat of the CPE — the government measure allowing employers to sack young workers without having to justify a reason — to others: the withdrawal of the government’s so-called “Law on Equal Opportunity” (of which the CPE is part, but also includes the legalisation of night work for 15 year olds) and of the CNE (another government measure which allows workers in places with less than 20 employees to be sacked without the employer having to justify a reason).
Those measures had previously passed through the French parliament with little fuss.
It is the whole system called “neo-liberalism” — the capitalism of today — that the French students and workers are rebelling against. The whole system in which each year, more and more is privatised. More and more is given over to the free market. Jobs become less secure. Pensions dwindle. Workers have to adapt more “flexibly” to the demands of employers. Profits spiral.
Most of the workers, in the public sector and big private-sector enterprises, who have struck, are not directly affected at all by the CPE or the CNE. But they know about “neo-liberalism” — and about solidarity.
Do not suppose that the students’ and workers’ revolt against neoliberalism is something uniquely French, something that could not be done elsewhere.
It helps that France does not have anti-union laws like Britain’s. By now no law could stop the strikes, any more than French education minister Gilles de Robien was able to reopen the blockaded high schools by issuing an instruction on 29 March to head teachers that they should reopen the schools, by police force if necessary. The teachers’ unions said they would strike if the cops were called in, almost all head teachers refused to move, and the schools stayed shut.
But that the union leaders were able to start calling strikes without fear of legal reprisal made it easier for the activists to push them.
The memory of mass strike waves in 1995 and 2003 also helps. But the start in 1995 was made from a situation where France’s unions had been continuously on the retreat for over a decade.
France’s union leaders are not a different breed from our Prentises and Simpsons. Not at all. Only, the activists have pushed them harder.
François Chérèque, leader of the CFDT confederation, was caught by the press in an unguarded moment. “Villepin [the prime minister] isn’t helping us at all. So I don’t see why we should make an effort to help a government which didn’t warn us about what it was doing until the last minute, and over a law that we didn’t want... I’m not the duty firefighter... We’re brave, we’ll take a stand [he means, against stroppy workers], but we are not masochists”. The CGT, traditionally the more militant of France’s big union confederations, has been discreetly edging into “moderation” for many years now. But now even Chérèque says nothing will do but complete withdrawal of the CPE.
French president Chirac has tried to deflate the movement by an odd gambit (31 March): signing the CPE into law and simultaneously inviting the unions to discussions with the parliamentary group of his ruling party, the UMP, over a projected new law which is to modify the CPE by asking employers who sack workers to cite a reason (though they will not have to justify it) and by reducing the time within which workers can be freely sacked from two years to one.
The government’s hope must be that if they can stall a bit longer, and tie up the union leaders in talks, then the Easter holidays will save them. In one-third of France, school holidays started on 31 March; in Paris and Bordeaux, they start on 7 April; in the rest of France, on 14 April.
In some cities, like Lille, there are now “workers’ assemblies”, linking different groups of workers who have taken strike action with student activists. On those grass-roots groupings, and their extension, depends the future of the movement.
The French revolutionary left is stronger than the British, but not to a degree that makes French experience irrelevant to Britain. They got 2.6% of the vote in the Euro-elections of June 2004, and 2.5% in the legislative assembly elections of June 2002, no more.
The right wing has a big parliamentary majority in France, and the fascistic far right of the Front National is far stronger than the BNP in Britain. Student unions in France organise no more than one or two per cent of students. Many of the student strikes and occupations started after long and hot debates in mass meetings, where right-wing students rallied in force against them. The difference is not that the French are universally left-wing, but that the French student activists dared to take the initiative, to shift the balance of forces by action.
The Lille student assembly declared:
“Because job insecurity is not just the CPE or the CNE, we commit ourselves to support all the demands which may be defined by the workers in struggle, such as wage rises and the conversion of all insecure jobs into permanent ones, for example”.
On the demonstrations on 4 April, according to the daily Libération, calls to kick out the government and president Chirac were popular. In the student movement, according to Lille activist Nico Dessaux: “The lack of political perspectives has led to some problems. Almost nobody [at the Lille assembly] spoke about kicking out the government, although the resignation of Jacques Chirac was suggested. Most students don’t want this withdrawal to turn into a political victory of the old left wing [the Socialist Party, which ruled or half-ruled neo-liberally from the early 1980s to 1995 and 1997 to 2002, often in alliance with the Communist Party]. They feel uncomfortable with this issue”.
The French revolutionary left is groping towards formulating demands — transitional demands, as they’re called in Marxist discussion — beyond the immediate issue of the CPE.
A declaration by unions and students in Bordeaux of 30 March lists its proposals simply as: “The withdrawal of the CPE and the CNE; the repeal of the [‘Equal Opportunities’] law; the satisfaction of demands”. The phrase, “the satisfaction of demands”, does not sound as oddly vague in France as in Britain, since it is usual for unions in every sector to have an established set of unsatisfied demands, awaiting a chance to push them. Still, vague it is.
Lutte Ouvrière pointedly does not call for kicking out the government, for similar reasons to the Lille assembly. “It is not only the CPE which is at issue, and must be stopped. It is the whole policy designed to legalise increasing job insecurity, and which began with the licence given to businesses to resort even more widely to casual labour and with the CNE. On that too, it is possible to beat back the bosses and the government”.
The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire declares: “It is not only the withdrawal of the CPE that must be won. We must demand the resignation of all the government”. There is an incoherence here, since in recent years the LCR has not voted for the Socialist Party and the Communist Party even in the second rounds of elections (after the revolutionary left candidates have been eliminated). In favour of what is the LCR demanding the removal of the government? And does it not have any positive demands to put on a SP/ CP government?
Débat Militant, a minority grouping in the LCR, suggests: “The struggle against the CPE links up with the fight against sackings, for better wages, for the right of all to a decent income, to social protection, to pensions. It poses the question of the division of work among all those seeking it, and of working-class control over the running of society”.
Convergences Révolutionnaires/ l’Étincelle, the minority in Lutte Ouvrière, poses the question of moving to a full, all-out general strike more boldly than others. “Of course, a general strike does not happen by flicking a switch. But it is being prepared, it is growing!” It could develop in the same way as the student movement spread from small minorities. And so “today we have the possibility of making the government and the bosses retreat on the CPE, the CNE, and job insecurity, but also on plenty of other demands, such as wage rises or a legal ban on redundancies”.
The Liaisons group, together with some others, calls for “workplace meetings everywhere, and discussion on the generalisation and renewal [from day to day] of the strike”, and declares: “The path of victory is the one that does not hesitate at the overthrow of Chirac, De Villepin, Sarkozy [the Interior Minister], and their regime”.
Not raised yet — in what we have read — are some other demands that have been promoted by the French activist left in recent years: the repeal of government subsidies to big business (very extensive in France, and often on spurious “job creation” grounds), and the reallocation of the funds to expanding public services, with a corresponding increase in jobs; and a shorter working week without loss of pay and with new hirings to match the cut in hours. (The cut in work hours under the Socialist Party government of 1997-2002 came with “flexibility” which meant, in the end, that few new jobs were created, but France ended up with possibly the highest productivity per worker-hour in the world).
Nor are there any attempts to raise the issue of a workers’ government — by having workers’ assemblies propose candidates committed to the movement’s demands, and demanding the Socialist Party and Communist Party back them, or by any other means.
To stipulate demands or slogans from afar would be foolish: better to follow, and try to learn from, the debates among the activists engaged on the spot. But one lesson is clear for us already. The French students and workers have shown how to fight back.