Students in France and Spain: Struggles that hold a promise for the future

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The young generation of the working class faces some of the worst attacks on its living standards, shows the tendency to search for solidarity with other workers, to organise itself in assemblies. Recent student struggles in France and Barcelona reinforce the lessons of struggles in Greece last December and against the CPE in France three years ago.

Young working class people can have few illusions in the future capitalism offers them, even before the recession, with the highest rates of unemployment, and no certainty of any kind of job even after university. Higher education for the working class is no privilege, a world away from the well endowed elite universities (in France the grandes ecoles) usually paid for by minimum wage work in abominable conditions, such as fast food restaurants. Small wonder we have seen students struggling in France, Italy, Germany and Spain recently, as well as Greece.

In France students, and those working in higher education, have been struggling against the so-called ‘law on autonomy of universities' or LRU, which aims to divert even more resources to the grandes ecoles and away form the ‘sink' universities. There were already struggles against this in November 2007 (see World Revolution 310) when students sought to link with railworkers also on strike at the time. Students struggling this spring could call on the experience of those struggles, as well as the successful struggle against the CPE three years ago and the struggles in Greece last winter, with all the experience of demonstrations, of barricading universities, of assemblies as well as how they responded to repression. It is not always obvious what lessons to draw from these experiences, what can be taken from previous struggles and used today and tomorrow, and what are tactics that can become a trap if repeated in a different context. There is no recipe for the class struggle, no easy formula. What is always key to the strength of the working class is unity, the greatest possible solidarity within the whole working class. The withdrawal of the CPE was fundamentally due to ruling class fear of the growing solidarity for the students from the rest of the working class in France. This same solidarity among students, workers and unemployed was behind the strength of the movement in Greece last December (see International Review 136).

One big united assembly or lots of little ones?

One of the students at Caen sent us a letter describing the struggles which give us much to think about. "At the start of the mobilisation there was a will to act in the most effective way. As well as the large number of demonstrators in the street there was a general assembly of the university uniting the teaching and caretaking staff as well as the students, undoubtedly drawing the lessons of the struggle against the CPE, which immediately decided in favour of opening its doors to all in spite of the vigorous opposition of the student union. Many participated in the day of action on 29 January, organised by the national unions, in this spirit of unity and extension. That evening an assembly, officially of education workers, was held at the university. This marked the peak of the movement..." The unions needed to avoid a situation like November 2007 when students and railworkers came together in their struggles before the next day of action on 19 March.

"In this context, faced with the risk of being overtaken by the struggle, the unions unfortunately accelerated their efforts to divide us which finally reached levels of absurdity rarely seen. Several days were enough for them to set up a myriad of ‘general' assemblies separating the teachers from the caretaking staff, from the students, so recently united in the same assembly. Each faculty organised its own little assembly, often on the same day as the others..." These sad little assemblies had to call the real general assembly the "general general assembly", and under union influence the ‘arts and media' assembly would denounce those studying biology and vice versa, using all the stereotypes that capitalist society imposes on us. It became harder to discuss as leftists repeated the same slogans, making it hard for speakers who wanted to widen the discussion, and finally ended the discussion by sending everyone out to blockade the university: "While paralysing a university can be the summit of a mobilisation and encourage meetings, it becomes truly poisonous when the ‘pro-blockages' involve much too few and are not valid in such circumstances when the questions implied are particularly sensitive, causing division and taking attention away from more basic objectives". In fact the students were divided up in all sorts of continuous demonstrations in front of all sorts of bourgeois institutions, town hall, museum etc.

"However, despite the damaging activity of the unions, there were very promising signs of students taking up the weapons of proletarian struggle. For example, several faculty assemblies opposed the division and dissolved themselves in recalling the sovereignty of the general assembly and the need for unity. Similarly students made many attempts to meet workers on strike against lay-offs at the Valeo factory... in vain, unhappily, to the extent that they were only able to meet a union delegation that came between the students and the workers".

Rather than get involved in useless actions our reader took the most constructive possible action in the circumstances, by participating in a discussion circle formed in opposition to the union direction of the struggle.

The importance of solidarity

Spanish students are struggling against the ‘Bologna Process', which will allow wealthier students greater access to study abroad. During this struggle students in Barcelona have shown that however preoccupied they have to be with the difficulties of their own situation, they cannot avoid thinking about the future capitalism offers to the whole working class - including their parents and neighbours - as well their own precarious hope of finding a job at the end of their studies. They are also very indignant at the repression of young people by the Mossos d'Escuadra (Catalan regional police) controlled by the regional government left coalition (socialists, Catalan nationalists, former Stalinists) consisting of beatings, violent arrests and evictions.

If they remain locked in a ‘university struggle' they would be isolated to face all the manoeuvres and repression the regional government could impose on them. As they attempted to extend their struggle to teachers, workers in other sectors, school students, their strength grew, making the government hesitate. They played a full part in a 30,000 strong teachers' demonstration in Barcelona on 18 March, where they were fully integrated and not a separate contingent.

After their occupation of the university was ended violently by the police and the violence continued in the evening with numerous arrests and 60 of the 5,000 protesters injured, the students reacted by organising a demonstration of solidarity. The Catalan government was forced to make excuses and there were resignations in the ministry of the interior. Since then they have continued to hold assemblies, strikes and occupations, meet groups who support them, debating and exchanging information with other universities which have shown solidarity, such as Madrid and Valencia.

They distributed a leaflet affirming "we are not delinquents, not rebels without a cause, nor are we cannon fodder for the mossos and bureaucrats", and they remain determined "thanks to a large student movement, since unity is strength... not only to push back capital's attacks..." but also for "a just, tolerant and free society of solidarity" for "we feel we have sufficient capacity to change the reality we are living in" ("Some reflections... on the events of 18 March in Barcelona", leaflet distributed in the demonstration on 26 March). This demonstration relied on the solidarity of those who also recognise that things are getting worse every day without any perspective of improvement, on their comrades, the teachers, on all those who share their preoccupations, on all those who know that they are tomorrow's workers.

The regional government, meanwhile, prepared for the demonstration by building up the fear of violent confrontations, much as the British ruling class did in preparation for the demonstrations around the G20, with the mossos ready for "every eventuality" and an intense media campaign to prepare for violence.

The students and others remained firm on the demonstration, despite their trepidation, and when they found their route blocked by the mossos took the initiative to refuse this provocation and take another direction. Unlike a union procession, this showed the demonstrators talking, discussing, choosing their own slogans, and it grew with students, their parents, other workers of all ages ending up 10,000 strong.

Perspectives for class struggle

The severe recession we are living through will face workers of all ages and in all parts of the world with attacks, with the need to defend themselves. The struggles we report in this article are only one small part of those going on all over the world today, including massive struggles in countries such as Bangladesh and Egypt. And we can be sure that increasing numbers of workers will enter struggle in the period to come as they digest the shocking reality of the economic situation that at present makes them hesitate.

The students' struggles hold a promise for the future. First of all, we see that the younger generation are not prepared to accept the future capitalism has in store for them, they will not put up with it without a fight. Secondly, they are not simply a response to attacks on them, but these students are seeing their struggles in the context of all the attacks (pensions, unemployment, etc) that make up not just their future but the condition of the working class as a whole. With this there is a tendency to seek solidarity - with other students, with others working in the universities where they are studying and with workers in other sectors - and to do so, when not diverted from this by the unions, by the most effective methods of open assemblies, demonstrations where all can meet in the street, and direct contact with others in strike.

When the working class can fight united across all sectors not only does it gain great strength, it can also pose an alternative, the only possible alternative, to the barbarity of capitalism.

Alex 5/6/09