Notes from the students’ struggles in France

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Thursday’s demonstrations throughout France brought some 500,000 students into the streets, and the movement has continued to increase in size; the big question of last week – whether or not the masses of wage workers would join the demonstrations planned for Saturday 18th March – has been answered in concretely: in France as a whole, there were something like 1,000,000 people in the streets.[1] Even towns which have barely seen a demonstration in living memory have been affected: 15,000 demonstrated in Pau; there was even a demonstration in Chalons sur Saône in the heart of rural France.

For those militants and sympathisers of the ICC who have taken part in the movement during the last few weeks, especially since the demonstrations of 7th March, these have been remarkable, exciting days. We don’t intend here to go into a detailed account of events (we don’t have the time!) but rather to highlight what seem to us to be some of the most significant aspects of the movement. 

Some might ask why a communist organisation should involve itself so wholeheartedly – as the ICC has done – in a student movement. The students, after all, are not a class as such, nor even, as such, a part of the working class. In fact, there are two reasons:

  • Firstly, you need to understand the distinction that exists in France between what are called the “Grandes écoles” and the universities. The former are essentially reserved for the children of the ruling class[2] and their graduates – the “ingénieurs” – are virtually guaranteed well-paid jobs in France’s civil service and major companies; indeed the whole system bears a remarkable resemblance to the “Nomenklatura” whereby the Stalinist ruling class of the ex-USSR ensured its continuity. The universities, on the other hand, supply the skilled and labour force for today’s high-tech industries and services. The minimum requirement for joining the army of low-paid technicians manning the factories, laboratories, and offices of the French economy is nowadays the “bac+3” (ie three years of university education after leaving school), or even “bac+5”. In this sense, the vast majority of university students are both the children and future members of the French proletariat. This is a major difference with the situation in May 1968, when only 7% of the youth attended university (and also with other European countries where much smaller proportions of young people go to college).
  • Secondly, the objective of the student movement – to force the government to withdraw the “Contrat de Première Embauche” (CPE) whose main provision (a two-year trial period during which an employee can be fired without notice or reason on the boss’s part) – is clearly a demand that concerns the whole working class, including the masses of unemployed youth in the sink estates whose rage and despair exploded into last autumn’s rioting. And the students are well aware of this, and have consistently resisted efforts to divert the struggle onto the terrain of “university reform” (in particular of the European standard LMD diploma), insisting that theirs is not just a students’ affair but something that concerns all the wage earners.

Unity of the generations

For those of us of the “old generation” who took part in the struggles sparked off throughout the industrialised world by the events of May 68, one of the most remarkable features of the movement today is the disappearance of the “generation gap” that the media used to talk so much about. The parents of the new generation of the working class which launched the movement in the 1960s-70s had experienced the terrible defeat of the counter-revolution, the suffering of the 1930s, and the horrors of World War II (and all the illusions in the great victory of “democracy” after the war). The youth had grown up in a different world, and were often infected with a deep mistrust of their elders (the most extreme example was certainly Germany, where the slogan “don’t trust anyone over 30” reflected the youth’s disgust with what they saw as the legacy of Nazism in the generation that had been through the war). We have found none of this today. Quite the reverse: the ICC’s older militants, who were first awakened to politics in the movement of 68, have been deeply moved to find youngsters who could be their children (in some cases indeed, who are their children), coming to them for advice, wanting to learn from the history of their struggles. Militants in their 50s or 60s have been able to speak to mass meetings of youngsters, and to find themselves listened to and even applauded (in fact, all the interventions of ICC militants have been applauded, at times with great enthusiasm). In Toulouse, one of our comrades who teaches at the university and is known as a member of our organisation was applauded by a mass meeting of more than 1,000 students, who then asked him to prepare an “alternative course” on the history of the revolutionary movement. In Grenoble, another comrade was welcomed to a mass meeting by several youngsters who declared “we’re counting on you to speak against the union” – which of course he duly did to the best of his ability!

The importance of this unity of the generations, where the elder can contribute what they have learned to the dynamism of the younger, is profoundly significant of a new situation world wide and throughout the working class. Today, two generations of undefeated workers are confronting capital: the older generation is battered by the struggles of the 1980s and the terrible reflux of the 1990s – but it is still unbowed and the memories of its youth are not those of war, but of struggle.

An extraordinary degree of organisation

The movement is organised by mass meetings (known as “assemblées générales” or AG) which vote the strike from one meeting to the next. Obviously the degree and coherence of organisation varies considerably from one university to another. In many cases, the AG finds itself being run by a self-proclaimed presidium set up by the students’ union (usually the UNEF), which tends to dominate the proceedings and to discourage the participation of the non-unionised. But elsewhere – and notably at Paris III Censier which is clearly at the forefront of the movement, the degree of organisation and the maturity of the students is truly remarkable. Witness how each meeting begins: with the presentation of the proposed presidium of three, each of whom gives his or her name, year, and course of study, and adds whether or not he is in a union or a political organisation (the non-unionised and non-political generally dominate); the presidium changes every day, and no business is done until it has been accepted by the AG; the day then begins with reports (starting with reports from the various working commissions – “Reflection and Action”, Press, “Exterior Contact”, etc. – then going on to reports from the delegates who have been mandated to attend the national or regional Coordinations (set up to coordinate the different universities). And this is not the only remarkable feature of the AG: everyone can speak – even those from outside the university; speakers are limited to three minutes each (it turns out to be possible to say a remarkable number of things in three minutes!); propositions are made and noted on the blackboard behind the presidium, for all to see. At the end of the meeting, votes are taken on all the proposals that have been put to the meeting; in some cases the presidium calls for someone to speak “for” and “against” a proposal, if it does not seem to have been properly understood.

It should be emphasised that the efficacy of the meeting is not merely down to the presidium, but to the astonishing maturity of all the participants: every speaker is listened to, the speakers themselves respect the time limits they are given. They have even borrowed from the sign-language of the deaf a gesture of silent approval when agreeing with a speaker, in order to avoid interrupting the flow of the meeting with cheers or applause. In Nantes, the presidium brought instant quiet to an enthusiastic assembly with the words: “We’re not on the telly here!”.

It is fair to say that, in their way and in a more limited movement, the French youth of today are the heirs not only of May 1968 but of the Polish workers who faced down the Stalinist state in 1980.

A healthy instinct

Despite the fact that the AG are often run by a union-dominated presidium, there is nonetheless a general and healthy distrust of any suggestion to remove the power of decision from the AG itself. At Paris III Censier, we witnessed debates on two issues that illustrated this particularly well: on the nature of the mandate given by the AG to its delegates at the regional Coordination of Île de France; and on the proposal to create a “coordination bureau” which would supposedly be a kind of “information distributor” designated by the regional Coordination.

The debate on the mandate initially opposed the supporters of “free” and “imperative” mandates: the former would allow delegates essentially to take their own initiatives at the Coordination, even if this was in contradiction with the mandate from the AG; the latter would bind the delegates to voting solely according to the decisions and discussions of the AG itself. As was quickly pointed out, one of the main drawbacks of the “imperative mandate” is that the delegate can say nothing about any new proposition that has not been previously discussed by the AG. It took no more than ten minutes for the presidium to present clearly and comprehensibly, and to take a vote on a hybrid solution: the semi-imperative mandate, binding when it involves decisions taken by the AG, but leaving room for the delegates’ initiative whenever it is a matter that the AG has not yet discussed.

The proposal to create a “coordination bureau” was rejected out of hand in five minutes flat, on the grounds that no useful purpose was served by introducing yet another level of centralisation independent of the AG.

It comes as no surprise at all, that in both cases the proposals that tended to remove the power of decision from the AG came from the Trotskyists of the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire): this is a consistent policy of the Trotskyists and unionists – the creation of extra layers of “coordination”, of extra “bureaux” where information and decision-making are concentrated, and where their own militants can get their hands on the levers of information and power. As far as we are concerned – and although, as a general principle, we are opposed to the “imperative mandate” – the AG’s refusal of these measures which would have removed the power of decision from its hands represents a healthy instinct of distrust for the would-be professional bureaucrats and politicians.

The union question

One idea that has emerged more or less clearly from the movement is that the demand for the withdrawal of the CPE is not just a student demand, and that the movement must seek the active support of the wage workers. Needless to say, going on strike is a different matter for wage workers and for students: while it is true that for the many students who have to work their way through college, and who cannot afford to miss a year’s studies, the strike is a serious business, this cannot compare with the problem faced by wage workers who have to pay the rent, repay credits, feed their families, and who moreover cannot legally strike unless called out by a trades union. The students generally (despite a few hotheads’ calls for a “general strike” which in today’s situation is a meaningless slogan) have been aware of this: for example, it has been a frequent proposal (embodied in the upcoming demonstration of 18th March) to demonstrate on the weekends so that wage workers can join in. The real question is: how to bring the wage workers into the movement?

The obvious answer, is to ask the unions. And indeed there have been repeated proposals in this respect, whether it be to go to the unions at the local or at the national level. The problem is that the unions themselves have shown no desire whatever to have the wage workers join the movement. There was absolutely no publicity on the unions’ part, for example, for the demonstration on Thursday 16th March, and it was only on Friday 17th that they started publicising the demonstration on the morrow, the first to be called on a Saturday with the explicit intention, on the students’ part, of opening it up to the wage workers. If we did not know the unions for what they are – the bosses’ best friends, when push comes to shove – then we would call this scandalous, downright shameful in fact.

What is to be done then? If the students cannot trust the unions to call out the wage workers – which they clearly cannot – then they will have to do it themselves, by distributing leaflets at major concentrations of workers (in Paris, this principally means in the suburban railway stations where tens of thousands of people pass every day on their way to and from work). Militants of the ICC have strongly supported – and been enthusiastically cheered for doing so – motions presented and adopted at the AG in this sense.

Violence and the role of the media

One of the most striking features of the movement is the way in which it has been reported in the media both in France and abroad, and especially by the TV which is of course the main source of information for most workers. Until very recently – essentially and with a very few exceptions until the demonstration Thursday (17th March) – the media in France has concentrated on one thing: the occupation of the Sorbonne and the violent confrontations between bands of young hotheads (who come from nobody knows where), and the CRS (riot police).

Until very recently, there has been not a sign on the TV of the mass meetings, the debates, or even the demonstrations: instead there have been a lot of interviews with students opposed to the movement, confrontations between students, and the attacks on the CRS.

Outside France, the blackout of the students’ movement has been almost total – with the exception of a few pieces on the violence.

All this is in marked contrast to the huge blanket coverage of the riots in the French suburbs last autumn, which were so vastly blown out of proportion that we received declarations of support for the “revolution” taking place in France, from comrades in the ex-USSR!

We know very well that the media – and above all the TV media – are to all intents and purposes controlled by the state, and even where they are not, their “self-control” is impressive: there’s even an old English rhyme that goes like this, and is valid for the media everywhere – “No-one can corrupt or twist, thank God, the British journalist. Given what the man will do unbribed, there is no reason to”.

So what the students need to ask is: what interest does the state have in displaying such images – almost to the exclusion of all else? The answer is obviously, that it contributes to the discrediting of the movement within the mass of the working class, who are certainly not ready today to undertake a violent confrontation with the state. Not only does the violence tend to discredit the movement with the rest of the class, but it also puts into question the sovereignty of the AG since it takes place completely outside the latter’s control. In fact this last question – the question of control – is one of the most critical ones: the violence of the working class has nothing to do with the blind violence of the young hotheads at the Sorbonne or – it must be said – of many anarchist groups, above all because it is exercised and controlled collectively, by the class as a group. The student movement has used physical force (for example to barricade the university buildings and block entry to them): the difference between this and the confrontations at the Sorbonne is that the former actions are decided collectively and voted by the AG, and the “blockers” have a mandate for their action from their comrades. The latter, precisely because they are uncontrolled by the movement, are of course the perfect terrain for the action of the lumpen and the agent provocateur, and given the way in which this violence has been used by the media there is every reason to suppose that the provocateur has been present and stirring it up.

Faced with this situation, the students’ reaction has in general been exemplary. When it became clear that the government was setting up the Sorbonne in effect as a “trap” for the demonstrations, and as a means of permanent provocation, the reaction at the AG in Paris III Censier was essentially this: “The Sorbonne is a symbol, it’s true. Well, if they want it, let them keep their symbol – the CRS are there, so much the better, let them stay there. And let us invite our comrades of the Sorbonne to come to Censier for their AG”. The same invitation was extended by the AG at Jussieu.

In addition – and despite some belated manoeuvring by the Trotskyists who tried to overturn the vote – the Censier AG passed a motion “in support of the injured students, against any damage done to the building, and in sympathy for the injured CRS”. The important point about this motion is that it was absolutely not a support for the repression by the police, but recognised:

  • That the children of the low-paid CRS are themselves concerned by the attacks of the government (as some students tried to explain to the riot police during non-violent confrontations.
  • And that the students intended to distance themselves from the violent “actions” which do the movement no service.

It is important also to note the difference between the way in which the media have reported the 18th March demonstration in France and abroad:

  • In France, the media have focused on the – trivial – violence at the end of the demonstrations, but less so than on previous occasions; they have given more space to the enormous size and calm of the demonstrations (and the imaginative nature of some of the slogans).
  • Abroad (for example on Euronews, or on where an Associated Press report is titled “French Police Subdue Riots Over Jobs Law”, which is an enormous lie, pure and simple), we have seen virtually nothing but the images of violence and burning cars.

From this, we can draw one clear conclusion. The French media who have tried to discredit the movement in the eyes of the working class, have now understood that they risk discrediting only themselves in the eyes of the population which knows what is really happening, and especially in the eyes of workers who are demonstrating themselves, or whose children are demonstrating, by lying too openly.

ICC, 19th March 2006

[1] We generally take the mid point between the estimates provided by the unions (too optimistic) and the police (ridiculously low).

[2] In reality, selection to the "grandes écoles" is not directly based on money, since costs are low (with the exception of the business and management schools). This makes it possible for the particularly gifted children of workers, or even peasants, to gain entry. But selection to entry is based on an élitist competitive system which favours students from social categories with an appropriate "cultural level" (or who can afford to support their children during their studies so that they don’t have to work).