Movement against CPE: a rich experience for future struggles
The movement of the students in France against the CPE has succeeded in pushing back the bourgeoisie, which withdrew the CPE (First Employment Contract) on 10 April. But if the government was obliged to retreat, it was also and above all because the workers mobilised in solidarity with the children of the working class, as we saw at the demonstrations of 18 March, 28 March and 4 April.
Despite the strategy of trying to undermine the movement by degrees, the students were not intimidated by capital, with its cops, agents and informers.
Through their exemplary courage and determination, their deep sense of solidarity, their confidence in the working class, the students in struggle (and the most mature and conscious high school pupils) managed to convince the workers and bring them out onto the street with them. Numerous wage earners from all sectors, public and private, were present at the demonstrations.
This movement of solidarity within the working class as a whole was a real worry for the world bourgeoisie. This is why the media systematically deformed reality and why the German bourgeoisie was forced to hold back the application of the CPE’s twin law in Germany. In this sense, the international impact of the struggle of the students in France was one of the great victories of the movement.
The most mediocre scribblers of capital (like those who work for Liberation, which announced that the movement was a new dawn for the children of the ‘middle class’) can always chant a mass or sing the Marseillaise, but the combat against the CPE was not a rerun of the French revolution led by later-day Jacobins, nor was it some kind of ‘Orange Revolution’.
Even if, owing to their lack of experience, their naivety and their limited knowledge of the history of the workers’ movement, the great majority of the students in struggle didn’t yet have a clear understanding of the historic significance of their struggle, they have opened the gates to the future. They have taken up the torch from their forebears: those who put an end to the war of 1914-18 by standing up for the international solidarity of the working class across the battlefield; those who continued to defend, in clandestinity, the principles of proletarian internationalism during the second world holocaust; those who from May 68 on, put an end to the long period of the Stalinist counter-revolution and prevented the outbreak of a third world war.
The trade unions come to the government’s aid – and vice versa
If the bourgeoisie retreated, it was also to save its trade unions a lot of problems. The ruling class (which benefited from the solidarity of the capitalist class in all the major countries of Europe and in the US) understood in the end that it was better for it to ‘lose face’ temporarily than to expose its trade union apparatus. This is why the leader of the bosses, Laurence Parisot, who performed brilliantly in his role of mediator and partner in social peace, went to ‘negotiate’ with the joint union committee, the Intersyndicale.
The government gave in to pressure from the streets because in many workplaces questions were beginning to be asked about the attitude of the unions. The latter did nothing to help express the workers’ solidarity with the students, far from it. In the great majority of companies, public and private, there were no union leaflets calling for the demonstration of 18 March. The announcement of a strike – “a day of action and mobilisation” – on 28 March and 4 April was made by the union leadership at the last minute in a situation of utter confusion. And the unions did all they could to prevent the holding of sovereign general assemblies, using the argument that the wage workers “don’t have the same methods of struggle as the students”(as Bernard Thibault put it on Le Grand Jury on TV on 26 March)! As for their threat of calling a ‘rolling general strike’ at the end of the movement, numerous workers saw this for what it was - a complete bluff.
The only sector where the unions put a real effort into calling the workers out on strike during the days of action on 28 March and 4 April was in transport. But these strike calls had the precise goal of sabotaging the solidarity of the whole working class with the struggle against the CPE. The total blockage of transports is a classic manoeuvre of the unions, especially the CGT, aimed at making strikes unpopular and setting workers against each other. The fact that the union calls for a shut-down of transport were not widely followed made it possible for a maximum number of workers to get to the demonstrations. Another thing that showed the unions’ loss of credibility in the workplaces was the fact that at the demos a large number of wage workers gathered together on the pavement as far away as possible from the union banners.
And it was because the workers of the private sector, like those of SNECMA and Citroen in the Paris region, began to mobilise in solidarity with the students, with the unions being forced to ‘follow’ the movement in order not to lose control of it, that the bosses put pressure on the government to draw back before spontaneous strikes began breaking out in key enterprises in the private sector.
To prevent the unions being completely by-passed and discredited by an uncontrolled movement of wage earners, the French bourgeoisie had no alternative but to rush to the assistance of the unions, withdrawing the CPE as soon as possible after the demonstration of 4 April.
The most intelligent journalists had already foreseen this – for example Nicolas Domenach who said on TV on 7 March that the country was full of inflammable material.
In this sense Monsieur Villepin was not lying when he told the clowns at the National Assembly after one of the ‘days of action’ that his main concern was not the defence of his personal pride, but ‘the general interest’ (ie the interest of the national capital).
Faced with this situation, the less stupid sectors of the ruling class sounded the alarm by announcing the decision to find a quick exit to the crisis after the day of action on 4 April, when several million demonstrators came out onto the streets, including many workers from the private sector
Despite this wonderful demonstration of solidarity by the capitalist state towards its trade unions, the latter had lost too many feathers to be able to mystify the working class with a load of ‘radical’ speeches. It was precisely in order to be able to occupy the whole social terrain that the traditional card of ‘trade union divisions’ was brought out at the end the movement, pitting the bigger union federations (CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC, UNEF) against the ‘radical’ ones (SUD, CNT).
As for the ‘national coordination’, by the time the movement ended it could be seen very clearly that its main aim was to exhaust the students, to demoralise them and make them look ridiculous in front of the TV cameras (as happened in Lyon on the weekend of 8 and 9 April when delegates from all over France spent two days voting on….whether they should be voting).
The contribution of the leftists and the ‘strategy of undermining’
Faced with the diminishing credibility of the unions, we saw the leftists coming to centre stage in this Comedie Francaise (whereas at the demo of 18 March the militants of Lutte Ouvriere - LO- seemed content to blow up balloons and put LO stickers on anyone that would wear them).
While the government and its ‘social partners’ had decided to open negotiations to find an ‘honourable’ way out of the crisis, leading to the withdrawal of the CPE on 10 April, we saw LO making all kinds of radical gestures at the 11 April march in Paris, which had the job of burying the movement. A maximum of ‘jusqu’au-boutiste’ (‘fighters to the bitter end’) students and high school pupils were called out to ‘radicalise’ the movement behind the red flags of LO (alongside the blue and white scarves of SUD or the red and black of the CNT).
All the leftist or anarchoid cliques were there in a touching display of unity behind the slogan “withdraw the CPE, the CNE and the equal opportunity law” or “Villepin resign!”
The most experienced workers know very well what the purpose of this kind of exhibition is. It’s to deceive the students looking for a political perspective, offering them a superficial radicalism which hides a fundamentally capitalist policy. The card of ‘rank and file unionism’ is also being played by these phoney revolutionaries in order to complete the strategy of undermining the movement. The leftists and the most excitable anarchists tried at Rennes, Nantes, Aix or Toulouse to push the ‘jusqu’au-boutiste’ students into a series of physical confrontations with their own comrades, who had begun to vote for an end to the strike in the universities.
The resort to this radical form of trade unionism is a manoeuvre manipulated by certain branches of the state. It is aimed at dragging the most militant workers and students into the ideology of reformism.
Today most of the discussion and reflection about these events is being controlled by the professional saboteurs of LO, of SUD (born out of a split in the CFDT in the transport sector in 1988) and above all of the Trotskyists of LCR (which has always seen the universities as its private hunting ground and which again called on the students to ‘put pressure’ on the union leadership so that they would call the other workers into the struggle). All these ‘radical’ factions of the apparatus for controlling the working class have tried to run with the student movement in order to deform it and pull it back onto the terrain of elections (all these people present candidates to the elections), into the defence of legality and democracy.
It’s because the CPE was a symbol of the historic bankruptcy of the capitalist mode of production that the whole ‘radical’ left – red, pink and green – is now hiding behind the chameleons of the anti-globalisation front ATTAC, with the idea of convincing us that we can build an ‘alternative world’ inside a system where exploitation and the search for profit still exist.
As soon as the workers began to express their solidarity with the students, we saw the unions, the left parties and the leftists of all stripes trying to occupy the entire field, trying to herd the students into the trap of inter-classism and petty bourgeois thinking. The grand supermarket of reformism was opened wide, selling us the tasty recipes of Jose Bove, of Chavez (the president of Venezuela much touted by the LCR), of Bernard Kouchner or other NGO figures who regularly try to make the workers feel guilty and think that their charitable donations can end the famines or epidemics in Africa…
As for the wage workers who mobilised against the CPE, they were now called upon to have confidence in the unions, which allegedly have the monopoly on strike action (and above all on secret negotiations with the government and the bosses).
After the withdrawal of the CPE, what is the perspective?
In the general assemblies held after the holidays, the students showed considerable maturity by voting to end the strike and resume their courses, while at the same time affirming their determination to continue reflecting on the formidable movement of solidarity they had just experienced. It is true that many of them who wanted to maintain the strike felt frustrated because the government had really only made a small step backwards by reformulating an article from the law on ‘equal opportunity’. But the main gain of the struggle is located at the political level because the students succeeded in drawing the workers into a vast movement of solidarity involving all generations.
Many of the students who wanted to carry on the struggle felt nostalgic about the mobilisation, “when we were all together, united in action”.
But unity and solidarity can also be developed through collective reflection, because in all the universities and enterprises links have been made between students and between workers. The most conscious students and workers know that tomorrow “if we fight alone, we will be eaten alive”, whatever the colour of the future government. (the Socialist minister Allegre talked about the need to “slim down the mammoth” of National Education?).
This is why the students, and the whole working class, must understand the need to draw a clear balance sheet of the struggle against the CPE around the following questions: what was the strength of the movement? What traps do we need to avoid? Why did the unions drag their feet so much and how did they regain control of the movement? What was the role played by the ‘coordination’?
In order to carry forward this process of reflection and prepare for future battles, students and workers need to form discussion groups and reject the advances of those who want to use their movement for electoral purposes. They must not forget that those who now present themselves as their best defenders worked to sabotage the movement by negotiating behind its back, or by leading it into dead-end confrontations (didn’t the Intersyndicale on more than one occasion march the students towards the trap of the Sorbonne and allow the ‘wreckers’ to attack the students?).
The movement against the CPE showed the need for the politicisation of the new generation of the working class in the face of the cynicism of the bourgeoisie and its ‘equal opportunities’ law. You don’t need to study Karl Marx’s Capital to understand that ‘equality’ under capitalism is just a mirage. You would have to be a complete idiot to believe that the children of unemployed workers who live in the ghettoes can have a smooth path to their university studies. As for ‘equal opportunity’, the whole working class knows that it exists only in the lottery. This is why the government’s proposed law was such a provocation for the student youth.
The dynamic towards the politicisation of the new proletarian generation can only really move forward by developing a more global, historical, and international vision of the attacks of the bourgeoisie. And in order to be able to get rid of capitalism and construct another kind of society, the new generations of the working class will have to face up to all of the traps laid by the guard-dogs of the ruling class, whether in the universities or business or the state.
The time has come to close the ‘box of dead-end actions’ offered by the unions, leftists and anarchists and to once again open the ‘box of ideas’, so that the whole working class can reflect upon and discuss the future that capitalism has in store for us. Only this process of collective action and debate can enable the new generation to return tomorrow, stronger and more united, to the struggle against the incessant attacks of the bourgeoisie.