Struggles in France are part of the revival of the world working class

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Baggage handlers at Heathrow walk out in support of sacked catering workers.

New York transit workers and a million and a half UK local government workers strike for pension benefits for present and future generations. Belfast postal workers on wildcat strike march through Catholic and Protestant areas in an open rejection of sectarian divisions. German car workers reject attempts by the government to set one plant against another and come out in a common struggle against redundancies.

Working class solidarity can no longer be dismissed as a quaint, old fashioned idea. It is a central theme in a growing worldwide revival of workers’ struggles, new evidence for which appears almost every day: the struggle of 40,000 textile workers in Vietnam, the wave of strikes that swept through Argentina last summer, the violent revolt by workers in the vast construction sites of Dubai.  

The movement of the students in France against the CPE is fully part of this worldwide class upsurge. It has nothing in common with most of the previous cross-class movements of student youth. In the face of a despicable attack on the young generations of workers, an attack which institutionalises job insecurity in the name of fighting against it, the students understood right away that theirs was a class struggle. And here again, the issue of solidarity has been at the very heart of the movement.


The solidarity of the student movement

While some people wanted to throw in specifically student demands into the central demand for the withdrawal of the CPE, the student assemblies decide to stick to demands which concern the whole working class.  

The strength of the movement has been precisely the fact that it has placed itself resolutely on the terrain of the struggle of the exploited against the exploiters. And it has done this by adopting the methods and principles of struggle which belong to the working class. The first of these principles is solidarity. Breaking with the idea of ‘every man for himself’, the idea that ‘if I am a good little student and keep my head down for three years, I’ll get through unscathed’, the students adopted the only attitude possible for the working class against the attacks of capital: united struggle. And this solidarity was not only expressed among students. Right from the start they addressed the wage workers, not only to win their support, but also because they had understood very well that the whole working class was under attack. Through their dynamism, their militancy and their appeals for solidarity, they managed in many faculties to win over the staff – teachers and administrative workers – in particular by proposing the holding of joint general assemblies.

Another clearly proletarian feature of the movement was the will to develop the consciousness of those taking part in it. The university strike began with ‘blocages’ – massive pickets. But the pickets were not seen as a means whereby a minority imposed their will on the majority, as claimed by the media and the small groups of ‘anti-bloqueurs’. The pickets were a means for the more conscious and militant students to show their determination and above all to draw a maximum of their comrades towards the general assemblies, where a considerable proportion of those who had not understand the significance of the government’s attacks or the necessity to fight them were convinced by the debate. 

And these general assemblies, which organised themselves on a growing scale, which formed strike committees and other commissions that were responsible to them, which constituted the real lungs of the movement – these are the classic weapons of the workers’ struggle. In particular, the assemblies were open to the outside, and not closed in on themselves like most union meetings where only ‘people from the workplace’ or at most ‘trade unionists’ and officials from elsewhere are allowed entry. Very quickly we saw delegations of students from other universities taking part in the assemblies, which strengthened the feelings of solidarity between the different general assemblies and allowed those which were lagging behind to draw inspiration from those at the forefront. This is also an important characteristic of the dynamic of workers’ assemblies when they have reached a certain level of consciousness and organisation. And the opening up of the assemblies was not just limited to students from other universities but was also extended to people who aren’t students. In particular, workers and pensioners, parents or grandparents of students and high school pupils usually received a very warm and attentive welcome by the assemblies as long as they intervened in favour of the strengthening and extension of the movement, especially towards the wage workers.

Faced with this exemplary mobilisation of the students on a class basis, we saw the formation of a holy alliance between the various pillars of capitalist order: the government, the forces of repression, the media and the trade unions. 

The strategy of undermining the movement through violence

The government first tried various tactics for getting its brutal new law passed. In particular, it used ‘colossal finesse’ by trying to get it adopted by parliament during the university holidays. The trick failed: instead of demoralising and demobilising the student youth, it succeeded in provoking its anger and getting it to mobilise even more. Next, it tried to use its forces of repression to prevent the Sorbonne from serving as a focus for the gathering and the regroupment and of the students in struggle, as other universities had. Its aim was to polarise the fighting spirit of the Paris region around this symbol. At the beginning, a certain number of students fell into this trap. But very quickly the majority of the students showed their maturity and the movement refused to fall for the daily provocation represented by the presence of heavily armed CRS in the streets of the Latin Quarter. After this, the government, with the complicity of the trade unions, with whom it negotiated the routes of the demonstrations, set a real trap for the demonstrators in Paris on 16 March, who found themselves hemmed in by the police at the end of the march. The students didn’t fall for this new provocation, but it did permit the youths from the suburbs to launch the violent actions which were so widely filmed by the TV networks. The violence mainly took place close to the Sorbonne and it was obvious that the decision to end the march here was not the product of chance. The aim was to instil fear in those who had decided to go to the big demo due to be held two days later. Once again the manoeuvre failed: the participation on the 18th March was quite exceptional. Finally, on 23rd March, with police blessing, the ‘casseurs’ (literally ‘wreckers)  from the suburbs attacked the demonstrators themselves, to rob them or to beat them up for no reason. Many students were demoralised by these violent assaults: “When it’s the CRS coshing us, that just makes us more determined, but when its kids from the suburbs, for whom we’re also fighting, that undermines our morale”. However, the anger was mainly directed against the authorities as soon as it became clear that the police had been complicit in these assaults. This is why Sarkozy promised that from now on the police would not allow such aggression against the demonstrators to take place. In reality, it is clear that the government was trying to play the card of ‘rotting away’ the movement by relying on the despair and blind violence of some of the young people from the suburbs, who are fundamentally victims of a system which treats them with extreme violence. Here again the response of many of the students was very dignified and responsible: rather than trying to organise violent actions against the young ‘wreckers’, they decided, for example at the Censier faculty, to form a ‘suburbs commission’ which had the job of going to discuss with the youths of the poorest neighbourhoods, to explain to them that the struggle of the students and high school pupils was also for these young people who are sunk in the despair of mass unemployment and social exclusion.

The media serve Sarkozy

The various attempts by the government to demoralise the fighting students and to drag them into endless confrontations with the forces of repression was met by the students with a good deal of wisdom and dignity. This is something we don’t see on the part of the media, who have been surpassing themselves in their role as prostitutes of capitalist propaganda. On the TV, the violent scenes at the end of certain demonstrations were given star billing, while there was nothing at all about the general assemblies, about the remarkable organisation and maturity of the movement. But since the attempt to make an amalgam between the students in struggle and the ‘wreckers’ didn’t work, even Sarkozy began to declare repeatedly that he made a difference between the nice students and the ‘thugs’. This didn’t stop the media from splashing the images of violence on the TV screens and the papers, and from mixing them up with other scenes of violence, such as the Israeli army’s attack on the prison in Jericho or a bloody suicide bombing in Iraq. After the failure of the more blatant ideological tricks, it was the turn of the more subtle specialists of psychological manipulation. The aim is to spread fear, disgust, an unconscious assimilation of the message that demonstrations equal violence, even when the official message states the opposite.

The role of the trade unions

The students and workers saw through the majority of these manipulations. This is why it was necessary for the fifth column of the bourgeois state, the unions, to take charge. By underestimating the reserves of consciousness and militancy in these young battalions of the working class, the government had driven itself into a dead-end. It is clear that it cannot give in. Raffarin already made the point in 2003: “the street doesn’t govern”. A government that goes onto the back foot loses its authority and opens the door to even more dangerous movements, especially in the present situation where there is a huge build-up of discontent within the working class as a result of the rise in unemployment, of job insecurity and of the succession of attacks on its living standards. Since the end of January, the unions have been organising ‘days of action’ against the CPE. And since the students have come into the struggle, calling on the wage workers to join the movement, the unions have presented themselves, with a unanimity we haven’t seen for a long time, as the best allies of the movement. But let’s not be fooled: behind their apparent intransigence towards the government, they have done nothing to really mobilise the whole of the working class.

On French TV everyday you hear warlike declarations from union leaders like Thibault and Mailly. In the workplaces, there’s silence. Very often, the union leaflets calling for strikes or demonstrations, when there are any, arrive on the very day the action is supposed to take place. A few rare general assemblies have been organised by the unions in workplaces like the EDF and GDF (electricity and gas), but these are places where they are particularly strong and have no fear of losing control. And these assemblies are nothing like the ones we have seen in the faculties in recent months: the workers are invited to listen quietly to the soporific speeches of the union officials who spend most of their time preaching about coming elections to the enterprise commissions. When Bernard Thibault, invited to a big TV ‘Jury’ on 26 March insisted that the wage workers have their own methods of struggle different from those of the students, and that he didn’t want either group giving lessons to the other, he wasn’t talking off the top of his head: it is indeed out of the question that the methods of the students be taken up by the wage workers because that would mean that the unions wouldn’t control the situation and would no longer be able to fulfil their role as social firemen! Because that is their main function in capitalist society. Even when they are speaking radically like they are today, the aim is to win the confidence of the workers and thus be in a position to sabotage their struggles when the government and the bosses are in trouble.

This is a lesson which not only the students, but all workers must keep in mind for future struggles.

At the time of writing, it is not possible to see exactly how the situation will pan out. However, even if the holy alliance between all the defenders of capitalist order gets the better of the exemplary struggle of the students, the latter, like other sectors of the working class, must not get demoralised. They have already won two very important victories. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie will for a while be forced to limit its attacks or risk being once again plunged into the kind of problems its facing today. On the other hand, and above all, this struggle represents an invaluable experience for a whole new generation of working class fighters.

As the Communist Manifesto said over 150 years ago, “sometimes the workers are victorious, but the victory is short-lived. The real result of their struggles is less the immediate success than the growing unity of the workers”. The solidarity and dynamism of the struggle, its collective organisation through general assemblies, these are the gains of the current struggle of the students who are showing the way forward for the future battles of the entire working class.   ICC 28.3.06