Only a few months after the rage of French ghetto youth burst into flames, another wave of protests by millions of university and secondary school students has thrust the country’s rulers into even deeper trouble. The youth employment bill at its centre could not in and of itself explain the tenacity, breadth and increasingly confrontational character of the movement against it, nor the government’s determination to pass this law despite the mounting political cost.
Briefly put, France is witnessing a massive upheaval of the youth against the future their country offers them, of which the law is a centrepiece and symbol. The government has tried to make them back down in this contest of strength, wielding the president’s arbitrary authority, sending in the police and flaunting a state power that ultimately rests not on public opinion but armed force. After several weeks of posing as if above the political fray, on 31 March President Jacques Chirac announced his decision to enact the law with the promise that it will be modified later. Millions of youth and others consider this not a concession, but a sign that the government has no intention of listening to them and to the people more broadly. (Opposition to the law outweighs support by two to one, according to polls.) This dimension to the crisis puts the legitimacy of the government and even the system into question.
University students, mainly in the smaller cities at first, started this movement in mid January when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin proposed the First Job Contract (CPE). That law would mean that during their first two years at any job, people under 26 could be fired with little notice and without cause. Other measures in the so-called “Equal Opportunity” employment package adopted in the wake of last November’s revolt would allow children to leave school at 14 to become apprentices and work at night starting at 15. For children not in work, their families would be cut from welfare if they fail to attend class. The Prime Minister, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (who was the target of the November revolt) and the government as a whole claimed this would encourage hiring and give a chance to prove themselves on the job to the kind of youth living in the country’s public housing complexes that were the focal point of the November events.
What outraged students was that this law would officialize and worsen conditions many of them already find unacceptable. Already they often spend many months working as ill-paid interns, supposedly being “trained” as they do the work formerly done by regular employees. Many spend years working on and off as temporary workers under various kinds of short-term contracts, usually with minimal benefits compared to their co-workers. The average age at which French young people now get their first long-term job is 32. Rather than “equalizing opportunity”, this law would further widen the gap between different categories of workers and employees. Graduates of elite schools and workers with desired skills would immediately set off on one job track, while most youth would face an even more uncertain future, and many find themselves on a track to nowhere. Landlords won’t rent to people without a permanent job contract, and banks won’t give them car loans. Young women would be further driven out of a labour market that already discriminates against them for being potential mothers.
As for providing more jobs for ghetto youth, one young woman put it this way: “This is adding insult to injury. First we find it almost impossible to get a job and spend years trying, and now, if we do find one, they’re telling us we’ll have to accept being treated second-class.” Another said, “They want to make us slaves who don’t dare talk back to the boss, instead of ordinary workers.”
Further, in middle-class areas and especially working-class neighbourhoods, youth tend to be better educated than their parents. They have given school more hours and years than their counterparts in some other rich countries. They don’t want the kinds of jobs that might be opened up by this law, doing unskilled labour at jobs nobody would take if they had a choice.
While this law threatens to create further inequality among youth and between youth and older workers, almost everyone sees it as part of a broader trend toward précarité, the elimination of relative job security (never absolute) and other minimal requirements of life such as health care and subsidized housing. Like every other European country, France is shredding the “European social model”, the social contract with which the capitalists in the Western European imperialist countries bought the acquiescence of much of the working class, no matter how difficult their lives have been anyway. In France, this model arose out of the social upheaval of the 1930s and developed through the three decades of economic growth following World War 2. At the same time, many workers, especially many Arab and later Black African immigrants, were excluded from better jobs, and, in recent years, from stable jobs and the way of life that goes with them.
France’s entire “political class” favours slashing back on this social model, differing only on how to go about it. They justify this by the need for French capital to compete successfully in the world. However, French capital’s ability to thrive internationally depends on many factors, most decisively France’s collusion and contention with the United States and other imperialist powers for control of vast areas of the Third World and the superprofits that generates. Many French people don’t want to pay the price for the survival of “their” capitalists. A great many suspect that the sacrifices being asked of them are not likely to solve French capitalism’s problems.
Over the past decades, there have been many successful struggles against such measures. For example, a full-scale month-long public workers strike in 1995 forced the withdrawal of pension cutbacks. Nevertheless, despite the battles won, the war is being lost by attrition. Précarité has come to characterize the situation for broadening ranks of working people. Nearly all of them see it as a sword hanging over their head, a threat not just to their living standards but to the way of life they have known and consider themselves entitled to.
This widespread sentiment is a big reason why the trade unions came to support the students, although at first they just went through the motions and went for negotiations the students rejected. In fact, commentators have pointed out that the unions play a dual role, supporting the students but also using their role as the government’s “social partners” to try to control the movement, just as some of the union-organized security squads seek to control events in the streets. On 28 March, the fourth national day of action (the fifth is set for 4 April), a total of more than two million people flooded the streets in dozens of cities. While these marches were very much marked by the multinational presence of union members of all ages, the general strike called by the union federations that day was far from whole-hearted.
As the daily Le Monde wrote, all of what it calls the “governmental parties”, not only those that make up the present government but the opposition parties that governed in the past and hope to again in the future, and the trade union leadership tied to them, fear above all else a “deterioration of the situation, a lassitude [on the part of the parties and the unions] and a radicalisation [on the part of the people in the streets] that would not benefit any of them.”
In his speech announcing his approval of the law, President Chirac made a special appeal to the trade union leadership to help find a way out of this political crisis. He clearly hopes that the unions will be divided and accept some compromise. Other political forces such as those represented by Le Monde (sympathetic to the opposition Socialist Party) are warning that if the unions break with the students, the students may go even more out of control. In other words, while there are pillars of the prevailing order on both sides of this conflict, the situation is very unfavourable to the French ruling class, because they have no clear good options. In fact, they have no real solution to the contradictions that have driven this crisis, and the polarization of society is very much against them.
The head of the biggest student union, long a breeding ground for future Socialist Party politicians, is usually viewed as the students’ official spokesman, but so far, the movement has had no real national leadership or even permanent local leadership. Decisions are taken at frequent general assemblies – sometimes daily – at particular universities and high schools, with occasional national meetings of delegates in a different provincial city each time. The main coordination comes from students who go to other schools to spread the strike and organize united actions. This leads to debates: Should school entrances be blocked if the majority hasn’t voted to strike? If someone doesn’t take advanced action, how will the more asleep elements be woken up?
Perhaps the movement’s greatest strength is its broadness in two senses. First, its ability to combine widespread support among much of French society with increasingly confrontational (and controversial) actions. Especially after Chirac’s decision, students began experimenting with forms of struggle designed to enforce their will on a government that won’t listen, like taking over train stations and blocking motorways and key intersections. Some schools have been occupied, cleared by the police and then occupied again.
Second, its ability to draw in youth of all sections of the working class as well as the middle classes. The potential militancy and radical consciousness of university students seems very far from exhausted. At the same time, the spectre of last November’s rebellion and the possible combination of that intense rage with the current broader youth upsurge haunts the whole “political class” and the entire establishment, even (or perhaps especially) the “leftist” parties that “support” the movement. In the last few weeks secondary school youth have become at least as numerous and active as university students, making the movement remarkably varied in social composition and ethnic mix. Girls are as prominent in the actions and leadership at secondary schools as young women in the universities. At some proletarian schools the majority of activists are girls, partly because more boys drop out. This is a big contrast with the almost exclusively male November events. Many of the youth taking part now come from the same background as those who burned cars and fought the police in November. There is clearly an overlap between the two movements, although it is hard to say exactly how much.
The unfolding of events at the end of the 28 March demonstration in Paris was very instructive in this regard. School contingents were put at the head of the march, which drew people from the suburbs and other cities. They walked slowly in relatively disciplined ranks, often with a ring of people holding hands around a particular contingent. Other youth, with sweatshirt hoods over their heads, baggy athletic pants and very serious faces, moved quickly in small groups alongside and through the crowd, followed by squads of undercover police. Ahead of the march, hundreds of youth gathered at the destination, Place de la République. The majority were of African origin, with a very large number of girls among them, along with a few youth of other nationalities. At first there were fights between youth from different neighbourhoods. The Ministry of the Interior, police and union security forces had met to plan how to control the demonstration against these and other uncontrollable youth. The security forces of the CGT (a union led by the revisionist Communist Party of France, another “governmental” party), moved against the youth first, trying to keep them away from store windows, often taunted by these youth and sometimes assaulting them without provocation. There were some incidents of youth grabbing cell phones or cameras from demonstrators. Arguments and occasionally blows broke out between youth as some tried to prevent this kind of thing. (Police provocateurs also seem to have been involved, but there was more to it than that.)
Gradually, fighting began to focus more against the police, in a confusing swirl of clashes between youth, broad phalanxes of riot police in heavy body armour and smaller “snatch squads” of well-disguised undercover cops (often wearing leftist stickers and other political movement paraphernalia) who darted through the crowd after the youth. The fighters would taunt the Robocops, and then disperse into the multitude when the police attacked. Everyone in the crowd would chant and yell at the police. Then, the youth would regroup and attack whatever cops were left dispersed and vulnerable, and so on for hours. At one point, a large number of university students staged a sit-in between a flank of riot police and the crowd, blocking their ability to charge. While the fighting youth were a minority, no one was obligated to be in that square (the trade union security forces urged them to go home). The fighters could not have attacked the police without the large crowd to retreat into. The size of the non-fighting crowd ebbed and flowed as new contingents of marchers arrived and others left. Toward the end of the evening, hundreds (1,500 according to the police) of white and other youth dressed to fight came and joined the action. Finally the police used water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades to clear the square.
All this and similar scenes were debated as they happened and long after. A veteran political activist argued with her friends that they could have and should have intervened physically and forcefully to rescue the youth seized by the “snatch squads”. This, she said, would have really helped in building a sense of solidarity against the common enemy. Most people were angry about the youth-on-youth violence, and many middle-class and working-class youth were more generally unhappy with the casseurs, those who had come solely to fight. But youth are also trying to not let themselves be divided, and to get over some real divisions. The often-repeated slogan “All together!” has content. At a secondary school general assembly reviewing the demonstration a few days later, a youth of Algerian origin who identified himself as a “moderate” argued, “They (the hard-core fighters from other neighbourhoods) are out in the streets with us; they aren’t like the kids from our school who’ve stayed away. We are all part of one single youth with different ways of expressing ourselves.” Everyone cheered when he continued, “And it’s we youth who will decide the future of this country, not the government!” The meeting voted to criticize the CGT and demand that they stop acting like cops. At a Paris university, students put up a banner: “We are all casseurs.”
Many youth sense that there are two currents among them, and the relationship between the two is a hot issue. Some see it as a question of relative privilege within sections of the working class, others as also a question of the split between teenagers 15-16 years old or less and older youth, and still others as mainly a question of different points of view. Several young women of African origin at the Place de la République action and others in an animated debate after a secondary school general assembly in a working-class suburb near Paris said essentially the same thing: We’re all from the same area, but some kids see consider themselves more politicised, while others have a more hopeless outlook and don’t expect any good to result from political action. Some of these youth usually reject demonstrations as “a hippy thing”, far too soft to interest them, but lots of them come to the meetings and actions anyway. They are part of the movement; they influence it and it influences them.
It was also instructive to see the more predominantly white and mainly middle-class secondary school students who gathered at the Bastille square in Paris in the hours before Chirac’s speech, attempting to block traffic. Though they were relatively non-violent, riot police backed them into a building while undercover cops prowled through the crowd to grab people one by one and roughly haul them off. They listened to the speech together, joined by university students, and then set off on a wild march across much of Paris, covering 26 kilometres and lasting six hours. Some 5,000 sought to take their action to presidential and parliamentary buildings, detouring through Montmartre, the hill where the 1871 revolutionary Paris Commune made its final stand, where they sang the Internationale. They skirmished with police until 3 am. Reportedly 700 youth were detained that night, and several were badly beaten in custody.
It is impossible to tell how many youth would be satisfied if they were offered the same kind of social contract as their parents, but most feel that is not on offer now. That provokes thinking, but they find it hard to figure out what could satisfy them. They tirelessly argue about different possibilities and how the world could be different on a countrywide and sometimes global scale. On 28 March thousands of secondary school students sported a sticker saying Rêve général (“General Dream”, a play on words with the term Greve générale, general strike). The May 1968 slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible” also pops up. Many will tell you that this is not the revolution, some sadly and some to defend the movement. One of the most popular slogans is simply, “Res-is-tance!”
In general, the youth have believed they can force the government to give in to their demands. In fact, one of the driving forces of the movement is outrage that the government has refused to yield to the express wishes of the majority of the people. They consider this tyranny, and in fact many, and perhaps most, have been surprised by it. There is a generally unchallenged belief that if some magic number of people – more than the millions so far – take to the streets, the government will have to listen.
But if the youth have had illusions about easy victory, the government’s intransigence has not made them back down, at least so far. Many hope a new, leftist government would be “less worse”, even while criticizing the politics of the “governmental parties” as they arise in the movement. Others have little hope of an acceptable place for themselves in this system and few illusions that any electoral outcome would bring about the fundamental change they need, even though some of them also have confused and often wrong ideas about who their friends and enemies are.
No revolution is conceivable without the youth from the bottom of the working class at its core, combining their deep hatred for the way things are with a broad vision of what real social change would mean and require. Revolution is also not possible unless those with the least to lose can break through the social isolation that surrounds them in ordinary times and unite against the common enemy more broadly with many of those who have found the system more tolerable in the past. These are times when such things no longer look impossible.
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