National Sections of the L5I:

France: students and workers on the streets again

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In scenes reminiscent of May 1968, albeit on a smaller scale, CRS riot police stormed the Sorbonne in Paris at four o’clock on Saturday morning, to drive out 200 students and others who had been occupying the building for four days. They used tear gas grenades, and batons to clear the main building. At least two people were injured and eleven arrests made.

On Friday, police had already baton charged students building symbolic barricades on the boulevard Saint Michel, near the university. Protesters had then marched around the site, shouting, “The Sorbonne belongs to students!” Around 40 of France’s 84 universities were also occupied. In Tours, several hundred students sat down on the tracks at the railway station, halting trains for three hours.

The Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was forced to cut short a visit to France’s Caribbean Antilles. It was Sarkozy who provoked last November’s youth uprising with his racist comments on the immigrant population of the Paris banlieux. He is also toting himself as a future hardline neoliberal president, who can “reform” France the same way that Thatcher and Reagan did in the US and Britain in the 1980s.

The protesters were targeting the First Job Contract (CPE) proposals of premier Dominique de Villepin. He cynically claims this as a measure to increase youth employment. More than 20 percent of France’s 18 to 25-year-olds are unemployed – a figure double the already high national average of 9.6 pre cent. Among the country’s poorest communities youth unemployment stands at 40 per cent.

The Equal Opportunities Law, which embodies this proposal, passed its second reading in the National Assembly on 9th March, and CPE contracts are due to come into force in mid-April. A similar law was introduced for companies with fewer than 20 employees last summer, with only verbal protests from the unions. Another such measure is planned for older workers.

The salami-strategy of the bosses and their government is plain to see. First isolate the strongest sectors, those where the unions have major influence, by creating a huge pool of unemployed. Then create an unorganised workforce of younger and older workers with few rights. Then it will be easier to smash the rights of the unionised workforce, presented as “privileged” because of their hard won rights.

This is why the unions’ policy of making repeated concessions over the young or those approaching retirement, of limiting the struggles to isolated days of action, of retreating from the demand for the total and unconditional abandonment of the whole Employment Law is so dangerous. Clearly if Jacque Chirac, de Villepin and Sarkozy are to be stopped, they must be stopped now. They cannot be defeated in parliament, only on the streets and by action in the workplaces.

On the preceding Tuesday, 7th March, school and university students, and workers braved the rain and cold to demonstrate against the government’s new law on youth employment. The day of action was called by all of the student unions, by the most militant trade union federations and the largest parents’ organisation. In addition, upwards of 30 per cent of teachers came out on strike in support of the lycéens – high school students.

The student and trade union organisers claimed over one million took part. Two hundred thousand demonstrated in Paris alone and there were 160 demonstrations across the country. Large crowds took part in rallies in Paris, Rennes, Marseilles, Grenoble and Nantes. Workers’ action disrupted air traffic and public transport in 35 cities. Several radio stations went off the air for the day. General estimates were that those taking action was two or three times larger than on the last day of action a month earlier.

Opinion polls show the demonstrations have widespread support with 65 per cent saying they supported the protests. The huge sympathy between workers, youth and pensioners needs to be built on and turned into a mass wave of strikes and social mobilisation, brought together at a local level by coordinations – local committees of action.

On 9th March, a meeting of university and lycéen student organisations with the main union federations issued a call for another national day of action against the CPE on 18th March. The students were calling a national strike for Thursday, 16th March, and asked the unions to call a national strike alongside them. However, the unions refused, calling on their members to demonstrate with the students on Saturday 18th.

Of course both days of action should be observed but this division – the weaker response of the unions - needs to be overcome by appealing to rank and file workers. This can only be done effectively by forming coordinations between the lycées and universities, and the militant railworkers, teachers and other public and private sector workers.

A huge opportunity exists to take strike action, to take to the streets, forcing the government to abandon the whole Equal Opportunities Law, indeed its entire neoliberal programme. Once again, the question of an all-out indefinite general strike is posed.

It is posed by the vicious class wide character of the government’s attack, but also by its growing unpopularity, the internal divisions between Chirac and Sarkozy, in short its manifest vulnerability. Now is the time to attack it with the maximum force. If, on the other hand, de Villepin and Sarkozy are allowed to succeed in driving in this wedge, to split and divide the working class, then a Thatcher style regime under Sarkozy may not be far away.

Solidarity should not be limited to a worker-student-social movement alliance at home. Public sector workers in Germany are struggling at this very moment against the Merkel government; students and workers in Italy face their own neoliberal reforms; workers in Belgium have carried out several one day general strikes. Even in Britain, where the unions have yet to recover from the historic defeat inflicted on them under Thatcher, over a million workers are currently being balloted over action on pension “reform”. Across Europe we need to demand concerted action now, alongside our French sisters and brothers.

After all, these attacks, in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Britain, first planned in Lisbon by the EU leaders in 2000, are part of a concerted attempt to demolish working class gains. We need concerted continent wide action to defeat it. There are indeed national differences, differences of scale and tempo, differences in the political and union leaderships across the continent. They are serious but they need to be overcome, not surrendered to.

The European Social Forum and its Assembly of the Social Movements – meeting in Athens between 4th and 7th May – needs to put at the top of its agenda debate and agreement on a Europe wide strategy to take on and defeat the entire bosses’ and governmental offensive.

Meanwhile the task is to do all in our power to mount solidarity actions with the French youth and students, to encourage them to go all out in the struggle to defeat Chirac, de Villepin and Sarkozy, and to inflict another defeat and humiliation on them, similar to their defeat over the neoliberal European Constitution last May. If they can do that, then as Karl Marx said in 1848, “The crowing of the Gallic cock in Paris will once again wake up Europe.”