France: after the success of the April 4th day of action, what next?

The movement in France has been building up momentum. There have now been five very successful days of action, each being bigger than the preceding one. The danger now is that the union leaders fall into the trap being prepared by the right-wing government, opening up pointless negotiations aimed at tiring out the workers and youth. There should be no dithering. Organise a 24-hour general strike now!

The day after the massive day of action against the CPE (contract of first employment) all sections of French society have been taking stock of the situation. The government and the right wing UMP majority in parliament do not seem prepared to make any concessions beyond the two meaningless modifications already announced on Friday by Chirac and already rejected by the workers and students’ movement. Prime Minister De Villepin has been clearly weakened by the movement and Minister of the Interior Sarkozy has been strengthened within the right wing camp. In an unprecedented move, president Chirac has given full responsibility for the “law of equality of opportunities” (which includes the hated CPE), to Sarkozy and the UMP parliamentary group, taking it away from de Villepin, whose popularity has slumped to only 28% of the population.

On their part the intersyndicale (the coordinating body of all trade union and student organisations) met this morning at the headquarters of Force Ouvrier. Their main conclusion was: “we are prepared to discuss with the UMP parliamentary group, but not about modifications to the CPE, our aim remains its full withdrawal”. However the trade unions and student organisations have accepted the proposal of the UMP group to meet them separately, starting with the CFDT at 3pm this afternoon. This is an unjustified move and should not have been accepted by the trade union leaders.

At the end of the meeting of the intersyndicale, the joint statement also talked of giving the UMP a deadline to solve this question before April 15th or else. Unfortunately, that “else” was not stated clearly. Also April 15th is the beginning of the two-week long Easter break in parliament. This means that any new mobilisations would have to be delayed until May Day, and in fact some of the trade union leaders were talking about organising massive demonstrations on that day. The main problem the trade union leaders are facing is that after 5 days of action (each at a higher level than the previous one) and the massive successes of March 28th and April 4th, there is not much else they can call for, short of a general strike, which is precisely what they have been trying to avoid, for fear of this getting out of control and becoming an all-out strike (or as it is called in France these days a “renewable general strike”).

The UMP majority would like to enmesh the trade union and student organisations in lengthy negotiations and parliamentary technicalities in order to wear out the movement. And there is a real danger of this happening, particularly if we take into account that some universities have been on strike for nearly 7 weeks.

At the General Assemblies (AG) at the universities this morning, the issue was debated. Many of these AGs include teachers and admin staff also on strike. One of the main points that were debated was what should be the next step of the movement. The national coordination of school and university students which met at the weekend called for a turn towards the working class, for the students to go to the factories and workplaces, organise joint general assemblies, mass leafleting of workplaces and in general to use its forces to try and spark off a general strike.

Initiatives in this sense have already been taken. Students from Nanterre have leafleted workers at the Peugeot and Citroen factories (which participated with their own contingents at the demonstration yesterday), and did so with the support of members of the CGT. In Cherbourg, on March 27th some two hundred school students leafleted the Arsenal arms factory with great success: 1500 out of 2500 workers joined the 10,000-strong demonstration on the 28th. On Monday, students from Rennes II went to leaflet the PSA and CF Gomma car industry factories. Today early in the morning university students from Toulouse were talking to postal workers at one of the main distribution centres in the region. A number of AGs in Paris were preparing a mass leafleting at Alcatel for tomorrow.

This kind of action must be intensified and generalised around the country and must also be directed at putting pressure on the trade union leaders. A serious coordinated campaign in this sense by the striking students would found a sympathetic audience amongst many workers and trade union activists.

Another point that was discussed at the student AGs was police violence. Hundreds of students were arrested yesterday in clashes at the end of the demonstration. The police have used all sorts of provocative tactics. Dozens of plainclothes police officers were amongst the demonstrators, wearing union stickers and even some of them the red armbands that identify the service d’ordre (stewards). Others were dressed as casseurs (the unemployed youth from the poor neighbourhoods who revolted back in November). They mixed amongst the demonstrators and then suddenly snatched some of them, in many cases people who were only peaceful demonstrators were picked up randomly. So far 2700 people have been arrested and questioned by the police, 175 tried and condemned using urgent court hearings, 43 of them to harsh prison sentences.

April 4th underlines on the one hand the enormous strength of the movement, the willingness of millions of workers and students to fight against any further casualisation of the labour market, but at the same time, it also underlined the limits of the “days of action” called so far by the trade union leaders. The government has already been weakened, but not defeated. The momentum of the movement should not be allowed to be lost. The trade union leaders should call a general strike and seriously prepare for it immediately. The student movement must direct all its forces towards the labour movement.


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