The national day of action of March 28 marked a new peak in the two-month long mobilisation of French youth and workers against the hated CPE. The CPE, First Employment Contract, is a new type of contract for young people which, with the excuse of “encouraging the hiring of young workers”, strips them of even the most basic employment rights. Anyone under this kind of contract can be sacked during a two-year trial period and the employer does not even have to give a reason.
Some three million workers and students participated in demonstrations all over France on March 28. Workers went on strike paralysing public transport, schools and universities, the media, the postal service, etc. In the private sector the strike was not as big, but nevertheless the CGT Metal workers federation reported that more than 1000 large factories had participated in the strike. The fact that the trade union leaders did not actually call for a general strike, but rather a “day of strikes and work stoppages” did not help in bringing out workers in the private sector where the levels of trade union membership are lower and fear of reprisals bigger.
The massive character of the movement, which in terms of numbers in the demonstrations was even larger than the peak of the 1995 strikes against the Juppé Plan, widened the divisions amongst the ruling class and the ruling right-wing UMP party. Interior Minister Sarkozy made public his disagreement with Prime Minister de Villepin. It is not that Sarkozy is somehow more “progressive” or more “reasonable” than de Villepin. He is the man in charge of the repression against the revolt of the unemployed youth of the banlieues at the end of last year, and of the police provocations against the demonstrations in the current movement.
What explains Sarkozy’s position is on the one hand his attempt to win the position of right-wing candidate for next year’s presidential elections. On the other hand, he represents that wing of the ruling class which is starting to wonder whether it is worth risking a revolutionary explosion over a contract which would be in any case withdrawn in the likely event of a Socialist Party victory in 2007.
In the aftermath of the impressive demonstrations and strikes of March 28 the students continued their movement unabated. The mass general assemblies in schools and universities, which have given the movement an organised expression, decided on a number of local actions. Thursday March 30 saw thousands of students blockading roads and occupying key train stations all over the country. In Paris, at least 2,000 students occupied the Gare de Lyon train station, and trade union activists from SUD- Rail and CGT came out in support.
The day before, Education Minister de Robien had called for blockaded high schools to be reopened “by force if necessary”. Police officers were present in a number of schools but did not manage to lift the blockades. Meanwhile, hundreds of students were questioned and arrested by the police trying to clear road blockades. Among those arrested was Karl Stoekl, president of the UNL (National School Students), one of two main school student organisations, who was arrested by police during a blockade of Paris’s circular road periphery.
On the same day the Constitutional Committee ruled that the new law “for equality of opportunities”, which includes the hated CPE amongst other measures, was constitutional. This was a legal pre-requisite which meant all that was needed for the law to come into being was the approval of President Chirac. He was scheduled to make a speech to the nation explaining his position on Friday at 8:00 pm.
The student organisations called for rallies in the main squares of the cities to listen to Chirac’s speech and give a clear answer. Despite the fact that these rallies were organised on the same day by word of mouth, hundreds came out to listen to the presidential speech, as they had done in 1968.
Chirac tried to appear reasonable and willing to negotiate but ended up in a legal mess. He said he agreed that the law should be put into practice, but appealed to the employers not to make use of it (!!!), while parliament discussed a new law which would introduce two modifications to the CPE. The modifications are that the trial period lasts only for one year (instead of two), and that the employers must give a reason for sacking workers under the CPE (though this reason could be anything and workers would not be able to appeal it). The main aim of Chirac was in fact to reunite the ranks of the UMP, where an ever-larger number of MPs were questioning whether going ahead with this contract was really wise.
The reaction of the thousands of people who had gathered to listen to the speech was immediate: these “concessions” were received as a farce. In Paris the rally grew from a few hundred to an angry crowd of more than 5000 people who marched through the streets of the capital until late at night. An opinion poll the day after showed 62% of the population was “not convinced” by Chirac’s speech against only 27% “convinced” by it.
The trade union and student leaders remained firm and announced they would not negotiate with the government unless the CPE was withdrawn. On Saturday, April 1, at a meeting of the national coordination of university and school students, 800 representatives elected at the general assemblies, decided to continue the struggle, confirmed the appeal for the April 4 day of action, and issued a call for a general strike.
The appeal for April 4 on the part of the trade union and student organisation leaders is in fact worded exactly in the same way as that for March 28: “to widen the struggle … a national day of action with strikes, work stoppages and demonstrations”. Many in the movement think, particularly after the success of March 28, that this is not enough and that what is required is a clear call for a 24-hour general strike, at the very least. In fact the trade union leaders are afraid that a general strike, if called, might not be limited to 24 hours, but become the beginning of an all out movement which would escape their control.
There is already a tradition of that kind of movement in France, going back to 1968, but also during the 1995/96 strikes of public sector workers and the 2003 movement against the pension reform. An FO leader explained it clearly when he said that calling for a general strike would have “insurrectionary connotations”.
By not giving a clear lead, the trade union leadership makes it more difficult for workers in the less organised and less secure jobs in the private sector to come out on strike, and then they can always turn around and say: “see, we told you, there were no conditions for a general strike, we called on everybody to strike but they did not come out”.
The struggle is now at a critical juncture. Some of the universities and schools have been occupied for nearly two months. Students are on the verge of losing a whole school or university year. After this coming week we have the beginning of Easter holidays for school students. The government is banking on the movement becoming tired and progressively dying out. They also expect to convince some of the more moderate union leaders, the CFDT leaders for instance, to negotiate and thus divide the movement. Already some union leaders are hinting that they would be prepared to meet and negotiate with the government even if it does not withdraw the CPE. Much will depend on what happens on April 4 and the days immediately afterwards.
The day of action is likely to be even bigger than that of March 28, but the role of the working class is crucial. If the unions are not prepared to call for a proper general strike, the rank and file activists must make April 4 a de facto general strike. As the comrades from La Riposte are arguing, the main forces of the students’ movement (which has been so far at the vanguard of this movement) must be directed towards the workplaces with mass leafleting, discussions, joint meetings and establishing solid links with shop stewards and trade union activists.
Committees should be established in each district, locality, region and at a national level to ensure the success of April 4 and the continuation of the movement. The basis for such bodies already exists in the coordination of student delegates elected at the general assemblies and the inter-trade union committees that are already operating in many cities. It is essential that these committees are enlarged to involved all sections of the movement (public and private sector workers, school and university students) and to ensure that they work on the basis of elected and recallable delegates accountable to workplace, school and university general assemblies.
Such a democratic and flexible structure would ensure the necessary rapid response of the movement to what happens after April 4. General assemblies should be called in all schools, universities and workplaces on the morning of April 5 to make a balance-sheet of the movement on the previous day and to decide whether to continue the strike or not.
The events of the last few weeks in France must be seen against the background of 10 years of massive mobilisation after massive mobilisation. The French workers and youth have fought courageously against all the attempts to reverse rights and conditions that had been won over a long period of time. Since 1995 they have gone through the school of struggle and have learnt a lot. Thus accumulation of experience, and the seriousness of the crisis of French capitalism have prepared the conditions for a revolutionary explosion in France of a scope similar to that of May 1968, where 10 million workers occupied the factories in the largest general strike in the history of Western Europe.
At that time it was only the lack of a revolutionary leadership that saved the day for French capitalism. It is now more urgent than ever to gather the most advanced activists in the workers’ and youth movement in a revolutionary Marxist tendency able to provide a leadership capable of facing up to the tasks posed in France.
The revolutionary wave which is sweeping Latin America is not an isolated fact, the result of exceptional circumstances in that continent. It has obviously its own peculiar characteristics and rhythm, but is part of a more general malaise in society a growing anger amongst working people and youth against the relentless erosion of the rights won by the workers’ movement for decades, against the brutality of imperialist war, etc … Events like those we have seen in Venezuela, in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc in the last decade, we will see in the near future in Western Europe, and France is in the pole position of countries racing to become the Venezuela of Europe.
- After the intervention of Chirac: April 4 must be a general strike (April 3, 2006)
- France: Faced with the arrogance of the government and the bosses, workers and youth take to the streets! by Mikael Duthu (March 30, 2006)
- March 28th 2006: French workers and youth mobilise on a scale never seen since 1968 by Greg Oxley (March 28, 2006)
- France - Faced with the intransigence of the government: for immediate presidential and legislative elections! (March 28, 2006)
- Mass protests and strikes in France: the dawning of a new era by Greg Oxley (March 21, 2006)
- Audio interview with Greg Oxley on the protests in France (March 20, 2006)
- French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts by Mikael Duthu (March 16, 2006)
- The revolt of the French estates by Greg Oxley (November 8, 2006)