Solidarity Library

Sunday, August 27, 2006


French revolts in 1968 & 2006

‘When students & workers take to the streets, they win’


Peter Dunne was playing a dangerous game at the end of April 2006.

The United Future leader captured headlines when he announced that his party was breaking with their Labour coalition partners and “firming up” support for a private member’s bill from National MP Wayne Mapp. Mapp’s bill would allow employers to sack workers at will in their first 90 days.

Responding to the Engineers Union’s threat of a “massive public campaign” if Mapp’s bill isn’t withdrawn, a grandstanding Dunne declared: “This is not France, where industrial legislation is decided by street rioting.”

Someone like Dunne, who’s been in politics since the 1970s, knows very well that New Zealand workers on the streets have forced governments to change bills, pass laws they didn’t really want to, or turn enacted legislation into a dead letter. Some examples over the last generation are Rob Muldoon’s SIS Act, David Lange’s nuclear-free law, National’s school bulk funding bid and Helen Clark’s GE legislation.

But by mentioning the protests which forced the withdrawal of a law allowing French employers to sack workers at will, Dunne was highlighting the power of mass strikes to defeat a government. A dangerous game, indeed.

The scale of the defeat inflicted on the government of Jacques Chirac by French workers – and the potential for their example to spread – is underscored by the violent reaction of the corporate media around the world.


A headline in Germany’s Die Welt daily labelled it simply the “French disaster”.

“Spineless Jacques Chirac has caved in to the mob”, fumed Britain’s Sun tabloid.

“When faced with the threat of a difficult battle,” hissed a sarcastic Financial Times, “the government maintains the noble Gallic tradition of complete surrender to the opposition.”

“Mob rule sees off another French premier,” rued The Telegraph.

Fox News in the United States poured out its class hatred: “When you hear far-left Americans use the terms ‘economic justice’ or ‘income inequality’, you should know these are code words for socialism, a giant government that would guarantee each American a house, health care, nice wage, retirement benefits, the usual entitlement list. The French demonstrations have sent a signal to the world that a once-free marketplace country has gone over to the entitlement side.”

The Australian spewed out similar bile. Under the headline “Hate on the streets”, its Paris stringer described protesters as driven by “the nihilism of despair and gratuitous violence”. The protesters are “racaille” (scum), said one quote carried by the paper.

New York’s venerable Wall Street Journal scorned Chirac as “neither courageous nor convinced enough to make the necessary changes”. The Journal’s normal veneer of sober commentary cracked as it described protesters as “excited juveniles”, “mobs”, “rabble”, “a horde of smashers” and “marauders” who were waging a “jihad” against democracy. It even compared the protests with the Kristallnacht, the infamous night in 1938 when Nazi thugs rampaged across Germany and Austria torching synagogues and beating Jewish people to death.

United protests

What drove the world’s corporate media into a fury was the unity of France’s working class – employed and unemployed, young and old, unionised and non-unionised, black and white – which defied every attempt to sow division and to beat them off the streets.

On 10 April 2006, after two months of escalating protests, the French government caved in and withdrew the CPE (First Employment Contract).

Like Mapp’s bill going before New Zealand’s parliament, the CPE would have enabled employers to sack workers during a “probationary period” without giving any reason.

The French law was to apply to everyone under the age of 26 in the first two years of their employment.

The CPE’s architect, prime minister Dominique de Villepin, saw the measure as a first step in rolling back workers’ rights across the board, but gambled on dividing young from old by targeting them first.

When protests against the bill began on 7 February, they were organised by those directly affected – university and high school students. But the anger began to spread.

On 11 March, interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy ordered riot police to arrest students occupying Sorbonne University in Paris. Sarkozy was open about why he sent in the riot police – it was to keep students isolated from workers. “With demonstrations taking place on Saturday, we had to make sure there were no crossovers,” he said.

The attempt to sow division backfired spectacularly. The violent crackdown sparked widespread sympathy among workers, who then joined the movement in growing numbers.

An ideological offensive by the government labelled student protesters as “privileged”. Ministers said the CPE was designed to encourage bosses to hire the large numbers of unemployed youth, often from immigrant backgrounds, who live in depressed suburbs (banlieues) on the outskirts of many French cities.

This thinly-disguised attempt to divide black and brown from white fell equally flat. Who in France could forget that the people now supposedly the focus of the government’s care were rioting just three months earlier, when Sarkozy called them “dirty scum” who should be hosed off the streets?

Direct appeal

Marie Perin, a protest organiser at Censier University in Paris, said the new law forced many students to directly address problems in the banlieues. She said:

“We organised meetings and debates on neo-liberalism, the November riots and racism. These meetings helped to win students and many workers to the idea of taking our campaign to the banlieues. The obvious route was by linking up with high schools students, but we also went into the poor areas and appealed directly to the alienated youth.”

By early March, solidarity against the CPE was growing across wide sectors of French society.

University students in western France approached the Confederation Paysanne, the more left-wing of the country’s two farmers’ federations, for bales of straw to build barricades.

On 18 March, some 1.5 million workers and students marched in 150 protests across the country. In Paris, chants of “Students and workers, together for solidarity” rang out from a demonstration of at least 250,000.

On 20 March, anti-CPE blockades closed 313 high schools. A day later, protest actions affected 814 high schools, almost one in every five. Debating the CPE were mass assemblies of school students drawing up to 1,500 people.

A delegation of 20 business leaders met with the prime minister on 20 March. They suggested amending the CPE by reducing the period when a worker could be sacked from two years to one, and requiring employers to give a reason – but still leaving them the right to sack young workers at will.

On 23 March, student protests around the country mobilised 450,000. Mass actions spread like wildfire. 2,000 high school students blocked train tracks at Gare de Lyon station in Paris. Others blocked a runway at Chambery airport, stopping flights taking off.

28 March saw widespread strikes, with three million protesters pouring onto the streets of 135 towns. This, said Le Monde, was the biggest demonstration in recent French history. A week later, on 4 April, even more protesters took to the streets.

Concessions rejected

In between, French president Jacques Chirac appeared on national television. He announced that he was signing the CPE into law, but asked the government not to apply it until certain changes were made – the same ones suggested by the business delegation.

Chirac’s attempt at minimal concessions was rejected by all trade unions and student organisations.

“What Chirac has done isn’t enough,” said 18-year-old Rebecca Konforti, among a group of students who jammed tables against the door of their Paris high school to block entry. “They’re not really concessions, he just did it to calm the students.”

Parliamentary leaders of the governing party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), began receiving delegations of unionists and students.

The government and its parliamentary majority were divided between those who wanted to simply withdraw the CPE, those who thought it could survive in a watered-down form and those who wanted to propose an alternative.

The highly respectable Conference of University Presidents called on cabinet “to finally pronounce the word that the students and their unions have been demanding”. That word, of course, was “withdrawal”.

The Intersyndicale, a united front of twelve trade unions and student groups organising protests against the CPE, issued a declaration on 5 April titled: “The mobilisation is neither suspended nor repealed.” The Intersyndicale announced its support for the next student day of action on 11 April, warning that “no means of action is excluded”. Before that day arrived, Chirac hoisted the white flag.

The CPE’s defeat was the first time a mass movement had been able to block a governmental neo-liberal measure in France since the right came back to power in 2002.

The French government had forced through pension cuts in 2003 despite months of protests and strikes. In 2004, health insurance clawbacks were imposed.

The government failed this time due to three main reasons. First off, the union leaderships didn’t hold the initiative. Rather, it lay with a national student co-ordinating committee based on delegates elected from universities and schools, which met every weekend to decide how to carry the movement forward.

Second, all the trade unions – the three main federations and the five smaller, independent unions – supported the movement from start to finish. One reason for the 2003 defeat was that the CFDT, the union federation supporting “social partnership” and closely aligned to the Socialist Party (French equivalent of NZ Labour), defected early on and accepted pension cuts in exchange for small amendments. As a result the CFDT lost 100,000 members. This time, everyone stayed on board.

Third, the demand for withdrawing the CPE had extremely broad support. As understanding grew about what was at stake, opposition to the CPE rose to around 70% of the population, and ever more people were ready to take to the streets.

Occupations spell ‘Liberte’

Reflecting the worry that chilled ruling class hearts even in the far-flung South Pacific, the NZ Herald at first denied the CPE protests were similar to France’s last student-inspired uprising in 1968. The Herald’s headline read: “French student rallies a far cry from ’68 protest.”

Similarities with that momentous year became too great to ignore, however, after riot police stormed Sorbonne University on 11 March. For it was a student protest at the Sorbonne in May 1968 that sparked a titanic social confrontation.

Discontent had been fermenting in France’s universities during the 1960s. There was growing opposition to America’s war in Vietnam.

Students also had their own grievances closer to home. French president Charles de Gaulle’s regime wanted to modernise France through a rapid expansion of higher education, but do it on the cheap.

Colleges, libraries and lecture halls were massively overcrowded. Students were subjected to antiquated regulations, like barring male and female students from visiting each others’ rooms in student hostels. “Free circulation” became a rallying cry.

The first demonstrations in 1968 involved a handful of students, the next a few hundred. But when authorities used the brutal riot police to crack down, young workers began to identify with the student protests, and some joined in. The numbers grew.

On the night of 10 May police closed the Sorbonne, bringing tens of thousands of students onto the streets. An eyewitness writing in British student paper Black Dwarf, Jean-Jacques Lebel, told how “thousands helped build barricades – women, bystanders, people in pyjamas, human chains to carry rocks, wood, iron”.

Next day the government retreated. French prime minister Georges Pompidou reopened the Sorbonne, hoping this concession would dampen the struggle.

But it was too late. The students’ resistance inspired workers to take up the fight. Unions called for a one-day general strike against police violence on 13 May. The demonstrations went beyond all expectations, with one million on the streets of Paris alone. Workers and students marched behind a banner which proclaimed: “Students, teachers, workers – solidarity.” They chanted: “Power is in the street, not in Parliament!”

The following day saw a union meeting at the Sud Aviation factory in Nantes. Three revolutionaries in the union branch had for years demanded militant action, but been ignored. This time they were listened to. An open-ended occupation of the factory began. Workers locked senior managers up for a fortnight and forced them to listen to repeated playings of The lnternationale until the occupiers themselves couldn’t stand it any longer.

Nantes inspiration

Though getting little media coverage, the Nantes occupation became an inspiration. Within a week, factories and workplaces across France were occupied. On 19 May there were two million strikers, and ten million on 22 May. It was the biggest general strike in history.

France was brought to a halt as trains, buses, banks and postal services were all shut down. Red flags hung from the tower of the shipyards of St Nazaire. Posters saying “Unlimited Strike” appeared on the doors of offices, shops, banks and insurance firms. Workers at Berliet, a huge engineering plant in Lyons, rearranged the letters on the front of the factory to spell “Liberte”.

Staff at museums, film studios and theatres took action. Dancers occupied the Folies Bergeres. Under the slogan “Football for the Footballers”, professional soccer players occupied the Football Federation headquarters.

As events began to move in a revolutionary direction, groups of workers began talking about political power – who should rule the country?

In Nantes, western France, the whole town was administered by a trade union committee. It controlled prices to prevent profiteering and negotiated food supplies with local farmers. The unions controlled petrol supplies and set up road blocks around the town. For the last six days in May, the central strike committee was the heart of what amounted to an autonomous workers’ city state.

At the end of the first week of the general strike, de Gaulle’s government desperately tried to sue for peace. Union leaders agreed to a deal which meant a 35% wage rise for the lowest-paid workers. But at first workplace after workplace voted to stay on strike. The cry went up among workers for a “people’s government”. Union officials at a 15,000-strong meeting at the occupied Renault Billancourt plant were booed when they tried to sell the deal.

De Gaulle threatened a referendum on whether he should stay or go. But he faced the reality of working class power – no printshop in France would print the ballot papers.

Then on 29 May de Gaulle fled Paris without telling anyone where he was going. He skipped across the border to the German city of Baden Baden to hold talks with the commander of French army units stationed there.

After a day, de Gaulle was persuaded to return. French prime minister Georges Pompidou later admitted: “Thinking that the game was up, he had chosen to retire. Arriving in Baden Baden he was ready to stay a long time.”

What saved the old order was the French Communist Party (CP) which, on paper, supported the overthrow of capitalism. The CP had five million voters and controlled the largest union federation, the CGT. It had thousands of committed working class activists. Devoutly loyal to Stalinist Russia, the CP was equally sure of its own parliamentary potential.

The CP was determined that student revolutionaries shouldn’t influence its working class following. Student revolutionaries were slandered in the Communist press as right wing agents, middle class “sons of papa” who would graduate and become exploiters of the workers. In places, CP activists formed human chains to stop students from even talking to groups of workers.

The Communist-run CGT couldn’t stop the wave of factory occupations. Instead, CGT officials took control of the movement and tried to demobilise it from within.

When de Gaulle called a general election, the CP supported him and encouraged a return to work. In the elections, the right triumphed.

Differences times

For reasons which have nothing to do with the NZ Herald’s world view, there are in fact differences as well as similarities between the 1968 French uprising and the 2006 revolt against the CPE.

In some ways, today’s movement is less advanced than in 1968. It didn’t develop anywhere near the point where workers began to look at political power as a practical question.

State control is still secure. The strike wave involved fewer workers and didn’t develop into an occupation movement.

But in other ways, the social and political conditions for ongoing unity and the growth of the struggle are more favourable now.

The French Marxist Daniel Bensaid highlighted some of today’s differences in an interview with the British Socialist Worker paper:

In 1968, the spark was a demonstration against the war in Vietnam. The present movement is directly based on a social question – the destruction of workplace regulations and the generalised casualisation of employment, which is common both to student youth and to workers. The question of the link, and not just solidarity, between the two is therefore immediate… [Back in 1968] hostility or wariness [between workers and students] was fostered in particular by the workerist spin of the Communist Party and of the CGT trade union federation, which controlled the big bastions of the labour movement. Today relations are not so closed. On the one hand, the ability of the bureaucratic machines to control things has been considerably weakened. On the other, the overall expansion of secondary and higher education means it’s no longer possible to portray students as an exclusively middle class layer.

Unlike 1968, the CP in 2006 has neither the will nor the activists to divide workers from students, or youth from the suburbs.

The major political difference on the radical left flows from the intervening collapse of Stalinism. In 1968 most of the French left still saw Stalinist Russia as the model of what they understood by “socialism”. Among the minority who rejected this, many simply replaced Russia with Mao’s China, also a Stalinist state. Today, in contrast, large numbers of young people have been inspired by the ideas of the global anti-capitalist movement.

Equally significant is the post-1968 downsizing of the Welfare State, weakening and in many cases breaking the main tie binding workers to the Socialist Party (SP).

Like the Labour parties of the English-speaking world, the SP has replaced its one-time commitment to reforms benefiting workers with an embrace of free market neo-liberalism. This, combined with the decay of the CP, makes the anti-CPE movement more open to genuinely radical ideas and groups than previous movements.

Underlying today’s revolt is the longterm refusal of French public opinion to accept what the SP has embraced – the “inevitability” of neo-liberalism.

Although ebbing and flowing, the tide of opinion has been running against neo-liberalism since the huge public sector strikes of 1995. It’s been expressed in the growth of organisations opposed to corporate globalisation, such as Attac, which was founded in 1998 and now has 40,000 members.

In 2005, the neo-liberal Euro Constitution was defeated in a national referendum despite being backed by the governing party (the UMP), the main opposition party (the SP), the Green Party, the European Trade Union Congress and the corporate media.

Left parties

The successful campaign against the constitution was organised by a countrywide grassroots network of one thousand “No Committees”. They drew together activists from Attac, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR), the CP, dissidents from the Socialist and Green parties, the union movement and the myriad groups composing the so-called “social movement”.

A Liberation newspaper poll found that most people see little difference between the policies of the SP and Chirac’s right-wing UMP. Less than a week before anti-CPE protests started, the SP’s leading presidential contender, Segolene Royal, praised Britain’s neo-liberal prime minister Tony Blair and called for more labour market flexibility. And it wasn’t until just a few days before the CPE was withdrawn that the SP called on its members to join the protests.

Yet, in the public mind, the SP has succeeded in identifying itself with the anti-CPE movement. The SP could well be the main winner in the 2007 elections. That’s because, at present, France lacks a credible and united left alternative.

The CP is only a shadow of what it was in 1968, although retaining significant influence in the organised working class. Between 1997 and 2001, the CP served in the SP-dominated “plural left” coalition government which imposed neo-liberal policies similar to those of its right-wing predecessors. The CP, already in decline, saw its support drain away leftwards. In the 2002 presidential elections, CP leader Robert Hue was beaten by two Trotskyists, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvriere and Olivier Besancenot of the LCR.

Hue’s successor, Marie Buffet, moved the CP leftwards. But the party remains caught between the far left challenge and the need for alliances with the SP to hang onto CP seats in parliament and councils.

The CP’s contradictory position gives the LCR a strategic role, even though it has only 3,000 members compared to the CP’s 50,000 plus. LCR membership has doubled since the 2002 elections.

Besancenot, the LCR leader, is one of the most popular figures in France. He was a nationally recognised leader of the revolt against the CPE. Following the CPE’s withdrawal, opinion polls predicted he would win 8% of the presidential vote in 2007, twice as much as the CP’s Buffet.

In a break with Stalinist tradition, the CP approached the LCR to set up a joint working party. But the LCR is deeply divided over what to do. A congress in January 2006 showed that the LCR majority didn’t believe the conditions existed for launching a broad party of the radical left. Talking about the 2007 presidential election, Besancenot reflected majority sentiment when he said: “The conditions don’t exist for a unitary candidate.”

A minority saw the LCR as a catalyst in a radical left regroupment that includes large elements of both the CP and SP. But they didn’t rule out LCR participation in another “plural left” government dominated by the market-driven SP, which would be bound to run up against grassroots hatred of neo-liberal policies.

Political currency

The mass actions in France during February-April 2006 have echoed around the world. The social trends behind the French revolt, in particular the grassroots rejection of neo-liberal capitalism, are evident in most countries, New Zealand included.

So it’s little surprise that the French revolt is being used here as political currency. One counterfeit note was posted in Wellington’s Dominion Post. Its blustering headline “Mapp could teach the French a thing or two” suggested that if only they had a man of steel like Wayne the National MP, then those pesky French unions would have to think twice.

Business Roundtable director Roger Kerr also attempted to teach corporate New Zealand some French lessons. Just as the French government tried to divide black from white, Kerr pointed to high rates of Maori unemployment as a reason to promote Mapp’s bill, labelling union opponents as “privileged”.

He called on National to be much more aggressive in confronting the unions and rolling back workers’ rights. Sadly for Kerr, his advice that we should follow France came just days before the French government caved in to the unions and their student allies.

French lessons

New Zealand unionists are drawing very different lessons from France. Andrew Little, national secretary of the Labour-affiliated Engineers Union, announced a “mass industrial protest” if Mapp’s bill went ahead, starting with a workers’ stopwork and march to parliament.

“The French government tried a similar thing,” he noted, “but the law has been thrown out because it was so unpopular with the public.”

For the radical left, the lessons of France must include the need to build a mass alternative to Labour’s corporate politics, based in workplaces and unions. The revolt against neo-liberalism is less advanced in New Zealand than it is in France. It’s also less advanced in Germany, yet there the newly-formed Left Party won 54 seats in the 2005 election, 9% of the vote.

Here in New Zealand, unionists and leftists (including Socialist Worker, the publisher of UNITY) are in the first stage of building a radical left movement around the Workers Charter. We urge united actions against neo-liberalism with others, such as activists from the Green and Maori parties, Labour-aligned unions and all grassroots organisations.

Matt McCarten, Unite national secretary and Workers Charter endorser, put it this way in his Herald on Sunday column:

The French working class and the youth took to the streets day after day. Rolling general strikes were called by the central trade union federations. The cities were paralysed. After several weeks of huffing and puffing, the senior French politicians capitulated. New Zealanders should take note from this – of how attacks against working people can be defeated. The next generation is showing real spine. The challenge for other workers and the rest of New Zealand is, do we expect them to fight on their own, or do we support them? Like the French showed the world, when students and workers take to the streets together to send a message to politicians, they win.


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