Naima Bouteldja: Expect More Confrontations

An abridged version of this article was published in The Guardian newspaper this week, however Naima Bouteldja sent the full version to

Naima Bouteldja is a French journalist and researcher for the Transnational Institute.

Last Saturday, an estimated 1.5 million people surged into France's streets in protest against Dominique de Villepin's faltering Republican government. Sparked by weeks of growing student opposition and of tear-gassed occupations and demonstrations, the current scenes have revived memories of May 1968.

France's universities are once again centre-stage with 64 out of 84 institutions currently blockaded shut with increasing numbers of secondary schools following suit. Just as before, the main players are an angry student population, a battle-hungry police force and an unpopular Republican government. And now, like then, comes the imminent threat of a crippling general strike called by the trade union movement as workers join in the anti-government wave.

But this is perhaps where the comparisons should end. May '68 stemmed from an ideological rejection of conformity to French bourgeois society by its own children, and only mushroomed into a general strike following the brutal repression such opposition engendered.

Hot on the heels of last year's 'Non' against the European Constitution and November's riots, today's uprising is more complex, its denouement far more uncertain. There is, however, no doubt that a 'multitude' of social forces is growing in direct opposition to both the authoritarian market society France has become and the elite that wishes to take the Thatcherite project even further.

The match that lit this latest fuse is the Contrat de Première Embauche (CPE) or 'First Employment Contract', an innocuous sounding law that allows employers to fire the under-26s immediately without reason during the first two years of their employment. For the government, the CPE is deemed necessary to tackle France's chronic 10% unemployment rate, and in particular the fortunes of its under-25s for whom joblessness is more than double the national average. According to the OECD, a young French person takes on average between 8 and 11 years to find a stable job after leaving school or university, compared to an average of 5 years across other OECD countries.

Economists, however, refute the government's claims. Michel Husson of Paris's respected Institute of Economic and Social Research, is adamant: 'there is simply no available evidence to suggest that higher flexibility translates itself into the net creation of long-term employment'. Even employment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, now publicly concedes that the new contract 'will concern only a small number of new recruitments.'

Armed with such ammunition, the student protesters believe the CPE has little to do with tackling youth unemployment and is instead about further embedding the 'flexploitation' model among a section of society increasingly scapegoated for the ills of France's economy and society.

As sociologist François Dubet explains, the uneasiness is more deep-seated that just job insecurity: "The widespread perception in French society is that the gulf separating those 'inside' society (even if when they are badly paid) from those on the outside (in particular people who live in the suburbs)" has become more accentuated over the past 20 years. The middle class student flirts perilously close to this frontier and amidst unemployment lives in increasing fear that at any moment they too may end up on the wrong side of the line. In this sense, "the anti-CPE movement is for the middle classes what last November's riots were for the suburban youth", whose unemployment rates of 40% in some areas finally became intolerable.

In this context, the government has attempted to play one side of France's youth against the other, saying that the CPE is precisely designed to encourage employers to take on those from deprived areas. But France's ghettoised youth is no one's fool. They know that the CPE is just one part of a package of labour market and law and order measures designed to discipline the young and reverse centuries of social progress. For instance, the government has reduced the minimum legal school leaving age from I6 to 14 in order to revive its apprentice scheme and legalised night work for 15 year olds, removing a law protecting minors first introduced in 1871.

The reforms leave Antoine Germa, a history teacher in Clichy-Sous-Bois where last November's riots began, in no doubt as to the likely impact on the young: "If you are 14 years old, poor and on the margins of society, there is now every chance that your school days are numbered. You might get 13 weeks of education a year; for the rest of the time, you will more than likely be transformed into cheap and flexible labour for employers. The CPE has thus become a symbol of protest against all policies relating to précarisation."

Aida, a 54 year old student who came out on strike with other students from Paris Montreuil University admits: "It's not even that I really support these young protesters but their resistance is in the interests of everyone. The degradation of their working conditions will ultimately spread to others, eventually affecting us all."

This class consciousness explains last weekend's huge national demonstrations in which students were joined not only by trade unionists but also many youths from the troubled banlieues who reject a political discourse that denounces young people as a burden on society, a mere 'variable' to be adjusted in times of crisis.

The protests are also fuelled by a sophisticated understanding of the underlying political game in play, namely de Villepin's race with Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, for the Presidency and their party's aim to present the electorate with 'favourable' short-term official statistics before the next general elections in 2007.

Through his determination to show an inflexible firmness in the face of the student uprising, mirroring Sarkozy's handling of the November riots, de Villepin has backed himself into a corner that he may now not get out of. A recent public opinion poll revealed 68% want the government to repeal the CPE, while 63% support or have sympathy with the movement. Worryingly for de Villepin, the French press is currently sympathetic to the protests and his administration is now faced with the united might of the trade unions who agreed unanimously to hold a day of action with work stoppages, strikes and demonstrations on 28 March.

If the trade union movement doesn't split during negotiations, the government has only two options. Either renounce the law outright, or, to save face, use the constitutional council to the law as unconstitutional and revoke it. But such a retreat will have an immediate casualty. As one government minister has warned: "If de Villepin steps back, he is finished."

Whatever path is chosen, however, the mood of people across different sectors of French society indicates more confrontations ahead with a dramatic political change of direction a distinct possibility. As one of the many bloggers reporting from the unrest warns: 'in 1968, the riots took on another dimension when thousands of young workers decided to go to the centre of Paris to the occupied Sorbonne – the epicentre of the 1968 revolts – to see for themselves who deserved the cobbles-stones, the police or the students. This explains the determination of the Villepin government to expel with such violence the students occupying the buildings of the Sorbonne on the 11th March. Beneath the ashes of the riots in the suburbs burn some embers and we are only in March, not May yet!"

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Mar 24 2006 11:32


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Mar 22 2006 10:06

Naima Bouteldja, a young French Intellectual writing in today`s Guardian (,,1736438,00.html) is right to make the connections between Acts I, II, and III of this political melodrama, (2002 elections, E.U. constitution referendum and “banlieues” disturbances), and to suggest that “a dramatic political change of direction in France is a distinct possibility”. But either she is pandering to a lack of political sophistication in a British audience or she has moved a long way from the action in France and this movement of movements. Working with people like Susan George at T.N.I. she should know that Thatcherism was the match which lit the neo liberal globalisation project. It has its heir in the U.K. with New Labour, and has been exported throughout Europe and the World. A chic intellectual on the Left Bank was recently quoted as saying “France is the last bastion against this neo-liberal globalisation.” Although that might be an inflated view of “l`Exception Culturelle” this is the crux of the current political events. Events which have provoked right wing newspaper France Soir to warn “What started as an imitation of 1968 is now looking 1000 times more dangerous”

The arithmetic of revolt is complex and almost certainly non-linear and chaotic, but from high-school occupations in the “banlieues” to the creation of Free, Autonomous Universities, disruption of rail services to occupation of state tax offices, the raising of the red flag on Marseille Town Hall to potentially mortal police attacks on law abiding demonstrators, the country is alive with political creativity and state incomprehension, ineptness and repression. Couple that with an elite in the advanced stages of political narcissism, far more concerned with their personal careers than listening to the people, running a country or contributing to global progress it is no wonder we are living through what we are.

A “distinct political change of direction” is not a “mere possibility”, it is a reality being lived by many of us on a daily basis. So when we learn that a cultural icon like Sharon Stone has raised her voice to support elements of the movement, or that the Financial Times( is quoting Lenin to head off the possibility of copy cat revolts in Germany where more radical flexploitation and casualisation legislation is being planned, it must be time to ask ourselves whether we are becoming too predictable and credible. Even M.P.s close to the French Interior Minister are now coming out to say that Nicholas Sarkozy would be less hardline if given the top job. The abject absurdity and this peculiar game on the political spectrum being played out by our so called ruling class only helps to support the predictability thesis.

So “what should be done?”.

Seeking inspiration from Donald Rumsfeld might not seem appropriate in the circumstances but then he himself warned that “Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one, to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen and the unexpected”

It would be stretching rational strategy advice too far to suggest practical actions which could arise from a creative response to this wisdom. But surely we should be responding by seeking to ensure our progress is constantly discredited both by ourselves and others. A slippery concept to put into practice but I sure get the feeling we will learn a lot trying to!

Anyone want a World Cup finals ticket?