Behind the blockades

French workers and students fight riot police outside the Sorbonne, 14 March 2006

Visiting workers and students in France immediately following the government's withdrawal of the deeply unpopular CPE employment law, Ed Goddard looks at the potential for building a better society the struggle showed.

When analysing the state of the working class, it is up to those looking at it to observe and evaluate the tendencies working within it. By this we don’t mean, “how many people have joined the Marxist-Leninist Workers’ League?” or “how many people self-identify as anarchists?” but something a little more subtle than that. Obviously its great when workers identify as anarchists but what we mean when we talk about ‘tendencies’ is more about the general culture of militancy and solidarity: Is scabbing acceptable? Is sexism? Do we feel confident about our collective strength? Do we use it to get what we want?

It’s through the development of these libertarian and communist tendencies (i.e. democracy, equality etc) that we prepare ourselves for a post-capitalist society. Like all things, communism takes practise: how are we supposed to exercise community democracy if we’ve never really given it much thought before?

When big social struggles come up, one thing we always see is the development of these libertarian communist tendencies and the recent unrest in France is no exception. When the struggle exploded, we saw a rapid development of militancy amongst the people involved; militant ideas were being discussed, militant and practical solidarity was shown between different sections of the movement and militant tactics were being employed in an attempt to win the struggle. The recent events in France have been very inspiring for all of us striving for a better world and as such, require a closer look.

Practice as the source of theory
The ability of workers in struggle to develop radical ideas, even without the help of self-appointed ‘radicals’, is well documented. This occurred during the struggles in France recently with people’s ideas developing directly from the circumstances of their struggle. For instance, just walking into the occupation at Lille 3 university one afternoon, there was a lively discussion of around 40 students about the philosophical implications of using violence to defend the occupations. The general consensus of the discussion was that using physical force to defend an occupation would be legitimate, whether you called it ‘violence’ or ‘self-defence’ or whatever else. These discussions, though abstract in that they’re about hypothetical situations, are radicalised by the fact that they’re being discussed within the context of a concrete social movement.

Incidentally, it is thought that Lille 3 was one of the less militant of the universities in Lille so to find it locked up, covered in revolutionary slogans and playing host to a large radical discussion speaks volumes about the amount of space for radical ideas opened up by struggle.

Solidarity through democracy, democracy through solidarity
One of the most impressive things about this recent struggle was how deeply entrenched and inter-linked the ideas of solidarity and democracy were. The occupations saw daily general assemblies open to all the students at the university, which would have hundreds, if not thousands, of people attending to take decisions on how the struggle was developing. During the blockades, 2,000-odd students were turning up to daily assemblies in different universities across Paris, with around three-quarters voting daily in favour of maintaining the blockades. These general assemblies were also taken to a regional and even national scale with democratically elected and accountable delegates from the occupied universities coming to each assembly to discuss and co-ordinate action.

General Assembly at Caen Campus II, 20 March 2006
General Assembly at Caen Campus II, 20 March 2006

There were also the weekly interpro meetings, which were mass meetings of students, workers (on and off campus), high school students, queer groups, women’s groups etc who would all come together to discuss their needs and organise collective actions. The struggle had developed to a point where students and workers were approaching each other and inviting them to take part in joint assemblies not because of abstract, ideological reasons but because the logic of the anti-CPE movement had brought together the interests of a wide variety of groups. For instance, at an anti-CPE demonstration in Lille after the repeal of the law, striking workers from a psychiatric hospital led the march bringing to the table their own demands, showing solidarity and uniting the two struggles.

One group which always spark a lot of interest are the banlieusards, working class youth from France’s suburban housing estates who took part in four weeks of rioting only a few months before the beginning of the unrest against the CPE. There were many reports in the mainstream press trying to divide the students and the banlieusards; stories of mass muggings of students on demonstrations by gangs of banlieusards, articles attacking ‘selfish, middle-class’ students who weren’t thinking about the unemployed kids from the suburbs. However, from talking to students involved in the movement, the reality was quite different. The muggings seemed to be an almost entirely Parisian phenomenon, and even then they were very rare, and the tiny number of muggers dwarfed by the thousands from the suburbs who joined with workers and students on the demonstrations. Outside of the capital the relations between the students and the banlieusards has also been largely positive. In Lille, for instance, banlieusards took part in student demonstrations and brought their own concerns to the movement in much the same way as other groups of workers did. Together, the students and the banlieusards developed and taught each other new methods of taking action and a mutual dialogue was opened up between the two groups.

These examples of solidarity between groups in struggle really show the possibilities of expanding libertarian communist tendencies amongst people in their everyday lives.

Confrontational direct action
Of course, one of the more spectacular elements to the struggles were the instances of confrontational mass direct action. Of course, the obvious: the university occupations. Students took control of their universities, often not letting anything in or out unless they’d allowed it, for weeks. These occupations would also often be carried out by hundreds of students at a time and what started out as an occupation in Rennes soon spread to almost half the universities in France!


Caen train station blockade - 21 March 2006

Not that the occupations were left just to the university students. High school students from Montebello sixth form in Lille occupied their school for three weeks, day and night, and only stopped when police came in to smash the action. These would often be organised either by the students themselves, or by joint committees of students, parents and teachers. On the 21st March in the Fives district of Lille, only six schools were left with student numbers in double figures, two with less than five pupils and two which were completely empty! One radical parent in Paris explained to me that the level of involvement in direct action amongst French youth at the moment is such that to not have been down to a demo or involved in an occupation is as embarrassing as saying you’re still a virgin! The anti-CPE movement has also seen massive strikes amongst the more traditional organised working class. For instance, on the 27th March, 37,000 workers went on strike in Nord Pas de Calais and, in Rennes, postal workers took strike action in solidarity with students occupying the university. One interesting development has been that not only have universities and workplaces been occupied, but also train stations and even major roads leading into cities. Major train stations in Nantes and Lyon were occupied by 2,000-3,000 people.

France has also seen a lot of street fighting recently with demonstrations often spilling over into violent confrontations with the police. For example, riots broke out at the Sorbonne as demonstrators were refused access to university buildings. Anti-CPE demonstrators have also taken a physical force approach to fascists who, showing their true colours, tried to physically attack working class people who were fighting to improve their lives.

Denying the right of government to govern
One interesting fact to be taken into account about the anti-CPE struggle is that it only really started to get going once the CPE became law. This is the exact opposite of what happened in the 2003 pensions struggle in France where once the governments new legislation had passed, the movement slowly wound down into the unhappy acceptance of defeat, the implication being that “our government has seen fit to pass this law, its constitutional, we have to accept it”. However, what happened this time was that people rejected the CPE even once it became law and in doing so have rejected the right of government to make decisions about their lives. Just because the CPE was constitutional didn’t mean it was accepted. Implicit in the anti-CPE movement is a rejection of the institutions of French government.

The anti-CPE movement has seen radical discussion, direct action, solidarity and democracy being made into daily reality by literally millions of people taking to the streets over the past two and a half months. We’ve seen massive demonstrations, occupations, directly democratic decision making-bodies and unity between different sections of society. These struggles always see the extending of the libertarian and communist inclinations already within people. The anti-CPE struggle has most certainly taught a lot of people a lot of things about their own collective power.

The next few years should be interesting.

Ed Goddard is a member of the libcom.org group

Posted By

libcom
Apr 26 2006 00:16

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Anonymous
Oct 9 2006 11:16

Benjamin Solah: Writer and Revolutionary » Carnival of Socialism #1
April 30th, 2006 | 2:31 pm

[…] ‘Behind the blockades,’ libcom.org/blog – unrest in France – Ed looks at the situation after the worker’s victory over the oppressive CPE laws. It’s a situation the needs to be discussed. Where do these movements go from here? Do they go on or fizzle out? He accurately tells of the growth of militant struggle in the movement, and without leaders of parties or groups pulling strings. It’s the material conditions that create this atmosphere. […]
http://www.benjaminsolah.com/blog/?p=266

Anonymous
Oct 9 2006 11:16

Comandante Gringo
May 1st, 2006 | 9:40 pm

Libertarians (communist or otherwise) are generally those sections of the mass of political actors who choose to fixate on only _one_ moment — individual self-activity — of what is in fact a constant, incessant _dialectical_ movement (don’t tell me they don’t… they do indeed. At least when it comes to these particular formations of the class struggle). And self-activity is indeed a vitally important ‘moment’ (as in ‘momentum’) of class struggle. In fact, _all_ struggle begins in this way, in some sense. And certainly, the stalinist school of marxism has its own fixations in that regard — but at the other extremity of this dialectic of political praxis.

And that ‘other’ side of the dialectical moment of development of class struggle, however, is _still_ *organizing* and *organization* and (gasp!) *organizations*; and it is this _other, necessary_ development of the class struggle (in spite of all past and present abuses committed in its name) *which is absolutely required* in order to advance the whole struggle beyond where this (i.e. recent and other upwellings in France) has so far gotten stalled, _every time_. And that, komradz, is the baby which the “anti-leninist”, anti-organizational Left has continually and gleefully been throwing out with the stalinist bathwater. And so no wonder we keep ending up, short-circuited, going around in vicious, tight circles, in spite of all the high hopes and sterling examples of even sophisticated “self-organization”, over greater or lesser periods of time and space… There is here a failure to get the proper ideological — and thus organizational — perspective on (practical) matters in the modern class struggle (the usual ‘there’s no “privileged” vantage point in this postmodern universe’, eh?) And I can see the same errors of thought being committed in the likes of this blog, as all over the many venues and currents of today’s Left: that (ugh!) *formal* organization is, like, so ‘yesterday’ and… PARENTAL. Patriarchal. Anal-retentive. Mechanistic. Deathly dull. So un-groovy and, uh, _totalitarian_, Man.

But we really have to look hard at what has actually been gained here with this (now very tiring and obnoxious, IMO) approach: this time, and in like circumstances, in avoiding any long-term, *committed organizing* against the class enemy. What have these weex of semi-anarchic disruption actually _gained_ for the french working-classes? Concretely?

For instance: how much have the workers and youth of France truly gained, now that the bourgeoisie have obviously gotten their wind back — and over their latest fright — and gotten their (the bourgeoisie’s, that is) trade union and “socialist” party henchmen to finally taper this particular struggle off? Gotten it off the front pages (thank God!)? Off the TV screens — and away from world attention (there *is* a God!)? And most especially: off the streets and out of France’s classrooms — and back into polite bourgeois discourse, and the usual, mediated, modes of “dissent”..? The fact of the matter is: these bourgeois ministers are *all* still in power — and they shouldn’t be. No one has been dismissed or chased out. And that fright has now left their ranks, I am certain, on account of such failures of the Left as this. And so, they’re obviously back again to their usual mischief: in Afrika — from Côte d’Ivoire to Chad to Algeria; in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran… in Polynesia… and coming back right again to France: to what they are doing right now, back in the banlieues and the cities; in the bureaucracies — armed or otherwise; and in the corridors of power… It’s a long list of things the french bourgeoisie is _still_ doing _to_ the french masses, since the ‘libertarian’, unorganized masses have (AFAIC) allowed the *organized* swindlers of the Left to lead them down the garden path, yet one more time, with the _mere promise_ again — really — of superficial change. But the thing is *not to blame organization itself* for our failing to do it better than the other sidem (and every time, at that).

Fact is, it was correct for those who wanted to continue to spread the strike more generally to continue-on in the face of the stand-down; even if they were now spitting against a wind which had been purposely and systematically changed (thanx to another demobilization/cheap sellout); no matter that the rest of the mass of strikers had been easily diverted and pacified by their (surprise!) — self-proclaimed, neoliberal-friendly, for sure — *”leaderships”*. In spite of being isolated and labelled as ‘unreasonable’ or ‘utopian’ — thru whatever lies the bourgeois agents in the media and the Left have managed to tar them with this time around.

And so, the question of power was posed one more time (this time VERY mutedly!) But, unlike in 1968, 30 years of hegemonic disinformation and dissembling — and dissertations — have so totally hoodwinked such a huge mass of the forces of struggle, that it was actually a pretty easy affair for the regime to roll up these young people this time around, no matter how differently the weight of class forces are arrayed actually — and auspiciously — in the workers’ favor in this new era. At least globally and regionally, if not locally, with “Late Capitalism” now.

And so I’m pretty sanguine about the opportunities and possibilities for class struggle in Europa in the 21st Century, actually. But we do have here a great big fat slob of an ideological pig sitting across our path, getting in the way of any victory or sight of it: an anarko-antiglobalization-Postmodernist libertarianism — whatever you want to call it (I’m not forgetting the crimes of the Old Left; another matter) — which refuses to draw the *real* lessons of the past 100 years of struggle; and which instead actually prefers whiffs of the sweet nectar of the intellectual farts emanating from the bourgeois side of the class divide. And so, as long this petit-bourgeois, AFAIC infantile, individualism continues to pervade the Left worldwide, we’ll continue to get this ridiculous glorification of DIS-organization; this fetishizing of the spontaneous and unplanned (I *did* say that ’spontaneity’ wasn’t bad in-and-of itself, remember? Just too much of a Good Thing, etc., etc.) And we’ll continue to get these political results where we can only get so far — and no further — in our struggles against a VERY (even HYPER-) organized class enemy. Who will do ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING — including sending people who look and talk like us into our midst to confuse us (and themselves too. It has to be like that, to be convincing).

And so to repeat: there is nothing wrong with challenging authority or working for loose organization: all is allowed and possible, which makes sense in this world. We don’t want rigidity or gatekeeperism, or ‘expert elites’, etc. But it matters that komradz keep working to break up any organization which begins to force them towards self-discipline, simply because the long-haul *requires some self-sacrifice* — and they don’t feel like making that committment.

But if the struggle interferes with our careers and our ‘fun’… well… Welcome to the Class Struggle. That is our responsibility to our decendents.

[P.S.: Howsabout a *preview* feature for comments to this blog, eh?]