The anti-CPE struggle report - Theorie Communiste

28 March demonstration

We summarise a text by Theorie Communiste which focusses on the internal contradictions of the movement, how official representative organisations undermined grassroots initiative and puts the protests in context with the riots of suburban youth.

The anti-CPE struggle
Extracts of an analysis by Theorie Communist


Contrary to what happened over the pensions in 2003, the anti-CPE movement never formulated an 'alternative policy' to the government’s proposals. When Laurence Parisot, president of the Medef (the bosses union), drew the lessons of the anti-CPE movement for the employers, she found it very positive because the theme of 'precariousness had been debated'. She was right, the class struggle takes place now on this base, precariousness is now an established fact.


The main forces
At first sight, the anti-CPE struggle, which lasted three months, depended on six main forces:

• The mass of the wage-earners, favourable to the withdrawal of the CPE, but who participated in the struggle only 'to voice their opinion'; expressing themselves by two strike days a week apart, and who accompanied the big union parades. They were primarily public sector workers and their views always coincided with their trade-union representatives.

• The mass of the students, favourable only to the CPE withdrawal and opposed to any attack against the 'value of their diplomas'. They sporodically participated in the general assemblies and in the 'great demonstrations' and only wanted to pressure the government.

• The participants of the general assemblies: they participated in a limited way, e.g. often voted for the renewal of the strike and then returned home.

• The most active fractions: they carried out the blocking of the universities (the blockings preceded the strike) then blocked the motorways and rail roads; the representatives of the Student Coordinations came from this group. An important part of these fractions was more and more blocked by the self-limitative yoke of the student general assemblies. These groups were organized (or not) elsewhere; they went from one university to the other, or they jumped from one demonstration to another action; they disagreed with the 'responsible minorities'. As the movement deepened, the gap widened between these active minorities and the mass of the students (and this was expressed in the motions of support for the November rioters; the will to get rid of the whole 'Equal opportunity' law and to cancel the CNE, and the birth of the 'Neither CPE, nor CDI' movement), but they could not move forward without the legitimacy given by the student masses.

• The high-school students whose entry in the movement provoked a change of dimension of the movement, given their number and the often violent and 'uncontrollable character of their actions.

• The 'undesirable ones' (grouped under the 'suburban youth' label) who invited themselves naturally to the movement, often in a violent way. They played an increasingly important part in the demonstrations as well in the confrontations with the cops and in the aggression of students. In contrast to and against the starting point of the movement, they physically embodied the inanity of the demand of the CPE withdrawal and they questioned it.

Cleavages, contradictions and dynamics of the movement
If the student component of the movement’s active fraction made numerous the call-outs towards 'the wage-earners', 'the unemployed or the 'undocumented' (sans papiers), in fact they wanted to preserve its forms of organisation within its 'place of work'. Regarding its contacts with wage-earners, it only made occasional links with the teaching and technical staff of the universities.

The nature of the movement brought it into a conflict with its initial demand. The initial demand contained the need (to make it triumph), of widening it and not confining it to the CPE withdrawal, of extending the struggle to other sectors. Such a process would have implied opening the assemblies and transforming them into poles of convergence. It would have implied that students did not consider themselves as students any more. But then it would not have led to the triumph of the demand, but to its radical questioning. The minority activists were locked up in a contradiction: on one hand, the need for organizing in their own university to guarantee the continuing existence of the general assemblies; on the other hand, the need to widen the movement, contained inside the initial demand, to the risk of its disappearance. But it was not only the active minority which was locked up in this contradiction, it was the whole movement. This contradiction reflected all the cleavages inside the current student world in France and even more basically the anomaly which provoked this movement: what was objectively a student movement did not have anything student in its subject.

As regards the other categories (wage-earners – often members of the SUD trade union –, unemployed, precarious or undocumented workers), one could hear, from time to time, a delegate on a platform insisting on virtually possible 'footbridges' between struggles which usually only coexist sporadically. But, after a beautiful applause, every one turned back to his/her usual activities. The student self-organisation as students was simply a form of sectionalism, which in the end paralysed the movement. The trade unions did not make such gross mistakes ; they did not denounce the 'leftism' and 'extremism' of the Student Coordinations. The inertia of the student mass, the extremely heavy management of the debates and the sectional insulation, posed as a principle, limited the movement; these processes were much more powerful than the traditional schemes and slanders. The student trade unions left the general assemblies in the hands of the 'radicals' and represented the movement in the media; they negotiated with the government, and all their speeches were limited to the withdrawal of the CPE. The General assemblies radicalised in seclusion; the Student Coordinations were condemned to issue declarations increasingly disconnected from the real practices in the universities; no Parisian general assembly (except the 'Sorbonne in exile') raised the question of what to do starting from its own forces. In the rest of France, general assemblies, using their own forces, organised 'blockings of flows' (i.e. blocking motorways and rail roads) and 'removals'.


In practice, the universities were 'occupied' and 'blocked' with the administration’s agreement. Only one part of the buildings was conceded for the 'occupation', according to modes and schedules negotiated with the administration (for example, the lecture theatres were not invaded but some were granted by the university presidents; the picket lines were held under the control of the university 'vigiles' (staff paid by the university to watch it day and night) which regulated them; the strikers respected the internal university rules – sometimes they controlled the student cards to reach certain corridors).

Blocking was never done against the university management but was always regarded as a democratic decision taken by a general assembly representing the students, decision to which the administration was supposed to yield: the users of the university (strikers and strikebreakers, students and teachers, personnel and administrative direction) democratically occupied their universities. When a student organises himself/herself as a student, when he reproduces his separation from 'the others', he produces a fictitious common identity which is sanctioned by the movement’s exemplary self-organisation.

The active fringe of the movement constantly oscillated between:

• the identification with all the exploited, not only in words, but on the objective basis of a generalised precarisation,

• and the defence of a student condition which should offer some additional guarantees compared to the ordinary worker.

Between the two, second viewpoint always won. Therein lies the root of this bureaucratic ultra-democratism which was the tool (not the cause, but its form of appearance) impeding any connection with the suburban high-school students who, in Paris, carried out, at the same moment and a only a few metro stops away, a massive fight (over the same period several thousands of active high school students developed their actions and their modes of organisation in a completely separate way). The high-school students lived in the local rhythm of wild demonstrations, throwing stones, confronting the cops, blocking streets, plundering some supermarkets, without the Parisian students being even informed of their actions. When a high school was in the immediate surroundings of a university, coordinated actions were organised, i.e. there was an alliance, but never a fusion. The few common attempts of general assemblies (Nanterre and Tolbiac) were a true mess. The high-school students being unable to accept the ultra-organized mould of the student style of organization, these attempts were immediately stopped.


Conversely, the generalisation of the movement (which preserved it as a protest movement in its initial demand) was paradoxically the condition of its smothering. In spite of the March 18th demonstrations, the trade unions did not manage to take over leadership of the struggle. The active groups in the struggle were alien to the trade unions. If the trade unions were not yet recognised by the movement, they were soon to be. Both the trade unions and government, hoped that the immense demonstrations and days of strikes of March 28th, would be successful in making the unions recognised in the movement. Only a great day of strikes and demonstrations could place the trade unions in the situation of representing the movement.

Bernard Thibaut (general secretary of the CGT trade union) could declare in November: "It’s true that one did not see streamers, trade-union flags, but the movement was about jobs, means of living and dignity." During the anti-CPE movement, who could believe in unity with the November rioters on the basis of a CDI contract for all?

From November to March
The November rioters embodied, objectively by their situation and subjectively by their practice, the disappearance of the CDI contract for all and they knew it. (...) No comprehension of the anti-CPE movement is possible if one separates this struggle from the November riots. This is precisely where the problem lies. The middle class saw the social elevator being blocked, the 'excluded' know that they will never be able to climb in it and had announced in November that their own situation, in all its aspects, had become unbearable and was a target. The widening of the movement could not be the result of various situations coming together, but of those situations encountering each other with antagonism. (...)

However the objective common base has given birth to divergent – if not frankly opposite – analyses.

• Some people think that the 'two ends of the stick' ('rioters' and 'students') can’t meet. The social, not to say class, differences between the November rioters and CPE opponents make that each group remains in its social sphere and its struggle (in this kind of analysis, the coincidence between the two movements is postponed to a possible future which will unite the elements which are today separated).

• For others, the objective base appeared as a unity of action and struggle, the anti-CPE struggle became a struggle against any form of precariousness and more basically a struggle against the wage-earning system when the anti-CPE struggle extended itself.

• Lastly, some people affirmed that the encounter between the two movements took place because the participants were not so different (there was no conflict between 'dangerous classes', 'true proletarians' on one side and 'middle class' elements on the other side), but they noticed that the encounter was only partial because of 'defects' in the various practices. (...)

The contradictory dynamics of the movement was a reality. And the fact that the majority of the university and high school students were opposed to this reality did not change anything but rather underlined its conflictive nature.

Even it was perceived by a minority, it is paradoxically this dynamic, pointing to the necessity of transcending the CPE withdrawal demand, which permitted its fulfilment. Without the diffuse and uncontrollable boiling movement in the secondary schools of the Parisian suburbs and its overflow into the neighbourhoods (supermarkets, transport routes); without the meeting of school students and uneducated young proletarians in Grenoble, Nantes, Rennes, Paris and to a lesser extent in Toulouse or Marseilles; without the risks raised by occupations like that of the Sorbonne or the EHESS university; without the real opening carried out by the general assemblies of Nanterre or Villetaneuse universities; without the quick extension of the motorway and railway blockings; without the 'impromptu processions' of sometimes several thousands of people, the CPE would not have been withdrawn.

When the movement started to expand in Paris, especially after the March 7th demonstration, the contradictory dynamics of the movement appeared in the self-transformation, in the struggle, of a great part of the movement’s active fraction. In its singularity, the anti-CPE demand met very quickly, but in a contradictory manner, the whole question of precariousness and the evolution of the wage relationship. Those dissatisfied with the sterile forms developed in the student general assemblies wanted to meet each other. It was not a question of introducing in the movement an alien dimension, even less to show the 'right line' or to use it as a model, but to put into practice what already existed in the movement. This practical application demanded the permanent occupation of a place.

The first occupation, of the Sorbonne university, was both a failure and a success. It was a failure because the administration answered the occupation by an immediate blockade: a few dozens of students were left isolated in a lecture theatre watched by university 'vigiles'. But this blockade was then turned by hundreds of demonstrators, not all of them students, who entered by force in the building. The State reaction was immediate, the government did not want to let the Sorbonne become the rallying point which the occupants wanted it to be. The 'rectorat' (university administration for all Paris) explicitly justified the expulsion by the fact that non-students had joined the occupation. It was a success because of its repercussion inside the movement, even if the Sorbonne occupation did not aim to be a 'symbolic' act.

The occupation of the EHESS (School of High Studies in Social Sciences), permitted by the apparent complicity of some students of this institution, happened just after the Sorbonne occupation. The assembly which met during the four evenings of the occupation included around four hundred people (given the strong turnover, a few thousand people went to the EHESS, either during the assemblies, or at an other moment of the day). The assembly was held at 7 pm to allow people who worked to participate. There was in fact an important presence of precarious young people working in restaurants and fast foods and other temp workers. The opponents to the movement and the observers (by definition journalists) were not allowed. The assembly was rather a 'forum' than a 'sovereign or 'decision making' authority. A decision only became valid if one fraction of the participants decided to make it effective.

There were however many proposals and few achievements. The EHESS assembly posed the need of transcending the student framework of the movement; it was the first to call for the generalisation of motorway and rail road blocking; it called for 'diverting' official demonstrations, an initiative which attracted a minor fraction of 'external elements'; it realized, at the end of the movement close to the CPE withdraw, the short occupation of a trade union building (Bourse du travail) affirming in a text that "our situation in capitalism can only worsen" (April 4, 2006). In the dynamics of the movement, the great achievement of the EHESS assembly was its own existence.
[prol-position news #7 | 11/2006]