France: report from Nanterre University

D building 09/11/07

A brief report on the occupation at Nanterre university.

Yesterday a general assembly (Assemblée générale, or AG) was held at Nanterre, at the beginning around 1200 students were present, numbers dropped as the meeting took two hours but the final vote was over 600 in favour, 199 against and around 100 abstentions. Students voted to begin a strike and a blockade and also to occupy the buildings.

According to one student the occupation did not take place due to a lack of numbers, although another student explained that an occupation could be counter-productive. If the university is occupied then the administration can officially close the university. Once this has been done the strike is dead, and the militants on the blockade quickly become isolated. He also explained that this was why the blockades were of the buildings rather than on access routes to the campus.

Against the blockades:
During this movement, as during the anti-CPE movement, many who are against the strikes make arguments against them. These are some of the responses given.

They are striking for the sake of it. The strikers are often painted as having no direction and simply wanting to cause trouble. The strikers I spoke to were very concerned about missing lessons and the effect on their education. "We're not trying to martyr ourselves, but we have to take action."

The strikers don't know what they are striking for. One of the strikers admitted that the current attacks are more complicated than the CPE and that it is more difficult to explain why action is needed. However the only students I spoke to that did not understand why the law was an attack on their conditions were against the blockade, ironically one of them actually made this allegation.

The strikes do not represent the will of the majority of students. This is partly true. Out of a student population of 35000 only some 600 voted for the strikes and blockades with fewer still actually mounting the blockades. However the meetings had been advertised all over campus for several weeks, with posters everywhere and students handing out leaflets (which included an explanation of the law) daily beforehand. Again the students I heard making this argument had not attended the AG

The left-wing students pack out the general assemblies to make sure that they win the votes. I didn't ask the students for their political views, but this criticism seems unfair. At the Assemblée générale that I attended last year there was a very vocal pro-Sarkozy group, although they did lose the vote. In fact they were the ones who acted as spoilers, drumming their hands and feet to drown out speakers. At one point one of them provoked another student who went to hit him, at this point several other students, including a CNT member broke up the scuffle. And as said above, these meetings are open and very well advertised.

The direction of the struggle.
When asked if they could win this struggle the responses varied, some were optimistic some were not. Both parties felt that the intervention of workers would be crucial. The students were mostly very aware of the actions at other campuses. 35 out of 85 universities are now blockaded. Most knew about the 2 hour occupation of the station at Rennes and the 20 minute flying blockade of TGV trcks at the Gard du Nord in Paris the previous day.

Students were mostly aware of the need to widen the struggle, both within the university and in a wider context. Teachers and delegates from other university staff attended the AG as did a Rail-worker, who stressed the need to extend the struggle. Students were mostly very aware of the solidarity actions and inventive tactics of the anti-CPE movement. This time they are hoping for much greater solidarity with and support from workers, mainly due to the fact that the Sarkozy goverment is attacking conditions for the working class virtually everywhere.

Early on one of the students mentioned that many of the militant students were CPE veterans although later on in the day others told me how encouraging it was to see so many new faces on the blockades. One of the problems was the small number of people on the blockades. A hard core of sixty met at 7:30 am (an hour before the earliest lessons begin) to set them up. As one student said this reliance on a small core is doubly dangerous, it leaves the movement very vulnerable to repression and it shows a lack of political awareness and agency to expect a small group to carry out the motions voted for at the meeting.

Five teaching buildings and the administration building were blockaded, three teaching buildings remained open. One of which is a small prefabricated building, one of the others is the languages building and the other is the economics building. The first had mainly been left because it is the smallest building and therefore not significant when numbers are low. The languages building is difficult to effectively blockade due to its design. Ironically the anti-occupation measures taken by the administration (closing and narrowing entrances for example) made mounting blockades easier. The economics building was left because it's students are generally anti-blockade. During the CPE struggle about 50 economics students forced the blockade and got into the empty building. Several students mentioned that there is a big divide between the professionalised students taking subjects such as law and economics and the others. Those students who can expect to walk into well-paying jobs and come from well-off families are unsurprisingly less militant and more worried about missing lessons than the attacks on the university system.