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
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