libcom.org’s brief summary of the mass movement which swept France in early 2006 against the further casualisation of labour which forced the government into a humiliating defeat.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin unveiled his labour law liberalisation package the CPE (’first employment contract’) on 16th January. He said that “urgent” action was needed to “bring the French labour market into the modern era”. The law would see employers hire 18-26 year-olds on two year contracts that would allow them to fire the youths without notice, and without explanation.
In response, student union bodies called for a week of meetings and mobilisation from 30th January including a call for a national day of protest for the 7th February. 400,000 people took part in 187 demonstrations across France.
From there the oppositional movement gained momentum. Another student and workers’ union day of action and demonstrations was held, attracting one million people onto the streets. Nearly all of the country’s universities were occupied by students and striking staff, and schools began to shut down as well as pupils, parents and teachers occupied them. General assemblies – directly democratic bodies of young people, students and workers – were set up to co-ordinate the occupations and resistance.
People from the banlieues - suburban housing estates where riots erupted last year - joined students and workers in demonstrations, despite the government’s claims that the laws were being brought in to “help” them find work. Young people began to fight the French riot police, who were condemned by many for their brutality which left many people injured including one postal worker who was put in coma.
The rebellion continued to grow, and a national strike was called on 28 March – the same day a million workers in the UK struck to defend their pensions. Hundreds of thousands downed tools, and three million people took to the streets – many small towns of 10-15,000 inhabitants having thousands-strong demonstrations.
Subsequently, unofficial actions increased, with wildcat strikes, unsanctioned demonstrations and huge blockades of motorways, train stations and even airport runways escalating and becoming more frequent. Unions were set to call another general strike when the French government was forced to cave in and withdraw the law, in a huge victory for the French working class.
The story was not immediately over, however, since some sections of the movement continued to demand the withdrawal of a similar law, the CNE, which applies to small businesses of fewer than 25 people. This law was eventually overturned in the courts in 2007.
In any case this struggle of French workers and young people took on their government - which, like all governments across the world, was attempting to attack the gains that working people have achieved over the years – and won. With the UK government’s attacks on pensions, benefits and growing casualisation of employment here we can take inspiration from our French fellow workers, and learn a lot about standing up for ourselves.
Notes on the libcom.org CPE blog
libcom.org provided comprehensive English-language coverage of the fight against the CPE, as well as videos, personal accounts, analysis and thousands of photographs. It remains online here as a historical archive of the events.