From the suburbs riots to the student movement - Henri Simon

November 2005 banlieue riots
November 2005 banlieue riots

An article by Henri Simon analysing the connection between the Banlieue riots of Autumn 2005 and the present movement against the CPE.

Submitted by libcom on April 3, 2006

The article looks at the CNE/CPE within the context of international capital, and considers the potential for the movement to generalise beyond specific demands and sectors of society.

Henri Simon

Preliminary remarks:

  • suburbs riots concerned only a small part of the suburbs populated with the poorest and mixed ethnically part of the population, surrounding quite a lot of big and small towns all over France
  • student movement involved not only university student but also the students in the last three years of the secondary cycle (lycées) preparing the “baccalauréat”, the key for the entrance to the university or to the “grandes écoles” (top public and private schools reservoir for managers and top political and business leaders) . Already at 16 (end of compulsory education), at the end of the first part of the secondary cycle, quite a lot of children of the poorest part of the population are supposed to leave the education system or to be orientated towards low level technical or professional schools.
  • The CPE ( Contrat Première Embauche) is presented as a special job contract for people under 26 - supposed to work for two years in a kind of training before getting a definite job. During this period these young people could be sacked without being told for what reason and only with some minor compensations (money and training). This reform (not yet implemented because some juridical problems) has been imposed without discussion in the Parliament following a special emergency procedure and is not only aimed at diminishing the high rate of unemployment of young people but is also a political manoeuvre in the prospect of the presidential elections in 2007.
  • Even if it is difficult to foresee the future of the present opposition to the CPE, we can underline that, as in the past, this student movement is growing just before the Eastern holidays in all the education system and that most of these students will have after to prepare exams during the last term. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to drop any analysis about the present movement.

    The suburbs riots of autumn 2005 against living conditions, and the students' movement of spring 2006 are opposite ends of the same stick: the world movement of capital. This doesn’t mean, in the present situation, that, especially in France , these ends will rejoin: in the middle there is the huge mass of workers, all these people whose work is the core of capital. Only their generalised struggle could open the way if not towards another society, at least to be a more powerful lever against the present attack against working conditions.
    At first we have to consider that France is no longer, is spite of the pretences of all politicians, political and union organisations of any tendency, a “sovereign State”, reduced to be a part of a coherent and supranational European Union . This E.U. itself is involved inworld capitalist dynamics which nobody can master and which imposes its laws on any structure or organisation working inside this production system to try to maintain its perpetuity. Even if we could detect in the present movements of capital some elements of a serious crisis, and consequently some significant struggles and movements, we can’t underestimate the possibilities of adaptation of the capitalist system as we could have seen in the past, even in some more serious crisis for instance in the 30’s.

    The essential problem we have to consider related to the two movements that have shaken France in some months is not :

  • neither in the discussions about the tactics or strategies of the reformist or “revolutionary ” organisations which jump in the bandwagon in order to get a good place in the political competition.
  • neither in discussions about cosmetics which would come anyway to get the social peace.
  • nor in the condemnation of some violent actions in the name of a (proletarian or not) morale. Struggles are what they are and always we could find some “disturbing” elements including police manipulations . In front of any fact of a certain size we have to try to understand and to see what it socially expresses.

    The measures taken by the government, presently contested, and any other measure which could be taken instead to replace them, only aim at maintaining in the national frame the social peace needed for the exploitation of labour, and somewhat soften the consequences on the working conditions of the capital dynamic at the world scale. The essential problem is precisely at this world scale and what happens in France is only the peculiar aspect in the national frame of the world evolution of capital. Any struggle against only one problem, in one country will only succeed to help capital to overcome its present difficulties, even if it shows some radicalism and gets some results for the fighters involved (workers and others).
    The more capital expands (and it has considerably and successfully for the past 50 years spatially and in sectors of activity where it did not exist), it develops at the same time a more and more important army reserve (see Marx, Capital). This army reserve has grown, all over the world more than 1 billion. Until recently, it was mainly concentrated in the third-world countries. It invaded little by little all the industrialised countries with a constant important rate of unemployment that most of the countries try to dissimulate the extent of with various expedients. The oversize of this reserve army obliges us to think that most of it is not eventually “recoverable” workers but “irrecoverable” people for capitalist purposes. And definitely expelled from the capitalist process of production. The action of capital often has dispossessed them of their traditional non-capitalist means of living and obliged them to be displaced towards these awfully poor suburbs of the big cities.

    Considering this, we could see the distinction in France between unemployed counted as so in the unemployment rate, and people without work betting only the special benefit called RMI and not at all counted as unemployed: this segmentation would not be a matter of money but a parting between ex-workers potentially recoverable and ex-workers irrecoverable for capital. The new labour contracts (CNE, CPE, etc.) giving employers the possibility to sack a worker for two years without having to give a pretext could also be seen as a mean to sort the workers and separate the recoverable and the irrecoverable for the process of exploitation of labour.
    The present problem for capital confronted to this huge growing population of irrecoverable displaced human beings is not so much how to integrate them eventually into the production process (it is evident that this prospect is not at all possible) but how to maintain them in a survival situation to keep a minimal social peace allowing it to go ahead, either with the extraction of raw material or with the exploitation of recoverable labour.

    Of course, the solutions answering this problem differ according to the situation. A wide range of measures could be seen from minimal benefits for the irrecoverable in industrialised countries, such as the RMI in France, or the parsimonious food help provided by the NGOs in the third world countries. On the other hand, we can see some similarity in the survival solutions as well in the French suburbs as well as in the ghettos and shanty towns all over the world: any kind of traffic, legal or illegal, theft, drug and underground work.

    One of the problems raised by such situation is to know if at a world scale, capital can divert enough surplus-value to help the survival of so many people and so maintain the social peace it needs to keep the production process working. Quite a lot of social measures taken in France are only devoted to this aim, and it is evident that even in this restricted national frame these questions of money becomes essential and push the government to promote a wide range of fake jobs to try to reinsert the irrecoverable into the capitalist production process enlarged for this purpose by quite a lot of unproductive sectors. In France, amongst other attempts, the CNE and CPE are part of such a politics.

    Such problems are not so simple for capital because it is in opposition with the imperative for capital to find ways to counter the fall of the rate of profit (another consequence of the spreading of capital independent of its dynamics itself). All over the world, capital must imperatively recuperate part of the maximum of surplus value and diminish the share of this surplus value allowed for the reproduction of the labour force and for unproductive sectors.

    In the industrialised countries this mean everywhere remove in one way or another all benefits which could have been conceded n the previous periods and to get more workers efforts in rebuilding after wars or some primitive accumulation. No need to tell much about France (and not particularly about France) not only about a general attack against all kind of benefits but also about constant pressure (legal or not) to increase labour productivity i.e. increase the rate of surplus value extorted by capital.

    Capital has a dilemma, on one hand obliged to subside without counterpart an important mass of irrecoverable people, on the other hand to pressurisee more and more all the productive and unproductive (even more this last ones) workers. These two terms are contradictory but they could generate anyway social disturbances, situation which obliges to maintain, nationally and worldly more and more important measures of security, the security of capital and of exploitation, the social peace proceeding more and more on a “terror balance”. There is another problem, inherent to capital itself, but which expresses itself through companies, trusts, multinationals and States. In fact quite a lot of problems directly connected to the fierce competition in the capitalist jungle.

    It will be very long to develop the industrial and financial channels used in this competition but we have to underline that the world economy is constantly shaken with problems of overproduction which sharpen even more this competition. Capital needs to keep on and go ahead of consumers to convert the surplus-value. Partly it is also the meaning of the subsidies to keep alive all the unrecoverable people. But, on the other hand, if capital, in order to stop the fall of the rate of profit squeezes the part of the surplus-value going to the workers for the reproduction of the labour force, it is in total contradiction with its needs. Then comes the importance of credit in all its forms which is a central world problem: it contributes to maintaining a certain level of production, bur the result is a levy on the future of what will be conceded to workers. It is a vicious circle for the years ahead as the pressure on wages and conditions of work already draws a dreary future.
    To raise labour productivity is the core of the production process and an essential part of the capitalists competition partly considering their privileged national interests. In France, the reforms implied by the CNE and the CPE are not isolated facts but have to be related to the context of a tendency already working for more than twenty years:

  • most of the collective agreements which regulated work in national branches of industries often improving the basic labour laws for the workers have been repealed unilaterally by the employers unions in the past years.
  • The 35 hours laws have seriously improved the flexibility about working time all along the year, overtime (reduced increase on an annual average) and wages freeze. According to figures from the employers' organisations, France is now the first in the industrialised world for the productivity per man per hour.
  • the multiplication of all kinds of precarious labour contracts (according to some official reports, we could number 38 different job contracts allowing the management to choose what is more convenient to its purpose and the need of the industry)

    All these measures introduced little by little, were successive steps towards flexibility and were implemented without serious opposition because of the economic pressure on workers (unemployment) and of deceptive presentations (e .g. the 35 hours laws presented as a cut in the working time). The CNE (New Hiring Contract) can only be used in companies exploiting less than 20 workers, giving all kind of workers the legal threat to be fired for two years without any explanation. It was voted by Parliament last summer practically without serious opposition from the unions or from the workers.

    The CPE (First Hiring Contract) was exactly the same kind of labour contract in a different field: it was to be used only for young people under 26, otherwise it was exactly the same. Another kind of labour contract of the same kind was implemented for old workers in order to soften the frequent sacking of worker above 55,or even 50.

    These new labour contracts answer several purposes. They will allow management to adapt the exploitation of labour, for a longer period and with less expense, to the fluctuations of the market. They are apparently patchy but beyond this appearance they are separated steps towards a unification and a simplification of the labour contracts in the companies' interests and of the conditions of exploitation.

    The workers unions are unanimous to condemn and to support the strong reaction of the students against the CPE: but it is partly only words (for the suburbs riots, it was openly a rejection). In fact the main unions CGT and CFDT are studying for months their own reform of the labour contracts and their discussions are following the same way as the present government (they have already given a name to their project: Professional Social Security) . The same reform is also to be implemented with this name at the European level, what a European commissary called “flexsecurity ” (Les Echos 23/3/2006). In Germany, part of this European plan is implemented with the project to extend of six months the trying period in a labour contract up to two years, exactly the same as in France.

    The strength of the struggle against the CPE at first from university students then from secondary school students was not initiated by the workers unions or political parties, though some students unions have some clear connections with left parties. Most of the success of the movement comes not from the specific opposition to the CPE (which sparked the ignition) but from the general and vague discontent about the economic pressure of the past years. It is significant that in both movements, the suburbs riots and the student movement, only young people were involved in the start of the struggle. They are the first victims or this global pressure, of course in a quite different ways. For the students, belonging for most of them to until now a rather protected milieu, for some of them having to deal even after successful studies with an uncertain future, the CPE was the image of this precariousness they fear disturbing the dream of a future similar or better than their parents' life. For the workers unions, they know perfectly well the evolution of the general conditions of labour, evolution they couldn't oppose radically because of their basic function in the capitalist process of production and they also know that it was the cause of their decline, which was used by managers, employers unions and government to push, as far they could, to reform the conditions of labour exploitation.

    On the other hand, the workers' unions also knew well that precariousness and unemployment made difficult, if they had the intent to do it, to mobilie workers even for some precise reform attempt. So, the present movement is a surprise opportunity for the workers unions to have a come back in the political arena. Even if a small minority of workers are involved in the present movement, these unions altogether (improvised for the circumstance) could claim urbi et orbi their support for the student movement and their opposition to a contract they have already accepted for quite a lot of workers with the CNE.

    In fact, as usual, the workers unions try to use the dynamics of the student movement to impose to the government a general discussion about the present conditions of work for all workers. We can already see the prospect of a top meeting between the employers unions, the workers union and the government, something similar to the “Matignon agreement” which ended the big 1936 strikes or the “Grenelle agreement” which ended May '68. This “new look” of the workers unions was already prepared with some previous evolution: on one hand what we have said about the “Professional Social Security” unions palas, and on the other hand about a merging in process between the main unions CGT and CFDT under the name of “syndicat rassemblé ” (gathered union) (in this process, the small opposition unions would be swept away and a top meeting to settle the present dispute will be a good opportunity to marginalise them).

    Nobody can tell what the future will be for the two distinct movements of struggle. The suburbs movement apparently has faded away, stopped by the repression and certainly by the fact it was isolated and not relayed by other people than the young people of the suburbs (anyway, the fire still is not damped under the ashes, what is feared by all the authorities, because the situation has not changed at all in spite of all the verbal promises and will stay the same even if some practical solution will stop the CPE student struggle).

    The big difference between the suburbs riots and the student movement (presently we can’t talk of a workers’ movement) proceeds what we have said before about their social milieu. The students fight for a future they think threatened, the suburban young people fought for their present, the impossibility for them presently to “live normally”, only hoping to live as other young people which also implies of course a future.

    From their respective situations also derive the totally different methods of struggle:

  • Because it is not directed against the system but only against some present disagreements, the student movement uses the same traditional peaceful legal methods advised and supported by the unions (even if some conflicts could come up when the rank and file uses them out of the unions control or against their will to stop the strike). Sit-ins, assemblies (somewhat “ democratic ”), demonstrations, blockades of streets, roads or railways lines, all that are part of the regular union arsenal . Of course not putting cars or public buildings on fire or fiercely fighting with the police. The student movement wants to get a “good image” and reject any kind of violence. For most of these students, even if the background was a general disease with the present society, very few claims went beyond the remove of the CPE. It is not by chance if it was agreed in general to ask for the help of the main workers unions for the organisation of the demonstrations even for the purely students ones and if the “ strong man” union teams controlled the demonstrations against the “suburbs youngsters” jointly with the police.
  • The suburbs youngsters have a totally different approach in their fight against the society and anybody or anything expressing the “normal” life in this society (it is not by change that a recent film describing the life of young people in these suburbs was entitled “The Hate”). Violence is what they live constantly and directly, far beyond the civilised violence of education or of work. They answer with violence at different degrees in the only public place where they have to confront this violence, the streets and various public resorts in their subur ; they have practically no claim only a vague idea they are fighting for “something else”, acting more violently when some repressive action has brought more harassment than usual, with arrests, wounds or even death. For part of them surviving through various illegal means, stealing with violence individually or regrouped in small gangs of fighting with the cops is a kind of usual practice. They have done that for ages in all crowded places using any opportunity (celebrations , feasts, marches, ...demonstrations :in the last demonstrations against the CPE, they don’t care about it but see only the opportunity for easy prey and/or easy fights. Whatever can we think about these facts, such a violence and behaviour is the mark of a difference of class: dangerous class against middle class. This violence has nothing to do with the “organised” violence of some radical political groups.

    It is evident that a movement of this size, even limited to a peculiar category of the population, provokes a lot of discussions, proposals and initiatives from all sides. But it doesn’t depend on anybody or any group to act in such a way to make these first steps in the present situation go beyond limited claims, or take more radical or more general forms of action. Of course some minority people or groups could try to radicalise the movement, to push it in larger fields mainly amongst the workers, and to give it more general aim posing the problem of the capitalist society.

    It is always possible to find presently in this student movement some slogans, some specific actions, some local characters in the management of the student strike and/or of occupations and to propagate them as a proof that the movement is going a way we could hope it has to go from a “revolutionary” point of view. But presently it is not at all the general tendency of the movement which stays in the control and the limits of a traditional movement.

    Some could think as well of a connection with the “suburb rioters” of last autumn: they came effectively but not in number and for a quite different purpose. The evolution of the movement will depend from the government decision and of the dialectical process between the repressive force, the political manipulations including the fights for political power inside the political majority, the manipulations from the unions. There is quite a lot of possibilities for the system to stop it spreading towards a general workers strike or any other kind of generalisation. There is still plenty of voices which ask the workers unions to organise such an extension of the movement through an order for a general strike: it is a complete illusion, such a strike could only come from the rank and file. Already the unions have decided, as the government stay in its position refusing to yield on the principle to withdraw the CPE, a new larger day of action: so we could have a remake of the 2003 movement in which the combativeness was exhausted through the repetition of useless union “days of action” never overcome by the rank and file.

    What will remain anyway of the present movement as well as well as of the “suburbs riots" of autumn 2005? We have not to consider the eventual result of the present movement (the suburbs riots had apparently had no result) but to look at their common character. Both present a common feature which link them to the previous movements of struggle in France in a recent past, included May 1968. This common character outside of a mythical junction between, students, workers, dangerous classes and working class, is their quick generalisation to the national scale from a precise starting point, breaking with their spontaneity and their unforeseeable evolution the traditional frame of union struggles. This tendency is rather inarticulate though very strong but imprecise in its content and its forms of organisation and action. If it could not be fought openly by the unions or the settled political organisation, they are often diverted by these traditional legal organisations which try to contain it, to use it, if needed repress and exhaust it, until now with difficulty but at length successfully. We can’t draw presently a conclusion about its evolution but to observe that it appears year after year more or less stronger and with more or less the same characters. It is also difficult to tell if there is some lesson drawn by some from the past experience related to the same current. We can only consider that it is the consequence of the same reaction, beyond the specific situation starting the struggle, against the general situation in the system of work and life domination and the inability of the traditional organisations to answer the problems raised for everybody. The vague consciousness of the failure of political and union milieu to take in charge this general discontent is another present character of this tendency but it is also the consequence of the general economic situation. Of course, as for the present student movement, nobody can foresee the evolution of this tendency which depends of the movement of capital and of the transformation in the content and forms of the capitalist domination, including the measures taken to “solve” the present crisis.

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