A first-hand and in-depth account of events in Rennes - one of the most militant towns - by a participant in the anti-CPE movement.
This is a report on the two weeks I spent in Rennes (during what came to be called the anti-CPE movement), from the 27th of March to the 6th of April, that is during the two weeks that preceded the withdrawal of the CPE. Because I already knew a few students from Rennes 2, and because I was a student myself last year in France, I had the opportunity to participate in actions and assemblies without feeling especially exterior to the movement, even if obviously the fact that I hadn’t been involved in it from the beginning did sometimes impair my understanding of the situation.
Obviously, this report doesn’t replace an analysis of the “anti-CPE” movement in general and of its implications for the current social situation in France. Indeed, it is mostly an everyday account of the actions and discussions that took place during these two weeks. But I think it might be able to shed some light on the movement, especially for people who only know about it through their own country’s media. Indeed, these would typically focus on what was going on in Paris, disregarding the fact that the movement had started in provincial cities long before the Sorbonne was occupied, and that the situation in provincial cities was sometimes very different from the Paris situation.(For example, the phenomenon of “banlieue kids” attacking students and schoolchildren in demos was completely unheard of outside Paris.) It seems that in each city or town the movement took a slightly different form because it was organised locally, the general assemblies in each university having the decisive organisational power.
When I arrived in Rennes, the students had already been on strike for more than 6 weeks (indeed, Rennes 2 was the first university to go on strike, followed shortly by students from Toulouse and Nanterre.). But the movement was still at its peak, as the union confederation had called for a day of strikes and mass demonstrations for the first time.
Monday 27th March
I arrived late at night and went to visit the occupied university Rennes 2 (there are two universities in Rennes, one for the humanities (Rennes 2) and one for science and law (Rennes 1)). In fact, only one building, called the “Hall B” was occupied, the other buildings having had their entrances blocked by tables and chairs and guarded by picket lines. There had been attempts by the anti-occupation students to cross the picket lines using force at the beginning of the strike but as they had failed it was unlikely that they would try again. Therefore, there were only one or two people for each picket at the time I arrived.
The first thing you see when you arrive in front of Hall B is a huge banner saying “lutte sociale, tous a poils” (social struggle, let’s all get naked). Inside, there are lots of people drinking, singing and shouting, and you can see they are not all students. At the same time, in the lecture rooms, the “commissions” prepare the actions for the following day. Three actions had been voted for at the general assembly of that afternoon (which had gathered around 5000 people) for the next day, Tuesday, a day which would see a common demonstration with workers and a strike in numerous sectors, especially in the public sector. The three actions were: to paint the windows of temp agencies, banks etc., to put some glue in the locks of these buildings, and to occupy the main train station. The task of the “action commission” was therefore to prepare them. There were 5 commissions meeting everyday in which everybody (student or not) could participate: “action”, “internal” (making links with the university workers : teachers, cleaning staff etc…), “external” (making links with workers outside the university as well as school kids, unemployed, etc…), “occupation” (organising life in the campus : picket lines, cleaning rotas…) and “repression” (informing everybody on our rights when arrested, going to court etc…) These commissions would make propositions to the general assemblies (though it was possible to do that without participating in any commission) and if accepted the commissions would then work on making these propositions happen.
Tuesday 28 March
(First day of strike called by the workers unions)
After having prepared the paint and the glue we went to the demonstration at 11. It is massive. Being used to smaller demonstrations, people preparing the actions had thought it would be possible to find each other without giving each other a proper gathering point. We spent hours trying to find each other, then gave up and just did a few things in small groups. When we would “repaint” a building, we would protect the guy doing it by encircling him. At one point, two big guys from the “service d’ordre” or “SO” (workers union stewards, whose role is to stop you from marching in front of the first banner or at the sides of the demonstration or prevent any illegal activity) wanted to stop us, saying it was illegal, to which we could answer that it was “democratic” as it had been accepted in the general assembly of Rennes 2 .Vive la democratie !! One persisted and tried to grab the bucket of paint but got the bucket poured on his head and then, humiliated, went away, saying nothing more! As you can see it wasn’t the same level of conflict than in Paris. As we had voted against having a “service d’ordre” in one of the assemblies, we could disregard the orders of the SO and get our banners (“General strike, let’s block everything” and “Revolution” - both accepted in the general assembly) at the very front of the demonstration for a while.
When we arrived at the station, it had already been stormed by demonstrators. Nobody had had to shout to divert the demonstration, it had happened naturally as if it had been obvious to everyone that we had to do that ( the rain had helped a bit, too). We were thousands and there were no cops. Hundreds of students gathered on the rails and all the trains were blocked. It was joyful and people were singing. I heard some shop windows in the station and the interior of a TGV were damaged, but I didn’t see it. We stayed around 2 hours and at around 3pm a spontaneous demonstration left the station, starting with around 500 people but then growing to around 1000. It went in the direction of the UMP local office, always heavily guarded by the police, and where all the riots always start. When a police line stopped us, people at the front row began throwing empty bottles at them.
To simplify, I could say that they were a mixture of “banlieue kids” and “anarchists”, but both of the terms would be quite inadequate. There isn’t such a clear geographical divide between city and banlieue in Rennes and there aren’t much black or arabic people either. Most of those I could call “anarchists” are students, participating in all the other aspects of the movement, and most of the young people I could call “banlieue kids” are probably secondary-school students. Still, you can immediately see a difference in the way they dress, in the way they talk, the tactics they use to attack the police, and the fact that “banlieue kids” usually stay unmasked.
After a few minutes of throwing bottles at the police, some pacifists went in front of the police line to protect them. They were pelted with bottles and stones and had nothing to protect themselves. There were tensions between the demonstrators on what to do, some pacifists trying to stop the people throwing stones, some students defending them. Anyway, the divide was not a divide between students and banlieue kids at all, even if my student friends were feeling a bit awkward as they knew that if a pacifist student was hurt ( which seemed quite plausible) the position of the general assembly on violence was likely to change. The situation was diffused by the fact that some began to smash shop windows, a fact that was greeted with cheers by violent students and “banlieue kids” alike. A few minutes later, a “pacifist” threw a stone at a guy who was smashing a shop window. This fact rapidly became known by everybody, and from that moment till the moment I left Rennes “militant” pacifists disappeared from demonstrations as soon as clashes with the police began.
15 minutes later, the police charged, and began to arrest people, directing their rubber bullet guns at us and starting to encircle us. As we heard people speak of dispersion, we decided to leave the demonstration and go to a café. We thought that was the end of the riot, but when we came out of the café, one hour later, we saw a big cloud of tear gas in the sky and joined the demonstration again. It was one of the best things with the riots in Rennes. You think it’s finished as groups get isolated after a dispersion but in fact those groups keep wandering in the town centre, bump into another group, phone their friends, and half an hour later the riot starts again.
The cat and mouse game with the police lasted till around 7p.m., at which time we went back to the university to prepare the actions for the following day, especially the blocking of the “rocade”, Rennes’ ring road.
Wednesday 29th March
We got up at 5h30 and went to one of the three meeting points, situated at three different points of the rocade. At the beginning we were only 100 so we only blocked one of the road leading to the rocade. We went to gather bins, trolleys and bits of wood to build a barricade. Some of which we burned to make sure motorists would not try to destroy it. More students were arriving all the time until we were around 300, at which point we went to invade the rocade. At first I thought it would be very difficult, looking at this motorway where lorries and cars were driving at 120 km/h. But all went well as we used bins and trolleys to protect us from crazy motorists. When our barricade was ready, some car drivers came to speak with us. People were sympathetic on the whole and most of them would at least come out of their cars and speak to each other. Everybody knew what it was about and nobody was indifferent to the subject. It felt a bit surreal to be standing in the middle of this motorway at 8 o’clock with this huge sky above us, and we could even hear the birds sing. Two workers from the nearby factory climbed a wall to speak to us and congratulate us. Most of the people I spoke to agreed that, because the government hadn’t withdrawn the law after the huge demonstration of the previous day, it was normal to try something else. I only heard one guy shout very angrily at an isolated policeman “Why aren’t you doing anything. Disperse them”. It is true that the police took a long time to react, almost two hours. It may be because there were 3 different points blocked on the rocade and they couldn’t attack all of them at the same time (ours was attacked the last). It’s more likely that they didn’t want to seem too repressive in a context of general solidarity. Anyway, when the CRS arrived they just bombarded us with teargas and we ran away. We had stayed long enough for it to be a victory anyway : we had created 42 km of traffic jam ! We marched in the direction of the university, and, with the CRS following, we made a few barricades, but nobody was really prepared to fight. Once arrived at the university, we met students coming back from the other points. 100 students were still motivated to go and block the rocade again, and they still managed to block it for half an hour. Others decided to go round the campus to see if no teacher was organising clandestine lessons. They soon came back to tell us that, having caught one in the act, they lifted him out of the classroom by his arms and legs in front of the whole class. Hearing that, we went back in a bigger group, found the teacher, encircled him, and one of us warned him, whilst toying with a metal rod, that to put on other lessons might mean recklessly playing with his life! We later learnt that the teacher had lodged a complaint against the guy, so a vote in support for him was later accepted by the assembly. Anyway, we never heard of any clandestine lesson after that!
In the afternoon, there was another general assembly (for strikers only) which gathered around 500 people. It was a bit messy, with a kind of formalism which sometimes seemed inadequate (voting on every little practical point for example) but there was an amazing energy, with a tendency to vote for so many actions for the same day that it would have been impossible to do all of them, even without sleeping. When it came to voting for delegates to the national coordination, a general feeling of rejection of unions was expressed, with candidates from UNEF ( he main student union) systematically whistled and the candidates saying they didn’t belong to an union welcomed with applause. When the events of the previous day were discussed, people intervening to say that there was no divide between demonstrators and “casseurs” were those that got applauded the most, and the suggestion that we should have a banner “we are all criminals” was welcomed with applause (even if nobody actually did it afterwards). The main actions voted for the following day were : blocking the rocade in the morning, demonstrating with the schoolchildren at 11, going together to meet EDF (electricity) workers around 1p.m. and a “charivari” ( code name for riot) at 9p.m.!
Thursday 30 March
The day began with a blockade of the ring road that worked well as we had the schoolchildren with us. We made more efforts to go and speak to people in their cars, some of them opening their windows to speak to us. Those I spoke to were sympathetic, other just kept their windows closed. When I went to an other point of the rocade though ( 4 points were blocked) I saw a group of lorry drivers who had agreed to try to destroy the barricade. After a few minutes of hesitation, we defended the barricade by putting back the trolleys as soon as the lorry drivers would cast them away, until it became clear that the situation would have to turn into a fight between us and them. Seeing our determination, ( and there was only 10 of them, however strong ), they gave up and started speaking with some of us rather calmly, explaining that because they had a kind of self-employed contract they couldn’t afford not to go to work. I think that they first imagined that we were student hippies, that a bit of determination would be enough to make us give up, and that they were surprised that it wasn’t as simple. We left 15 minutes after as we had to go to the demonstration with the schoolchildren.
There were thousands of them. We demonstrated for a while then us students tried to direct the demonstration to the EDF factory to try to meet the workers on their lunch break and to speak to them about the necessity to go on general strike ( that was the plan anyway). But the schoolchildren weren’t aware of this plan, their “service d’ordre” didn’t want to let people go in that direction, it took ages and when we arrived the workers had finished their break. Some students tried to go in anyway, climbing the fences, some schoolchildren though we were going in to break or steal stuff and went in with that intention! A journalist who was filming people climbing the fence ( which is illegal) got attacked, people were divided about that, in short, it was a big mess!
Then we went to block the ring road (again !). It was very easy as we were thousands. The police was even accompanying us ! We marched on the ring road (which had been cleared by the police) for more than an hour, which was in fact rather boring and tiring. The demonstration ended up in front of the prefecture, which was heavily guarded by the police. Most people were tired and left.
At 9 p.m. there were only around 80 people at the meeting point for the “charivari”, but as we started a “spontaneous demonstration” ( “manif sauvage” or “manif a parcours intuitif”) people came along and our number grew to 200. Not enough for proper rioting, especially as in previous weeks “charivaris” had gathered more than 1000 people and once even lasted till 1 a.m. But what I enjoyed the most was the spontaneity of it, as we could expect groups of drunken students, homeless people, banlieue kids to join us at any moment when seeing us go by. And this spontaneity was what was frightening the shopkeepers of the town centre the most. They would close their doors and protect their windows at the very sight of us, then open again 5 minutes after only to see us come back again! I read in the local newspaper that restaurant owners were complaining that they had hardly any customers as it had become impossible to have a quiet evening eating out. The town centre shopkeepers also complained that they were now losing 37% of their profit everyday.
This could also be explained by the presence in the middle of the town centre, on one of the most bourgeois squares of the town, of an “alternative village” built by around 30 students who had chosen this mode of action to participate in the movement. They had brought their tents and were organising projects around the idea of “alternative ways of living”. It had become a sort of rallying point when you needed some news, to get some help if you were hurt in a demonstration, to get protection if you were chased by the police etc… At night, all the punks and junkies of the town would go there to drink (a fact that was rather unwelcome for the students that had started the project ) and would make a mess all night. Obviously, business as usual was impossible in these conditions, and for the inhabitants of this bourgeois area it was a nightmare. In short, the town centre was as in a state of “low civil war”, and shopkeepers and bourgeois would look at you half angrily, half frightened as soon as you would constitute a group of more than two people.
Anyway, that night we didn’t do much. There were only a few car damaged and no clashes with the police as they were very discreet. However, we demonstrated while chanting slogans such as :
-“Tout est a nous, rien est a eux, tout ce qu’ils ont ils l’ont vole, retrait du CPE, retrait du CNE, ou alors ca va peter”
( Everything is ours, nothing is theirs, everything they’ve got they stole, withdraw the CPE and the CNE or it’s all going to blow!)
To which others would answer :
“CPE, on s’en fout, on veut pas bosser du tout”
( we don’t care about the CPE, we don’t want to work at all )
Other slogans went like this :
“Villepin, prends ton temps, on s’amuse enormement”
( villepin, take your time, we’re having so much fun )
_”Vive le vent, vive le vent, vive le vandalisme, des coups de pied aux CRS, et des baffes a l’UNEF, des paves dans les vitrines et des coups de barres a mines”
( Hurrah for vandalism : kicks to the riot police, slaps to the UNEF (student union), stones to the shop windows…)
The most popular one, which was also one of the most sung during the big common demonstrations with schoolchildren, went like this :
“Pends, pends, pends ton patron, t’auras sa galette, pends, pends, pends ton patron, t’auras son pognon. Si tu pends pas le patron, t’auras pas sa galette, si tu pends pas le patron, t’auras pas son pognon.”
( Hang hang hang your boss and you’ll have his cash, hang hang hang your boss and you’ll have his dough, if you don’t hang the boss, you won’t have his cash, if you don’t hang the boss, you won’t have his dough.)
When in contact with the police, the traditional “Police partout, justice nulle part” (Police everywhere, justice nowhere) was often replaced by the more original : “Contre la grippe aviaire, principe de precaution, tous les poulets a la maison” ( Against avian flu, principle of precaution: keep all the “chickens” (slang word for “cops”) confined at home)
None of these slogans existed before the movement. New slogans were invented daily, and this small fact alone showed that there was a different atmosphere to that of student movements since 1998 (at least) where the same slogans would be recycled year after year.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday
During the following 3 days, not many actions were planned as most students went back to their parents’ for the weekend. On Saturday, though, there were 200 people to participate in an attempt to block the commercial centres and big shops of the city such as Virgin… This was really easy as they would close the doors and protect the windows as soon as we would go near them (only to open them back when we would go away, though). One funny action I participated in was to “demenage” a Quick restaurant. You just have to go in and organise a relay to bring all the furniture out. This way it’s very quick and the responsibility is shared between everyone. The funniest bit is the look of the customers and the workers (on that occasion, one of the workers tried to hold to a table but quickly had to give up, while most of the others didn’t react). Then you can have a nice time sitting on chairs and tables outside before continuing the demonstration. This new way of disturbing the functioning of a place has been widely used in France during the movement as it is a middle term between occupying a place (which can be quite boring, especially when it’s an horrible place) and damaging it.
Apart from this action, we spent most of the weekend discussing the necessity to extend the movement beyond a student and school kids’ movement, without relying on the workers unions as they were only prepared to call for one day of strike per week.
We had to acknowledge the fact that the workers that were demonstrating with us during these strike days were not the ones that had to suffer the most from precarity, but were those who could afford to go on strike because they were either part of the public sector or part of the big, well unionised workplaces in the private sector. Their main reason to go on strike was out of solidarity with us, and that’s not a sufficient reason for a general strike. On the other hand, the workers who are the most affected by precarity are working in small, non-unionised companies. Those are the workers who were threatened by the new contract called CNE (a kind of CPE for people working in companies of less than 20 people, regardless of your age ). They usually can’t afford to go on strike as they can be sacked easily and have no unions to defend them. Consequently, if we wanted the movement to grow, we thought we had to try either to help them to go on strike, or to give them the possibility to do actions with us when striking was impossible.
We also had to take into consideration the failure of the “external commission”, the group of students (in which most of the Trotskyists operated) who for two months had tried in vain to make contacts with workers. Most of what they did was to give out leaflets calling for a general strike in front of Rennes’ main factories (where the “productive” workers are ) and then to organize “inter-professional” assemblies every week. Only 20 or 30 people, mostly unionized, would turn up at these assemblies, either to say what their unions were prepared to do, or to report on the feeling among their workmates about the movement: generally sympathetic, but not prepared to go on strike yet. So the role of these assemblies was purely informative and rarely led to any decisions that could lead to action. We thought it was urgent to try something else.
For us, one of the reasons why these assemblies were failures (in terms of numbers and of effectiveness) was to call workers to join in “as workers”. Precarity and unemployment has already changed people’s lives to the extent that a lot of them work without recognizing themselves as “workers”. You can be a student and be a worker, you can be unemployed and be a worker (as you can be working as well as getting the dole if your earnings are crap). More importantly, if you have to get a new job every 6 months (as most workers on temporary contracts have to) you don’t get the time to identify with your job or the will to fight in your specific workplace. Because of this, it seemed to us that it was necessary to ask people to join the movement not “as workers” but as “individuals” (even if we didn’t really like the term, we couldn’t find anything better. Some said “human being”). So we wanted to organise assemblies open to everybody : students, workers, unemployed and “none of the above”. We didn’t want people participating to feel that they had to be representative of their workplace or their union in everything they would say or do, but for them to be able to participate in these assemblies and possibly in future actions as they personally felt the need to.
These were the main points of the leaflet written that week-end in view of the first assembly to be organized on Tuesday afternoon ( I include a translation of this leaflet at the end of the report) But first it had to be agreed by the student general assembly on Monday afternoon.
Monday the 3rd of April
The general assembly that afternoon gathered around 5000 students.
Votes that were carried, among other decisions:
-to continue the strike and to continue to block the university (by a clear majority)
-to condemn any union or organization that would call for the end of the strike if only the CPE was withdrawn.
-for the word “CPE” to be banned from all student banners in order to affirm more strongly that our demands were larger than the withdrawal of the CPE and that they included the withdrawal of the “loi de l’egalite des chances” ( so-called “Equality of Opportunities” law ) and of the “CNE”.
-to go and disturb the demonstration of the “anti-strikers” on Wednesday.
-the fact that our front banner would say “revolution”
-the fact that a group of students would do a press conference wearing balaclavas and holding false weapons in front of a banner saying “we won’t disarm”. (!!!)
-and, more importantly for us, our leaflet was accepted by the majority of the assembly of Rennes 2, as well as the assembly of the university Rennes 1.
As soon as the assembly was finished we tried to participate in the “external commission” to push forward our project of a “general meeting for workers, students, unemployed and nobodies”. The Trotskyists didn’t have much to oppose to our project, but they didn’t like the fact that we were turning up, out of the blue, in the “external commission”, taking everything in our hands, thus denying the laborious though unfruitful work that they had been doing for more than two months (which is understandable). It was thus agreed that they would continue to do “their” stuff (giving out very dull leaflets calling for a general strike in front of factories) and that we would do “our” stuff : distribute our leaflet during the demonstration of the following day and do some postering for a general assembly of “Rennais”, workers or not.
Tuesday the 4th of April
(Second day of strike called by the union confederations)
The first action of the day was the blocking of the bus depot at 6am. The bus drivers weren’t able to go on strike as they had done the week before because the unions hadn’t deposited their strike warning on time. Consequently, some bus drivers had asked students to come and close the depot. I didn’t go to this action but I heard that 30 students had been enough to block the bus depot, mostly because the workers were happy to be blocked anyway. Only the managers were a bit of a pain. Still, the blockade lasted till 10am (not later to let people go to the demo) and prevented two 3rds of the buses from operating. Obviously if the workers hadn’t been with us the managers could easily have called the cops and made us leave, as we were not enough to resist them.
At 11am we went to the demo in order to give out our leaflets. There were as many people as the previous week. It was said in the newspapers that there were less strikers in the public sector but more in the private sector. When the “planned” demo was finished, some (~1000) went to occupy the station, others the school’s inspectorate (and managed to climb on the roof) while around 5000 people did a “spontaneous demo”. At that point we went to the meeting / assembly we had called for in our leaflets, having prepared what we wanted to say, but having prepared no material ( mikes, PA…) as we were expecting 100 at best. When we arrived, the unions (the most radical ones like SUD and the CNT) were already there, had brought with them their sound systems (with terrible music to entertain us), and were starting the meeting without us! And there were hundreds of people (the local newspaper even said a thousand). It didn’t go exactly as we wanted, as the unions were monopolising the thing, but we managed to make 5 or 6 long interventions to remind people why we had organised the meeting, in short, to organise a “comite de lutte Rennais” (Rennes committee of struggle), open to all, which would aim to organise actions against the normal functioning of the economy and try to provoke a general strike. A committee where people wouldn’t have to feel they have to represent their sector or their workplace, but where they could express themselves and take part in actions individually. We therefore asked people to come to the first meeting of this new committee the next day at the university. The rest of the meeting was quite boring as it was always the same five union guys speaking.
Immediately after the meeting some of us joined the “spontaneous demo”, which had meanwhile turned into a riot. There were still a few thousand people taking part. As usual it was taking place on the square next to the UMP local, as trying to get there was the easiest way to have a confrontation with the police. It was becoming a bit ritualised though and not really interesting as the police was used to clashes happening on that specific square and knew how to react : they would just throw lots of teargas at us till we retreated while pursuing us a few meters then stop, wait for us to come back, and then start again. They had cleared everything that could be thrown from the square as well. And it must also be said that, as with the week before, even if there were a few thousand people, only around one hundred were really prepared to fight. But the fact that all the others were prepared to stay even after having received teargas is still significant, and I didn’t hear of any problems happening with pacifists on that day. After a while, the riot moved on to the narrow cobblestone streets of the town centre. It meant everything was a lot more unpredictable, for the cops and for ourselves. Cops were arriving from everywhere, but it was easier to attack them, passers-by were also getting caught up in the thing. What we had to fear the most were the cops in civvies (the BAC, anti-criminality brigade) who in these situations were only wearing helmets and batons and for this reason could run very fast. They would attack isolated demonstrators and usually one of them would have a “flashball” gun pointed at the other demonstrators to prevent them from reacting. These “flashballs” are rubber bullets that immobilize you if you get one in the leg and can even kill you if you get it in the head (obviously cops tend to point them in direction of your head to scare you). Everybody was scared of them, on several occasions I saw people running away, shouting “flashball ! flashball !” However, I heard that at a point the demonstrators caught a group of BAC police who didn’t expect them at the corner of a street and managed to chase them, throwing stones at them. Some of the “anarchists” had prepared a technique: shouting a given word as a signal to throw all their stones at the same time. On a few occasions it had made the police retreat, to the applause of people around.
The “spontaneous demo” had started around 2 and finished around 7pm. At that point we went back to the university to prepare the actions for the following day.
Wednesday the 5th of April
We went to blockade the ring road at 6am. That time we were a bit less than the previous week, around 100. It was more difficult to find objects to use as barricades as the police had cleared most of them. For the first time we had brought some coffee and tea for the car drivers, and we had some very interesting discussions with some of them, drinking coffee together. There were more angry people than the previous week though, especially those that had already been blocked the previous week. That’s when I got head butted by a teenager in a car as I offered him some coffee. He didn’t expect me to hit back, and when I did he just went back to his car. A few lorry drivers tried to destroy our barricade again, without success. It took the police only 40 minutes to come and attack us that time, even if there were three simultaneous blockades on the ring road. After throwing lots of teargas at us, they blocked all the roads leading to the town centre. We were stuck in an industrial suburb, followed by the cops everywhere we went, for more than one hour. At the end, we had to all get in buses that were stopping in the area, and even then the police escorted us all the way to the town centre. Then we took the underground to the university, only to block the underground there. It was very easy as it was enough to just block the doors of one wagon to get the entire system blocked.
We could hear a voice telling passengers that the underground wasn’t functioning “suite a des actes de malveillance” (because of malicious acts)!
We didn’t stay long ( around 20 minutes) because being attacked in an underground station (with only one way out) by riot police was a very scary prospect.
We went back to the university, only to leave 1 hour later in order to go and disrupt the “anti-strikers” demonstration in front of the town hall.
The media said that we were 100 and that they were 200, but I really think we were at least as many as they were. We could see by their clothes to which camp they belonged: they really all looked like sensible students from well-off families. I’m sure that there were anti-strikers among poor students, but those were not demonstrating against the strike from what I have seen. The “anti-strikers” were also accompanied by 30 shopkeepers from the town centre, and a few right-wing personalities from Rennes especially the leader of the right-wing student union, l’UNI. However, because they had decided that their demonstration was “apolitical”, the only slogan they had was “Liberez nos facs” (free our universities) so the first thing we did was to invent slogans for them and sing them very loud! Like:
* “Travail, famille, patrie, vive Sarkozy “
* (“Work, family, nation, hurrah for Sarkozy”)
* “Anti-grevistes en colere, le caviar il est trop cher”
* (“anti-strikers are angry, caviar is too expensive”)
and lots of others of the same kind.
Then we ran after them while bleating at them, calling them “moutons” (sheep).
At the same time everybody was looking for “Valerie”, who we had chosen as the mascot of the “anti-strikers”. A few weeks before, she had come to one of the assemblies to speak against the strike, but her arguments were so poor, so blatantly reactionary and her personality so repellent that some anti-strikers voted for the strike on that day just to avoid being associated with her. Since then we wanted her to come to speak at all the assemblies, and we even made a banner saying, “Valerie, we love you”, which we hung from one of the university buildings. So from the beginning of the anti-strikers demo, we clamoured for a speech from Valerie. At one point some of us caught her trying to hide and chased her while bombarding her with eggs! We even managed to steal the anti-striker’s banner and started to burn it. A few of the right-wing personalities got pied as well. Then they did a sit-in (there were only 50 of them by that point) so we encircled them and pelted them with rotten eggs. They quickly dispersed at that point…
I have to say it was great fun!
At 7pm we went back to the university for the meeting of the Rennes committee of struggle that we had called for on Tuesday.
There were between 50 and 80 people, most of them union members or militants. I think it can partly be explained by the fact that the meeting was happening at the university, which is outside the town centre and maybe is an intimidating place to go for some. So in a way it wasn’t a success. However, what was interesting was the fact that most of the union members present were saying that their own unions were not doing enough in this movement and that they didn’t expect them to call for a general strike. These same people wanted to participate more in the movement, on an individual level, without having to refer to their unions or to worry if what they would be doing would be acceptable to their unions. We spent a long time discussing what this “committee of struggle” should be, which was made difficult by the presence in the gallery of a Trot who insisted that the committee should only be applying the decisions supposedly made at the initial open meeting on the Tuesday, so that it would be “representative”. It seemed completely ridiculous to us, as only a few unionists had spoken on that occasion and nothing concrete had really been decided. We responded that what was important was that we were a group of people wanting to get organised to do stuff together, without bothering if we were “representative” or not. The Trot was constantly interrupting the meeting, and it’s only when the whole assembly told him to shut up that he eventually did. In the end, the only things that were decided was to have an other meeting on Friday, preferably in the town centre, and that we should organise an action to block the normal activity of the shopping centre together on Saturday afternoon.
Thursday the 6th of April
Because Wednesday’s blockade of the ring road hadn’t been very successful, we wanted to try a different technique. Rather than having our meeting point directly on the rocade, we met at the university at 6am to decide where we would go at the last moment. But this failed as well: even if there had only been 15 minutes between the time we took the decision and the time we arrived at the ring road (we took the underground), the riot police were already there when we arrived. It is clear that they had been informed by somebody in our ranks, and that they had some police cars ready at different points of the rocade. It is clear as well that they had decided not to give us a chance this time. When we saw them on the rocade, we went to blockade one of the roads leading to it, but they followed us. So we started a spontaneous demonstration on the road, trying every now and then to run to shake them off and get to the ring road before them. As this didn’t work, we decided that we would go somewhere else, but that only 4 or 5 of us would know where we were going. So we took the underground, not knowing where we were going, and when we heard the signal we went out at a station that was very close to another point of the ring road. We ran to get on the road before the cops. We started to make a barricade but 5 minutes later riot police arrived and tried to encircle us. We started to run, the CRS in pursuit, batons flailing and after 5 minutes of running we managed to disperse without suffering any arrests. At 10am we had another meeting point to prepare an action against the ANPE (jobcentre). Some would get to the ANPE before the others, arriving at different times, pretending to be real job seekers. This way we could prevent the ANPE from closing the doors when the pack arrived. It transpired in fact that that wasn’t necessary, as the ANPE workers didn’t try to stop us, didn’t call the police, and smiled at us while we “demenaged” the place. We took everything out, even the folders and files, and moved all of this in the middle of a road nearby, to use as a sort of barricade. At that point we were around 200 and half of us were schoolchildren, so the atmosphere was very playful, with people singing and dancing. We stayed around an hour and a half, then we brought the furniture back, as some schoolchildren had promised to the ANPE workers.
We then went to the demo organised by the students and schoolchildren, which gathered around 5000 people. After an hour or so, it turned into a “spontaneous demo”, in the sense that nobody knew where we were going, but at the same time nobody had an idea of where we should go, so we ended up marching for hours without doing anything special. At one point though, some people managed to direct the demo towards the law university, a section of Rennes 1 that hadn’t been on strike at all, so we stormed the university, disturbing all the lessons. In one lecture theatre, 50 law students were listening to the lesson when a group of 100 people went in and started to sing the international, banging on the chairs and tables, throwing stuff at the teacher and pretending to fight on the stage. Another group of around 50 students managed to enter the UNI (right-wing student union) local and destroyed absolutely everything that was in it. After an hour the demonstration left, continued for a while and then ended up doing a sit-in front of the town hall.
I left on Friday morning.
I read that, on that day, 50 students blocked a sorting office for a few hours, and that the workers there stopped working in solidarity with the demonstrators.
On Monday Villepin announced his decision to withdraw the CPE. It was therefore a decisive moment to see if enough students would be prepared to continue the strike in order to demand the withdrawal of the “Equal of Opportunities” Law and the CNE, the two other demands that the movement had made. At that afternoon’s general assembly which gathered 5000 students, a majority (~2700 against ~2300) decided that the occupation had to end. On Wednesday though, a new assembly was organised, to which 7000 attended. That time, people counting the votes announced that there were more students for the occupation than against, even if some said it was very difficult to tell. The president of the university refused to consider the decision legitimate, but seeing that the tension between pro- and anti- occupation was escalating, he decided to wait till the following Tuesday before allowing the lessons to resume. Some strikers discussed the possibility of preventing the reopening of the university by doing a picket line on Tuesday morning. It failed though, and the 100 students or so who turned up could do nothing to prevent the university from reopening.
It is difficult to know exactly what made the two assemblies reach these contradictory decisions. It might be that some students, in favour of the strike, hadn’t bothered to come to the assembly on Monday, thinking that the strike would be voted as easily and automatically as before, and that these students were present on Wednesday. But, anyway, even if 3500 students were still in favour of continuing the strike after the withdrawal of the CPE, only a small minority had the energy and the motivation to fight against the reopening of the university.
Annexe : leaflet calling for the assembly of workers, students, schoolchildren and unemployed on Tuesday the 4th of April (translation).
Tonight Tuesday 4th April 21h
To realise calls for unlimited strike action and the blocking of the economy.
The movement we started eight weeks ago against the CNE and the so called « Equality of Opportunities » law (of which the CPE is a part) is now reaching a decisive turning point. The use of the 49.3, followed by the promulgation of the CPE, after the students and schoolchildren coordinations had demanded their unconditional withdrawal, leaves no room for an agreement. By arresting and charging hundreds of people at each demonstration, by threatening to use the police to break the strike in secondary schools, the government is not afraid of declaring open war against us.
This situation urgently requires that we take sides. The struggle, if it is extended to other sectors, can offer us all an unprecedented opportunity to reverse 25 years of liberal counter-revolution ; if it stays confined to the youth, its defeat in isolation will be the defeat of the social movement as a whole, and this for a long time. As the defeat of the movement against pension reforms ( 2003 ) showed, there is no doubt that selective days of strike action and demonstrations won’t be enough. The victory of the movement requires the generalization of the strike and of the blockade of the economy, and the necessary mass participation in actions capable of effectively putting pressure on the government.
We can’t count solely on the union leadership to immediately constitute, locally, an unlimited force that would gather together all the wage workers, schoolchildren, students, unemployed and people affected by precarity who are themselves determined to promote this generalization. We called for this meeting to take place in order to contribute to the creation of a Rennes committee of struggle, open to all those who reject the liberal policies which are currently being implemented. The question isn’t simply to manifest one’s support for the students anymore, but to get organised to confront a governmental offensive which affects all socio-professional categories.
Tonight’s meeting will not constitute an ‘interprofessional assembly’ where we will be content to repeat that indeed ‘the situation demands a general strike, but…..’ We don’t expect simply that those present attend as ‘representatives’ of ‘their’ workplaces where the situation isn’t ‘ripe’ enough ; our invitation is aimed at those, wherever they may come from, who desire to take part, immediately, in blocking the economy (trains, roads, industrial zones), and to generalise work stoppages. Those that want to promote unlimited strikes in key sectors of the economy. We feel the urgency of organising actions immediately, knowing that the government is waiting for the school holidays and to blackmail with the upcoming exams in order to weaken us. As such this committee could resolve itself to an inaugural action from Wednesday.
It’s up to us to go on the offensive.
General Assembly of the students of Rennes 1 and 2