A report from Paris III Censier

An excerpt of a report from the general assembly of Paris III Censier, submitted to libcom.org by some participants.

Submitted by libcom on March 19, 2006

Thursday’s demonstrations throughout France brought some 500,000 students into the streets, and the movement has continued to increase in size; the big question of last week – whether or not the masses of wage workers would join the demonstrations planned for Saturday 18th March – has been answered in concretely: in France as a whole, there were something like 1,000,000 people in the streets. Even towns which have barely seen a demonstration in living memory have been affected: 15,000 demonstrated in Pau; there was even a demonstration in Chalons sur Saône in the heart of rural France.

Unity of the generations
For those of us of the “old generation” who took part in the struggles sparked off throughout the industrialised world by the events of May '68, one of the most remarkable features of the movement today is the disappearance of the “generation gap” that the media used to talk so much about. We have found none of this today... In Toulouse, one of our comrades who teaches at the university and is known as a member of our organisation was applauded by a mass meeting of more than 1,000 students, who then asked him to prepare an “alternative course” on the history of the revolutionary movement. In Grenoble, another comrade was welcomed to a mass meeting by several youngsters who declared “we’re counting on you to speak against the union” – which of course he duly did to the best of his ability!

An extraordinary degree of organisation
The movement is organised by mass meetings (known as “assemblées générales” or AG) which vote the strike from one meeting to the next. Obviously the degree and coherence of organisation varies considerably from one university to another. In many cases, the AG finds itself being run by a self-proclaimed presidium set up by the students’ union (usually the UNEF), which tends to dominate the proceedings and to discourage the participation of the non-unionised. But elsewhere – and notably at Paris III Censier which is clearly at the forefront of the movement, the degree of organisation and the maturity of the students is truly remarkable. Witness how each meeting begins: with the presentation of the proposed presidium of three, each of whom gives his or her name, year, and course of study, and adds whether or not he is in a union or a political organisation (the non-unionised and non-political generally dominate); the presidium changes every day, and no business is done until it has been accepted by the AG; the day then begins with reports (starting with reports from the various working commissions – “Reflection and Action”, Press, “Exterior Contact”, etc. – then going on to reports from the delegates who have been mandated to attend the national or regional Coordinations (set up to coordinate the different universities). And this is not the only remarkable feature of the AG: everyone can speak – even those from outside the university; speakers are limited to three minutes each (it turns out to be possible to say a remarkable number of things in three minutes!); propositions are made and noted on the blackboard behind the presidium, for all to see. At the end of the meeting, votes are taken on all the proposals that have been put to the meeting; in some cases the presidium calls for someone to speak “for” and “against” a proposal, if it does not seem to have been properly understood.

It should be emphasised that the efficacy of the meeting is not merely down to the presidium, but to the astonishing maturity of all the participants: every speaker is listened to, the speakers themselves respect the time limits they are given. They have even borrowed from the sign-language of the deaf a gesture of silent approval when agreeing with a speaker, in order to avoid interrupting the flow of the meeting with cheers or applause. In Nantes, the presidium brought instant quiet to an enthusiastic assembly with the words: “We’re not on the telly here!”.

A healthy instinct
Despite the fact that the AG are often run by a union-dominated presidium, there is nonetheless a general and healthy distrust of any suggestion to remove the power of decision from the AG itself. At Paris III Censier, we witnessed debates on two issues that illustrated this particularly well: on the nature of the mandate given by the AG to its delegates at the regional Coordination of Île de France; and on the proposal to create a “coordination bureau” which would supposedly be a kind of “information distributor” designated by the regional Coordination.

The debate on the mandate initially opposed the supporters of “free” and “imperative” mandates: the former would allow delegates essentially to take their own initiatives at the Coordination, even if this was in contradiction with the mandate from the AG; the latter would bind the delegates to voting solely according to the decisions and discussions of the AG itself. As was quickly pointed out, one of the main drawbacks of the “imperative mandate” is that the delegate can say nothing about any new proposition that has not been previously discussed by the AG. It took no more than ten minutes for the presidium to present clearly and comprehensibly, and to take a vote on a hybrid solution: the semi-imperative mandate, binding when it involves decisions taken by the AG, but leaving room for the delegates’ initiative whenever it is a matter that the AG has not yet discussed.

The proposal to create a “coordination bureau” was rejected out of hand in five minutes flat, on the grounds that no useful purpose was served by introducing yet another level of centralisation independent of the AG.

It comes as no surprise at all, that in both cases the proposals that tended to remove the power of decision from the AG came from the Trotskyists of the LCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire): this is a consistent policy of the Trotskyists and unionists – the creation of extra layers of “coordination”, of extra “bureaux” where information and decision-making are concentrated, and where their own militants can get their hands on the levers of information and power. As far as we are concerned – and although, as a general principle, we are opposed to the “imperative mandate” – the AG’s refusal of these measures which would have removed the power of decision from its hands represents a healthy instinct of distrust for the would-be professional bureaucrats and politicians.

The students’ reaction has in general been exemplary. When it became clear that the government was setting up the Sorbonne in effect as a “trap” for the demonstrations, and as a means of permanent provocation, the reaction at the AG in Paris III Censier was essentially this: “The Sorbonne is a symbol, it’s true. Well, if they want it, let them keep their symbol – the CRS are there, so much the better, let them stay there. And let us invite our comrades of the Sorbonne to come to Censier for their AG”. The same invitation was extended by the AG at Jussieu.

ICC, 19th March 2006
This is a contribution from the ICC (International Communist Current) to the reflection on the meaning of the student protests in France, written by someone who has actually spoken at the Paris III Censier general assembly.

This is an abridged version. The full version can be found here.