An interview with an eye-witness on the nature of the demonstrations against the CPE in France.
1. Is France on the threshold of a new May 68?
Today (March 20th) I would answer NO but everything can change if the working class (and specially those of the private sector) decides to make a move. Here are a number of differences with May 68.
- University students are divided about the methods of action. Even if the majority of them and the majority of French people (70 % according to the polls) are against the CPE (Contrat première embauche, First job contract), they dont all approve the occupation anc blocking of the universities. The medias and the Right are trying to convince the most moderate anti-CPE students that blocking and occupying the universities is not a good solution : - because the votes are not democratic (only a minority votes and generally the votes are public and not organized in the secret of the urns, which is presented as a guarantee of « democracy ») - the poorest students will be more affected if they miss their exams. The strikers answer that the only way to oblige the students to come to general assemblies, discuss and vote is to block the university (that¹s also true in the high schools) ; if the strikers were not paralyzing the universities they would not be able to organize mass discussions, including about the continuation of the strike itself. (The majority of university students are not spontaneously revolted individuals. They tend to obey to their teachers, to the university administration and to their parents who finance their studies.) The second aim of the strikers is to involve the university teachers. Obviously if the teachers were engaged in a general strike, then the university system would be totally blocked.
- In 1968 12 % of the youth had the « baccaulauréat » (exam at the end of high school studies). Today 70 % of the youth has the baccalauréat. So the perspectives to be integrated in the socalled middle classes are very small. And at the same time the risks taken by the students are much higher.
- In 1968, the Far Left and the anarchists and all sorts of libertarians succeeded to dominate ideologically and materially the student movement. They could talk hours about revolution and be taken seriously or least not contradicted. They did not ask for a university reform, they wanted the disappearance of the university system, the end of the division of labour, etc. ; they had an anti-authoritarian rhetoric and at least wanted to control the content of the classes, to introduce revolutionary pedagogical methods, to make counter-classes, etc. As they said, they did not want to be the « foremen » or the « lackeys » of the capitalist class. Almost 40 years have passed. The Far Left (what is left : the Trotskyists, the Maoists, as such, have almost disappeared or are now in the main trade unions or the small anarchosyndicalist trade union) has become famous for its ability to manipulate general assemblies, to use movements for its own political aims (i.e. to pressure the Left to unite and come to power once more) and then, for some of them, to enter the SP or the State apparatus to make a traditional political career, etc. Already in the 1986 movement, it was obvious that the students did not criticize anymore the ideological content of the studies, did not mind about of the reactionary pedagogy of their teachers. They did not want to change society and were looking for good jobs. They wanted more grants, more teachers, bigger classrooms, etc. But there was something positive and new : they did not want the Far Left groups to manipulate them and tried to have democratic procedures in the general assemblies, even if they did not always succeed. They created « Coordinations » which were supposedly independent from the parties and trade unions. That¹s why today instead of having only the tiny bureaucratic student trade unions and the « revolutionary » grouplets in front of the struggle, there are student coordinations which are trying to limit the maneuvers of the professionals of politics. The national student coordination meets each time in a different town and the number of delegates has doubled in size, from 200 to 400. The demands of the coordination dont only concern the suppression of the CPE, but also a general amnesty for all the persons condemned in the November riots, the suppression of all laws favouring precarity, etc. The students coordination is trying to build links with high school students but also with small groups of precarious workers to enlarge the movement and its aims.
- The fact that today most university students have no more « wealthy » parents should push the poorest to oppose radical methods threatening their professional future : strangely enough it does not seem to be the case for the moment. Although this argument is developed in the medias and by the Right ,the wealthiest students (those who have less objectively to loose) are the ones who are the most opposed to the occupation and the « poorest » those who are ready to take risks. At least that¹s the information I got from comrades in Tours a French middle town which is not usually in the vanguard of student movements and where for the first time Law and Economy university students (until now dominated by an extreme right and violent trade union) went on strike, made general assemblies, etc. Nevertheless there is a significant group of students between the richest and the poorest which is hesitating and dont want the struggle to ruin their studies and future « career ». That¹s why, even if around 60 universities over 84 are blocked, there are a still tensions among the students. These tensions come not only from the tiny Far Right groups or from the traditional right wing students (who are themselves divided), they appear inside the opponents to the law itself.
- Today the fear of unemployment dominates in the youth even among the teenagers, there is a growing feeling of insecurity. A feeling which did not exist at all in 1968. This feeling fuels the movement (both for the sons of workers and of the middle classes who dont want to become workers) but can also limit it.
- Next year (2007) is an electoral year : the SP and the trade unions are ready to give a socalled « political perspective » to this movement. If the governement is intelligent enough to withdraw this law and start discussions with the trade unions, then the Left (SP, CP, Greens) will say to the youth that they have to wait for next year and make the « right » choice when they will have to choose their ballot. That¹s exactly what they did after the October-November riots when the most « courageous » of the reformists dared to come to the suburbs and campaign for the youth to be inscribed on electoral lits. Whether this political trick will work is to be seen. For the moment the government seems to think that the peak was reached last Saturday and that the movement will rot.
2. What is this new law about youth employment called and what it is about?
The Contrat Première Embauche is a new Contract voted by the Parliament. It enables bosses to hire people under 26 for 2 years and during this period they can fire them without giving them any reason. In other terms it¹s a first breach against the Labour Code. In France that there many kinds of contracts but the model, the norm, the ideal contract is called a CDI (Contrat à durée indéterminée, Undetermined length contract). During the last 30 years, the number of people enjoying a CDI has progressively diminished. In fact the people between 30 and 50 are the ones who « benefit » from these contracts. Under 30, they have all sorts of temporary contracts justified by the difficulties of their « insertion in the labour market ». After 50 (years old) the mass of those who have temporary contracts are those who have been collectively sacked from companies which are bankrupt, externalize their production, merge and downsize their staff, etc.
3. What are the differences between this new law and the old one they had tried to pass in 1994 and which had also been confronted with demonstrations and riots?
35 different measures have been taken concerning youth unemployment during the last 30 years. The CIP was presented by Prime minister Balladur in 1994. It was aimed at young people under 26 who had a « baccalauréat » (end of the high school exam) or a two-year university diploma and had difficulties to find a job. The bosses were allowed to pay 20 % less than the minimum wage if the employees had a baccaulauréat or a 2-year university diploma, or even more than 20% of the minimum wage if the young employeees had no diploma at all. Recently the governement has passed 2 new laws concerning the CPE (First Job contract) and the CNE (New Job contract) The CPE concerns the companies which have more than 20 employees, the CNE the companies who have less than 20 employees. The CPE concerns people who are less than 26 and the CNE all wage earners. During the first 2 years those who have a CPE and a CNE can be fired very easily. The companies who hire people with a CNE or CPE wont pay taxes for 3 years. The training periods superior to 3 months will be payed a minimum of 360 euros (this is a fraud, as most young people who do a training period in a company work for less than 3 monthsŠ and for free). Untill the CPE and CNE the law was rather vague about the « trial period » (the period during which you are tested by your employer and you dont know if you¹ll get the job). By extending the trial period to 24 months the government gives a lethal legal tool to the bosses. The CPE is clearly a way of installing the youth in precarity, both inside the company (to accept the bosses discipline, not to strike, to accept dangerous working conditions, to work very quick, etc.) and outside the company (it will be difficult during 2 years to leave his/her parents, probably impossible to rent a room or a flat, etc)
4. What is the class composition of the demonstrations these days? Is it only young workers and students?
The movement started in the universities, then spread to the secondary schools (both the high schools « lycées d¹enseignement général » leading to the universities and the professional or technical high schools « lycées techniques »). The tactics of the student trade unions was to look for the support of precarious workers organisations and of the other wage-earners trade unions. So the trade unions organized a day of action on the 7th of March and will probably organize a second one this week the if the government does not withdraw its project.
5. What about the occupations of universities and secondary schools?
The occupations concern a bit more than half of the universities. I dont know how many secondary schools. As usual the occupation is not voted by 100 % of the students (generally by 20 % of them or even less) but until now, the majority of the students who participate to the general assemblies wants to go on. The presidents of the universities are panicking and more and more of them ask the government to withdraw the law. Officially, they are preoccupied by the tensions between the strikers and non strikers which may lead to dangerous physical fights. But obviously they are worried by the political consequences of a total blocking of the university system. Actually the minister of the Interior (Sarkozy, a vicious rightwing liberal) has the same fear and would like to avoid what happened in 1986 : the cops beat up a young guy (Malik Oussekine) and he died because he had a heart attack. The government was obliged to step back in front of the row provoked by this murder and to withdraw some hours after Malik¹s death.
6. Do you think they are strong enough to force the government to take the law back?
If the Prime Minister and President were intelligent, they would withdraw the law. The Center Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party and all the trade unions are against the law introducing this new contract. For the moment each national day of struggle gathers more people. I dont know if the movement is at its peak but everybody compared the 18th of March with the 2002 demonstrations between the 2 turns of the Presidential elections. The Left (in the broadest sense) is nationally mobilised against this new contract and the mobilisation touches all generations. It seems that the Right does not want to make any compromise for the moment.
7. What is the attitude of the banlieue kids who had rioted a few months ago towards the demonstrators?
I¹m unable to answer your question. I can just give you some hypothesis. The banlieue kids were mainly engaged in an « anticop » struggle, against all racist discriminations, targeting state institutions (schools, post offices, kindergartens, public transports, etc.) or state forces of repression with no demands, no political, trade union or autonomous organisations. As individuals they may well join the protests, but as organized groups or « gangs » they cant be accepted. So if they really want to go down town to have « some fun » with the cops, they take advantage of the biggest demonstrations to start physical fights with the cops and destroy some shops and burning some cars. As usual the cops rarely arrest the « right » guys, take advantage to arrest revolutionaries who did not participate to street fights (7 anarchosyndicalists of the CNT were arrested in the tube) and spread confusion saying that post-demo fights were the fact of both fascists and leftists (very small fascist or far right groups have tried to attack strikers on several occasions). From what appears on TV and in the medias it seems that a small minority of the banlieue kids are participating to the end-of-demos confrontation with the cops, which have become a kind of tradition even it concerns a few hundred people and is probably not approved by the mass of the moderate demonstrators.
8. What about the unions?
They want to have a « true discussion » with the government. Basically they ask the governement to finance a permanent training fund during all the wage-earners life. In other words their model is flex-security like in Danmark or Sweden. So they dont criticize flexibility which according to them is « imposed by the present globalization » but they want the State to create a security net for all wage-earners from their first to their last job. They also want the State to give subsidies (or tax advantages) to the companies which will hire young people with no qualification (20 % of the youth) for a CDI (Contrat à durée indéterminée, Undetermined duration contract) as opposed to the CDD (Limited duration contract). Until now a boss (including the State) was not allowed to give more than 3 successives CDD¹s to an employee and risked a fine if he did. As the government did not discuss with the wage-earners and student unions before presenting the law concerning the CPE, its attitude pushed the most moderate trade unions (CFDT, CFTC) to unite with the most « radical » unions (CGT, FO, UNSA, Groupe des Dix which includes the Sud trade unions). Obviously the second group of unions are not radical at all from our point of view, but they have sometimes a radical language or a radical image in the public. Their traditional ties either with the CP (CGT), either with the Far Left (Groupe des Dix) or their demagogy (FO) lead them to call for one-day strike actions more often than the CFDT and CFTC (Christian moderate trade unions ; the CFDT is linked to the Socialist Party) which are always complaining that the government does not discuss with them. The CGT, FO, Groupe des Dix and UNSA are rooted in the public sector and more able to have a relatively efficient one-day strike.
This interview was forwarded to us from an e-list on which discussions about the protests have been taking place.