A political, critical and subjective report by a Sorbonne delegate on the National Student Coordination held in Aix-en-Provence on 25-26 March 2006.
But where has the real movement gone?
First, and like a symptom, the TGV (high-speed train) which links Paris to Aix in three hours. We arrive in the middle of the desert: a huge station, covered in glass, a temple to contemporary architectural ugliness in the middle of the drought. And 15 minutes of freeway to the town centre. Time and space are cancelled out, we’re in the middle of nowhere, in an impossible centre, a product of the will to erase this no-man’s-land which the centre of France presently constitutes. We’re one of the first delegations to arrive; we register with a box-ticker, and neatly draft the ‘directions motions’ which we’d been asked to bring to the coordination. They are to be quickly entered into a computer and distributed during the debates. Everyone will put their badges on soon: delegate, cafeteria-worker, organizer, S.O. Here we all are, nicely organised, nicely differentiated, so that everyone is in her place.
Everyone is stressed out. Things have to go better than they did last week in Dijon. There’s laughter though, and singing. The occupation has been running for three weeks, and it’s an honour to host the coordination. Of course, there are big welcome banners, stacks of chairs, signs pointing the way. Everyone is trying to grab some sleep in the lecture halls. Tomorrow, things kick off.
A painful wakening on the lino floor. Lots of delegations are in the foyer. It’s teeming with people, chatting. Reunions. How have you been since the last coordination? There are lots of veterans here. The same old union hacks meet up. A vile, neurotic family where petty rivalries and hostilities are played out. I don’t understand anything, don’t know what intrigues are going on between the various trot and leftist groups, what the finer details of their differences are. There’s scheming in the air, pettiness is the order of the day. There’s lot’s of pisstaking. The delegations are still pretending to be together. But people are already gathering, mixing, rumours are circulating. Who will take the chair? Have you seen the charter that Aix is proposing for holding the coordination? Who’s behind all that? Unef mino [minority faction of Unef, left student union] or Unef majo [majority faction]. And the coordination, they tell us is, an important space for debate.
Things start at about midday. The delegations from the closest towns allow themselves the luxury of arriving late. The chair is announced, it will be rotating. A big opening speech by a guy from the Union of Communist Students, handsome like a young Stalinist cadre from the 80s. People laugh. Hours of debate over voting mechanisms, the question of the ‘Aix charter.’ I don’t understand anything, except when something really stinks of co-option. After a while there are the reportbacks, uni by uni. We get the numbers for the General Assemblies and the numbers for rallies, town by town. Rennes wins. Next, the ‘special cases’ get to speak: closed unis, campaigns over freedom to study. In the end we hear very little about the hundreds of arrests that have been made, the legal follow-up and all that. As a Sorbonne delegate, I describe what’s going on for us, what happened during the week. With the strange division between those who’ve decided to set up shop at the occupied bastion of the Tolbiac campus, and others who preferred to get involved with the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) occupation with the sans-statut fixe (militants with no fixed status). Behind me, someone hisses that I’ve only got two minutes to speak. Other ‘special cases’ have to have their say. We’ll have a minute of silence for the student who died of a medical attack in Strasbourg; then a minute of noise to show our determination. Results of the evening: Sadness 1, Noise 1. I think it was Noise which was on home turf.
A break. We start again. We’re going to address the inevitable question of the demands which will be taken up by the coordination. There’s already the henceforth sacred Toulouse platform. It will take several hours to decide whether we change it, expand it, what we’re going to do with it in sum. There’s strong pressure in the room not to go over it again. With the threat: remember what happened in Dijon. I don’t know what that’s about; nothing was heard about it at the Sorbonne General Assembly. At the same time, seeing things are such a mess, seeing the pathetic maneuvres that are going on, I can well imagine what happened. The delegates, at any rate, have heaps of demands which were voted in their GAs. The big board is covered in 70 proposals which are arranged in boxes: campaign, employment/précarité, politics, other. Easy to see that things are volatile in the local assemblies.
After another break a mysterious idea pops up: the book of grievances. A big bag to put all the new demands into, in the great tradition of keep-crapping-on. We wonder who suggested it. They explain: it’s about being credible, having a clear message which can unite everyone, students and workers. We still need to broaden the movement. Once we’ve won a victory on the ‘Equal Opportunity’ law, we can push forward on the rest. In the meantime, we can’t go to the trade unions with that. WE HAVE TO BE CREDIBLE.
The new demands are refused as we go along, since the mandates aren’t all that strict. Not enough mandates to refuse the reinforced surveillance of unemployed people, the RMA (work-for-the-dole), the fucked up status of casual workers, the proposed laws on the prevention of delinquency in crèches, the latest immigration law. Abstain, abstain, abstain, abstain. In the end, the Sacred Platform will include the rejection of the Single Employment Contract (which doesn’t exist yet), the demand that the government step down, and a CDI (permanent contract) for all workers. WE REMAIN CREDIBLE.
Four o’clock in the morning. We move on to campaign direction.
First, the Jussieu motion is read out. All the trotskyists in the room have come to an agreement on it. A few minor amendments are made, to include a proposal for blocking traffic routes. The text is ugly and poorly written, full of credibility and movement-building newspeak. It can’t evoke the slightest enthusiasm, the slightest stoking of the flames. The thinking of union struggle summarised on a valueless dish-rag. WE REMAIN CREDIBLE. I’ve had enough, I’m getting irritated, I decide to do to bed. It’s six in the morning. The two other delegates stay, taking turns to sleep. At 10 o’clock, after twenty-four hours of GA, a national committee is proposed, refused at the last minute. The 20 spokespeople are elected, and rigged out with a non-derogable mandate (such that, in principle, they can’t express personal opinions.) A decent majority of them, it seems, come from Unef mino: the coordination is thus headed up by the part of Unef which doesn’t have a hold on its mouthpiece.
A press conference will take place at the end of the masquerade. The ‘Jussieu’ motion is read with about as much liveliness as it deserves. The questions asked are, as could be expected, about the violence. The spokespeople get out of it with the besancenotian [after Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the LCR] response: the first violence was that of the government. What repartee.
WE REMAIN CREDIBLE.
WE MUST BROADEN THE MOVEMENT.
The first thing that struck me, when I went to the coordination, was the feeling of participating in a huge collective delirium. This whole badge-wearing, griping little world yelling, holding up pieces of cardboard, conspiring in the corridors, laughing with narrowed eyes when some leftist sect or other hasn’t been able to get up its motion, its perspective, its reportback. The lists of attendees with 70 names of universities, the chairs who yell hysterically to appeal for decorum and respect. All of this for a few vague sentences added to a little text and some nebulous days of action where everyone according to the local feeling will go and have sit-ins in the town square, campaign at the exits of factories and stations, have night-time demos. 24 hours of GA for nearly fuckall, aside from the power games between the organizations. No content, no speeches which hit you in the gut, a juxtaposition of sentences which overlay each other but don’t mesh. A hubbub whose meaning must be able to be found in the various political committees.
Where are we headed in the end? A call for a ‘renewable interprofessional strike’ (like last week), three more demands added to the platform. I can’t see what’s been coordinated. Barely a few days of action which would have taken place anyway. Why all this time spent in a General Assembly about this, to mandate, to think about the motions, to propose actions, if it leads to this.
WE MUST BROADEN THE MOVEMENT. WE MUST REMAIN CREDIBLE.
It seems to me that at the current moment, two hypotheses are at work in practice. The first is the one on show at the national coordination and at the GAs. I would call it leftist-revolutionary. It’s articulated around the two-pronged-figure of the general strike called by the unions and public opinion. The chain of reasoning is simple. In order that the unions call a strike, we have to show the strength of the student mobilisation: hold big rallies, multiply the student strikes. The unions must also be able to share our demands: so we need a platform with which they can readily identify. Finally, the union rank-and-file must feel that there is a winnable battle: so we offer public opinion a clear picture of the movement, make it comprehensible to the biggest idiots, demonstrate responsibility regarding violence or demands. Thus, extensive dissemination of information to workers, in the stations, at the gates of businesses, with a CREDIBLE message, so that they can join us. Thus also, in line with this strategy, which was expressed explicitly at the last coordination several times: give the movement a strong leadership, a ‘real direction’ so that the unions and their members know where it’s going, so that the journos have a set person to speak to.
This hypothesis partly cuts across this movement, taking up time. Many insipid tracts are distributed in aid of this, many discussions of what is or is not CREDIBLE or what will pass in the media take place in this direction. The leftist-revolutionary hypothesis of the constitution of a large mass movement by means of simple catchphrases is at its height. The coordination in the form it takes today is a pure and disastrous product of this hypothesis.
The second hypothesis, for its part, doesn’t show up in the coordinations, although it leaves its traces there. It is this: In the current situation, the strength of our movement is bound to what is happening in the street and in the occupations, it's this turbulence which causes fear and which might well, by contagion, open up possibilities. This turbulence is first of all that of speech unraveling. We’re beginning to talk about politics again, about what it means to live in this world today. We’re sharing or rebellions, our anger, our refusals. Sometimes programmes are drawn up, with varying degrees of wackiness. This even bubbled over into the coordination, with the 70 demands voted in the assemblies which the (student) unionists didn’t know what to do with. To use their vocabulary, the rank-and-file are largely politicised: we are no longer, after several weeks of protest, limited to a mere refusal of the CPE, rather, and often explicitly, we are refusing the world which is unfolding today. The discussions on the margins of the assemblies, in the occupations, in the empty moments during strikes, are bringing hopes for radical change to the fore. We’re seeing the return, after a long absence, of the idea that it’s up to us to make this world. And, parallel to this, the means are being invented. Symbolic actions with greater or lesser degrees of feebleness are taking place, people are finding ways to get some cash together, salvaging food from the markets and the supermarkets to feed the occupation, equipping themselves for the confrontations, learning how to look after ourselves, to watch out for others, learning to express ourselves in public, make stuff. Practical solidarities are arising, we end up valuing the struggle less for its pretext then for the moments it allows us to live, the time emerging, the hopes being shared. People are seething and they’re getting organized. We end up telling ourselves that we can just as well get on with things without necessarily waiting for the exhausting endorsement of everybody else, that we can also speak authentically outside of the formal debates and the GAs.
What is taking form, at the moment, is the power of overflow. The vitality of union-based action is petering out, we’re losing the taste for gentle rallies or even clever songs which aren’t enough anymore. We’re losing the taste for slogans repeated a thousand times, tracts distributed a thousand times. We’re losing our curiosity for the finer details which led to the choice of a given route. So, obviously, things are degenerating, as they say. Words are becoming more utopian, acts are becoming more determined. The handsome, well-ordered processions fragment, non-officially-stamped tracts multiply. Things are beginning to head towards the incontrollable.
That’s where we are now. At the heart of the conflict between two hypotheses which were able to coexist for a moment, but which now will need to clash. The national coordination, again at Aix, claimed the title of proud coordination of the student movement. It only represents, however, the union-based side of the movement, smooth, neat, clear, CREDIBLE. Nothing more than this. It only crowns the dominance, in the GAs, of the principle of unification of catchphrases and actions, of the chair who notes down the lists of registered participants, of the will to obtain a general strike through the unions, by demonstrating that we come up to their standards. The real movement, for its part, is unrealistic, irresponsible, diverse, it thinks and it goes overboard. Its anger is too strong to be happy with mediocre, lacklustre slogans and well-ordered demonstrations. It doesn’t look good in the media, it likes to cook, organize actions, tell itself that this is only a beginning and that it can take its time.
The real movement is getting organized.
Nothing can really be predicted yet. There are already confrontations in the streets, things are taking a radically political turn in some GAs. We don’t know how successful the unionists and leftists will be in pursuing their attempts at encamaradrement [word play on encadrement = management, control and camarade = comrade], their attempts to censor the political character of the movement which they helped to ignite. Let’s suggest a hypothesis: if there is general strike or generalised blockading, it will happen above all because, in the streets and in the occupations, the youth – whether from the suburban housing estates or the centre of the megalopolises – begin to organize for themselves, to think and speak loud and clear away from the megaphones and the mobile PA systems.
The disaster is too present for this world not to begin to show cracks. The need for rebellion is too great, too shared for the real movement not to emerge.
I think the Sorbonne should stop participating in the coordination because preparing for it takes too much time, because the results are and will continue to be minimal, because it cannot and will never be able to reflect the multiplicity of what is taking place at the grassroots, because it means endorsing the wacky logics of power of union and leftist organisations as if they go without saying. Someone said to me, and no doubt they were right, that if stopped doing all this in GAs, lots of people would leave. It’s true that some people enjoy themselves in these organisational games. But what about the others?
For my part, and I know I’m not the only one, I prefer the second hypothesis. Because I believe in our capacity to organise for the coming confrontations and to allow radical political reflections and autonomous organisational practices to arise inside this movement.
At any rate, I’ll never take the TGV to this sordid theatre-piece again. Exile is already difficult enough. I don’t need to go and see these keepers of the flock rip each other to pieces over the part of the desert they control. I’ve got much better things to do.
Kamo, 27 March 2006
Axel Ztangi April 5th, 2006
April 5th, 2006 | 4:56 pm
Super! Even if this is fiction, and I doubt that it is, the voice sounds authentic and passionate, these are the sentiments that need expression. We don’t need to hear the voices of future politicians.
And yet these authentic voices won’t be broadcast except by those of us who recognize the utter fragility of the present, propped up by extraodinary, police, violence when the everyday violence we all are forced to endure isn’t sufficient to induce conformism.
Long Live the Commune!
Comandante Gringo April 6th,
April 6th, 2006 | 5:20 pm
This analysis is at once annoying and cynical — yet appears true to the mark. If what this person has presented here is close to the actual picture in France now, then it is indeed past time for the masses of students and workers to simply work around these defeatist bureaucracies-in-the-making and create a flatter, more democratic structure of struggle against the ancien régime. What we have now just won’t cut it anymore, if it ever did.
I’m a believer in a party of the working-class myself; and I’m certainly not into either nihilism or trendy anarkoid posing. But I also don’t fetishize organization — I support democratic, mass praxis, to any theorizing about it (tho’ all movements must know what they want and why and where they are going — and be [self-]discipined). So if the present tired, old Left simply can’t cut it, and really lead the necessary counter-charge against this neoliberal assault — well then: we need a new Left, now don’t we?
I think this person went to this assembly with their mind already made up about all this; and maybe there’s something a bit of the middle-classes in this griping — but they certainly do appear to be dealing with the real issues at hand. And so I support most of what I have read here. Frankly, I hope this type of thinking spreads far and wide, quickly — and outside France too — but most especially it has to be spread to the workers. Immediately.
Best of luck. Bonne chance. Buena suerta