School occupations and attacks on student demonstration in Paris, 2005

Submitted by Steven. on November 22, 2006

Article on the nationwide movement of school students and teachers against education reform, and on the attacks on student demomstrations which occured by youth from the banlieus.

Spring 2005. On the 8th of March 2005 nationwide demonstrations of school students and teachers took place, against the reform of the education sector by Minister Fillon. In Paris the students were attacked and robbed by kids from the suburbs, mainly of African and Arabic background. It had happened on previous occasions that the so-called “casseurs” [hooligans - literally, “smashers”] not only ransacked shops and destroyed property, but also robbed protesters. Previously these incidents had a rather spontaneous and sporadic character. This time the attacks were solely targeted against the demonstration and it seemed rather planned beforehand. About 700 to 1,000 kids mingled in groups with the 8,000 students and attacked single victims, beat them and took their mobile phones, digital cameras and other possessions. A lot of the victims were skaters, punks and Goths, and female.

According to reports from the media several hundred attacks took place and dozens of students were injured. The cops, although present in large numbers, didn’t intervene. In the media some kids from the banlieus said that they wanted to take “revenge on the whites”, that they wanted to have a go at “the little French” and “other victims” (“bolos”), who “don’t have gangs”. A group of ten kids boasted that they managed to rob 50 mobile phones justifying it with the statement that “the Parisians have enough of them anyway”. In other cities with a high rate of immigrant population, such as Lyon or Marseille, there were fights with the cops, but no inter-youth violence like in Paris. The immediate reactions after the attacks varied between moaning that the cops didn’t intervene and calls for self-defence.

The opinions within the students’ organisations seemed to be divided, some Trotskyist groups talked quite abstractly about the kids as victims who have to be put on the right track again. Other comments interpreted the general division between protesting students and the thugs as follows: one part of the youth hopes that due to their social background by collective actions they are able to find a place within society and perhaps even change it for the better; the other part feels that even by following a professional career there is still no chance to achieve a desirable position in society anyway, meaning that in consequence it makes no sense to demand better education, the alternative is the ghetto economy.

A comment in the daily newspaper Le Monde criticises the left and the radical left for not taking a stand on the matter or of falsely interpreting it as an expression of the conflict between “bourgeois and proletarian” backgrounds. The same comment states that most of the students are not from a bourgeois background and that the attitude of the kids rather expresses their exclusion from the proletariat. The headline of the comment is accordingly “The New Lumpen-Proletariat”.

A comrade from Paris wrote that one reason for the recent developments is founded on the short-comings of the anti-racist movement in the 80s (SOS Racisme etc.) which failed to address the class content of racism and merely acted on the level of legal equality. Quite obvious is the strategic passiveness of the cops. One consequence of the attacks is the participation of union security guards on the following demonstration on the 15th of March, which might turn out to be “another brick in the wall” for the rebellious part of the students. The fact that so far the demonstrations did not seem to bother the government too much and the threat of further attacks might have provoked a change within the students movement: instead of trying to take the streets they took their schools. By the end of March about 170 schools all over France were occupied, in total there are about 2300 schools of that type in France. This is even more impressive given that officially the educational reform is already legally settled by the government. On the 25th of March the ‘Liberation’ wrote:

“This new form of action was a surprise. ‘Those schools which have hardly done anything since the beginning of the movement are now blocked’, assured Leon, 16 years old. ‘The demonstrations did not seem to have an impact, so we paralyse the system by blocking it’. Next to him another student explains: ‘The arrival of new forms of protest has reawakened the enthusiasm of those who were shocked by the attacks of the casseurs’. The minister of education on the contrary expects that ‘only the hard-liners will keep up the struggle’ and that ‘the occupations will peter out bit by bit’. But seemingly he does not want to rely on the self-dissolution of the movement: a lot of directors lock the students out and some schools were evicted by the riot-squad CRS. In April some conflicts between A’ level students and occupying students occured given that the A’ level exams will take place in June and students who will have to pass them are afraid of the negative impact of the protests. In total we can say that the movement is kept up by a hard core of activists who occupy government buildings, have partly violent demonstrations with hardly more than 1.000 participants and that the repressive reactions of the police causes a solidarity effect amongst other students and teachers. Some of the teachers’ unions act openly against the occupations and violent protests, namely the FO and the SNDPEN. The most important teachers’ union FSU officially supports the students, but there have been cases where FSU reps tried to actively break the blockade of schools. On April the 11th one of the occupied schools in Paris, the Lycee Montaigne, was supposed to be reopened. The head teacher arrived with a big group of cops which tried to search students who wanted to enter. The reactions of 200-300 student was to block the school again. Teachers’ unions call for a strike on the 14th of April against planned job redundancies. Fillon’s reaction to the unexpected tenacity of the movement is the proposal to negotiate about ‘democratic spaces’ within the schools. People interpret this as an offer to the students’ unions FIDL and UNL to play a greater (institutionalised) role. The conservative daily ‘Le Figaro’ states that these two unions are ‘surpassed by the radical wing of the students’ movement’ and that they have lost the control over the protest. In Paris and Saint-Denis, councils, as they call themselves, were formed where the activities of the various occupied schools are coordinated and information is exchanged. People say that this wave of occupation is the first one of that size since the 70s.

A leaflet distributed in Paris
Call, 22nd of March 2005: Since 6 p.m. the gymnasium of the Balzac school in the 17th district of Paris has been occupied by the students in order to get the administration to negotiate. This resistance is not an isolated case: since days several schools in Paris are peacefully occupied. The media reports the end of the movement, but all over France more and more schools are taken over by the students! What is at stake is the reform of minister Fillon itself which intends to sabotage the schools by adjusting education to the needs of industry. The reform wants to turn the students into industrial robots and bans all knowledge and necessary means for a critical mind and self-development from the schools. In general and for a long time now schools are reduced to institutions of social control and their inner hierarchies leave no space for real life. It is obvious that neither the teachers nor the students want to work in these institutions. The reform of Fillon concerns us all and it is up to us to discuss here and now about the kind of school we want and how to put it into practice. Let’s continue the occupation! Let’s take the schoolyards and workshops and use them according to the social reality and to our desires. Open and necessary assembly at 12 a.m!’”

Angers - a radical experience of an autonomous lycéen movement
Report from indymedia: Over the last two weeks in Angers, the lycée [secondary school, students from 14 to 18] movement has shown a singular radicality and an exemplary experience of autonomy.

Thursday, 24th of March- The official demo got diverted: no unions (just 3 kids from Sud who were using their 2 little flags as hats to shelter them from the rain...), no teachers, no demo stewards. The demo began with 3000 lycéens.

The route seemed too official for some: round about 300 lycéens (the most motivated ones who are at the head of the demo) rushed towards the barrier of cops and pushed their way through onto the bypass (which is in the town), blocking all the traffic. What a monstrous mess! The older demonstrators climbed over the barriers and joined up with their comrades on the motorway. And the demo made its own way...

The day before (Wednesday evening) the biggest secondary school in Angers was occupied by 300 school students; the same happened after the demo on Thursday; and yesterday evening also (and always with several hundred students), though yesterday people had the idea of occupying another secondary school, but I think it came to nothing.

Friday 25th of March - This time there was a wildcat demo. In the morning, enormous groups of school students left different schools to meet up at the occupied school. From between about 1500 and 3000 youngsters were grouped in front of the “J. du Bellay” school which is a kind of general meeting point for the movement. Confronted by attempts by the head teacher and his deputy to initimidate them, these two were thumped by the jubilant crowd (and it was mentioned in the regional paper) and the canteen was wrecked. But the majority of young people who mobilised were not too keen on the violence and the groups (several hundred young people per group - two or three thousand in total) opted to stroll from school to school so as to get them to come out on strike.

It seems that the schools in favour of striking are seriously hotting up after the events of yesterday. How the kids organise: Everything is based on spontaneity and the speed with which information circulates. The youth of Angers have created their own Assembly of Assemblies (Council) which works very well: direct democracy in all its beauty; unions and parties totally flattened. It is truly an autonomous and effective co-ordination. There are three or four clowns from the LCR, CGT and unions. Their intervention is limited to one proposal: as demonstration stewards. As one can imagine, they were loudly shouted down and humiliated so that they stopped speaking and were made to feel small. All militant organisations have lost all credibility in the eyes of these thousands of young people, who are clearly hostile towards them.

A letter from a friend in Paris
I went to the three big demonstrations in Paris but, before giving some facts I have observed and my opinion about this movement, I think useful to underline some specific points. If you talk about “student” you have to tell that the people involved were not university students but “students” from part of the secondary schools (we don’t use the word “student” for these young but “collégiens” for these pupils of the “collège” (from 11 up to15) and “lycéens” for these pupils of the “lycée” (from 16 up to 18) (among these last schools there is a big separation between the “lycées” providing a general education and the “lycées” providing a professional education; and even between all these schools there is huge differences between schools located in posh districts or providing quality professional teaching and schools located in poor and often “ghettos” districts of the suburbs.

Three “organisations” pretended to “organising” the movement: the FIDL close to the teachers union FSU connected to the communist party, l’UNL more neutral politically but more conformist and the “collectif” apparently self proclaimed as more “democratic” and “autonomous”; FDL and UNL are the only ones “recognised” by the government and discussing with the education ministry. Of course, behind these “organisations” you could see a background of bog parties or small leftist political groups who could find an easy ground for their political activism there.

Even if it is difficult to bring the proof of direct political connection of the movement with the present political debate about the constitutional European referendum, the movement is certainly not free of any manipulation from the political organisation aiming at a rejection of the project of the European constitution. Even if it is not actually true, the present reform could be easily related to the European general unification of education.

You have to consider also a frequent fact observed in the past about this secondary pupils demonstrations: they could be strong around the Easter holidays and fade away after because for most of these pupils the last school term end with exams which open the doors to the universities or to other high schools. If they are not strong enough to force the government to yield they will unavoidably fail. Not because of the temporisation of the unions (they are very weak even if they have a “legal” existence but they effectively can push for a decline already started) but because the coming of the holidays and of the after-holidays and because of the failure of the various vanguardist minority attempts to radicalise the movement. The essential fact in this kind of movement is that it has actually no social basis and no economical mean of pressure; so as I have just said, their action is only disturbing their present social activity (their studies) and has no direct consequence on the functioning of the system. To be efficient, this movement has to go on demonstrations and/or to some kind of blockades, picketing or occupations, all things which could be performed by tiny decided minorities (I have heard this morning that in a lycée in a close suburb east of Paris with 1.000 pupils, 15, not all of them from this school, tried to picket the entrance but failed to prevent anything without any intervention from the cops). But you have to consider on the other hand that there is actually in France a general discontent about quite a lot of problems (which political parties try to channel on a “no vote”) and that all the youth tried to express their own way according the social status of their parents.

Another point has to be underlined: all over France, at the hight of the movement, the demonstrations brought about 200,000 in the street (most of them were young people because though “supporting” the movement, very few teachers actively participated inthese actions). Considering that this category of “students” amounts to almost 3 million kids, it gives some idea of the relative size of this movement. And the last recent actions still going on sporadically are even less important.

Back now to the incidents between the suburbs’ youths and the big core of the demonstrators. What I will tell is general considerations as well as what I observed in the three main demonstrations in Paris.

What the suburbs youth did in these demonstrations is no more no less what they are doing in their local district (where for some material reasons they are more or less compulsorily contained, vandalising their environment (not by chance but often as a revenge against the cops or other repressive attempts), against members of their own community (racketting for instance with some violence in the schools or outside and where we can detect some social revenge as well). In these demonstrations they simply saw the opportunity to extend the local ground of their profitable activity in this “hide and seek” game with any kind of repression (they don’t care at all about the education reform, as they despise school). They were redoutable because they were trained, organised in gangs and fighting collectively in lightning raids. If we can see in these incidents a social background, it is no more and no less than the unfortunately usual social background, usually contained as “suburbs disturbances”. The repressive forces either the cops and /or the union security guards (mainly adult strong men from the CGT/PC) were not ready to ans-wer such actions because they were prisoners, (in the first demonstrations) in rigid traditional tactics but they learned because in the last demonstration these union security guards managed to deliver these young disturbers promptly to the cops (this close collaboration between the unions and the police was evident all along these demonstrations, I could tell you far more about it). Such activities and incidents both from the young people and unions/police cops in “students” demonstrations are not at all a rare phenomenon: the same thing already occurred years ago at several demonstrations of the same category of young and the same kind of repressive forces. In one of them, the extent of the violence and vandalism/ personal attacks was far more important than all what we could have seen this year.

But the difference remains, this time, in the use, by the government, of these incidents against the movement. On one hand they have the experience of the previous demonstrations years ago (all of them against conservative governments) where they were obliged to yield and to conceal their projects of reform; this time they were decided to go ahead (with the failure of the resistance against their previous reforms mainly in 2003, certainly giving them encouragement). On the other hand, they were always very cautious of how to cope with a student movement more difficult to control (and to spy on) than any other movement (specific milieu, practically no union organisation, etc.). This explain why all the demonstrations in Paris saw a unusual deployment of unions/police cops (I rarely saw such a deployment with even the use of “special forces”). As I have said above, because of the clumsy use of these repressive forces, they failed to contain the demonstrations when they went an unforeseen way. So, in order to prevent the spread of the movement they tried (and succeeded somewhat) to shame it with the mediatisation of what has happened (you have to be very careful about the interview of suburbs young people very proud to be questioned by journalists and over-exaggerating what they have done and not at all controlling their language). Anyway, the collapse of the demonstrations because of this media propaganda has not had the effect of killing the movement itself: it moved towards actions located in each school and/or some education offices. If it appeared more radical with actions blocking the functioning of the education system (and eventually the violence of the cops called to maintain public order) it became an even more minority movement more exacerbated as it became more inefficient . And, as I have said above, contrary to the demonstrations which were not harmful to the studies, this new character posed to these young people the problem of their own exam success, which most of them are not ready to give up on even if they feel concerned by the reform“.

Another letter from France
On the recent school kids protests in France: In a first phase the student movement was very broad and wide spread. It started against a new ‘reform’ of education (every government has done or at least tried one...), which is basically seen as one introducing more elitist selection in the schools. This explains why the suburban schools, where lower class families are concentrated, are more concerned and present even though there is also strong solidarity by the pupils in the schools of the middle class or bourgeois areas.

The main event was the very tough fights which broke out in the big demonstrations in Paris, between the students and groups of kids who came from the banlieus to attack the students and steal their mobile phones, money, etc. The police did not intervene. It was very violent and lots of kids were injured. Many of the kids attacked were themselves from the suburban schools. Several discussions took place after that to analyse what happened. Did the police let things happen, why this hate amongst the kids, does it have a symbolic class sense?, etc. A good text which discusses all these questions, “Pourquoi j’irais encore manifester avec les lycéens”, can be found here.

During this first period, two schools unions emerged, more or less related to the traditional left (socialist, communists) and which got a lot of media support and even government recognition, and who tried to channel and direct the movement. But after these events, which created a lot of fear and disturbed many kids (even if they understood what happened), the movement subsided.

Soon after this a second period started, with a strong radicalisation of a strong minority organised around local committees, and with a broad base of ‘coordination’. The unions lost all control and practically disappeared from the picture. The students moved from the street demonstrations to other actions: occupation of schools and more and more occupation of official buildings. Since then school life has been very disturbed in many schools all over the country. The people active became very political in a few days. The “school demands” were related to the general state of society and the social crisis. They have the support of the most radical teachers and a timid support from the teachers unions.

The government refuses to deal with this active political movement and is using increasingly repressive methods, hundreds of arrests each time. Before the last demonstration, they arrested the majority of the coordination members in Paris, but that has not changed anything in the mood of the movement and in the actions. The girls are very active in the movement, probably more than the boys and, of course, besides the Trotskyists groups, the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalist tendencies have developed fast in this milieu in a few weeks. In short, this movement expresses the general current tendencies of the struggle in French society: large social discontent and anger and, facing it, a refusal to negotiate from the capitalists and the State.

The present stage of capitalism and the European situation gives no margin for this negotiation. The movements became very political in an offensive direction: going beyond corporate issues and raising general questions about the social conditions, which deteriorate day by day. The traditional institutions, such as the unions, created on the basis of the negotiation process have no space and cannot play a role in such movements. The movements remain isolated one from the other, but they express common goals and a common content. The solidarity feelings became strong, expressing this feeling.

University Occupation in Nanterre and Website on Autonomous Student Struggles
End of last year there were several actions and occupations against the lack of cheap accommodation for students at the university of Nanterre and against the increasing control and surveillance within the university area. A new website in French about ‘autonomous struggles’ at universities was set up recently: