France: mass struggle forces
withdrawal of a neo-liberal measure

by Frank Arango
(CV #38, July 2006)


A new struggle erupts
. Demonstrations
. Student strikes
. Mass blockades
. Strikes
. Resistance to police repression
A victory in a guerilla war
The future
. Firstly, regarding the trade unions
. Secondly, regarding the national-minority youth
. Revolution


. The French government has been on a neo-liberal crusade to roll back past gains of the French workers for over a decade This is part of a general crusade being waged by the bourgeoisie all over Europe that is meeting resistance, particularly in France. There, several big struggles against privatizations, under-funding of the schools, and in defense of pensions were waged in the first years of this century with mixed results. Then, in defiance of a huge propaganda campaign by the bourgeoisie of the entire European Union that workers' had to make concessions in wages, pensions, job security, and social programs so that the EU could compete on the world market, French voters last May resoundingly said no to an EU Constitution that would have enshrined such attacks under the neo-liberal orthodoxy of subordination of all economic and social aims to the free market. This was followed by renewed struggle against privatizations and for other demands early last fall, with over a million workers and youth participating in demonstrations and strikes. But the year was not over. Later, in the fall, the national-minority youth rose in an unprecedented nation-wide rebellion against the racist police-state conditions they're forced to live under that are being exacerbated by neo-liberalism. This rebellion lasted nearly three weeks, and like the "no!" vote on the European Constitution, it shook the establishment. (1)

. Most of the national-minorities are forced to live in suburban ghettos, banlieues, where they disproportionately suffer the effects of the bourgeoisie's neo-liberal program, including having about twice as much unemployment. And, although national in scope, the fall uprising was for most part geographically isolated in the banlieues. Government officials also worked hard to stir up a racist calumny against the just struggle of these overwhelmingly proletarian youths so as to politically isolate them from the rest of the French working class, and justify police-state repression. Nevertheless, the movement had such power that after weeks of militant street battles the government was forced to make minor reforms and talk of making others.

. Thus, at years' end the bourgeoisie was no doubt breathing a sigh of relief: the banlieue rebellion had been beaten back and worn itself down, while the government had gotten away with making some concessions to it that were not going to cost much money. But in just a few months large numbers of national-minority youth were again in the streets. This time the struggle was for most part taking a different form, but it was again a significant struggle that set back the bourgeois agenda--and this time it also involved millions of European-French members of the working class.


. Until last August French employers in most cases could not legally fire a worker without cause, with the worker having the right to haul an employer before a labor tribunal to contest such firing if it occurred. But in August a new law, the CNE (Contrat Nouvelle Embauche, or new recruitment contract), was declared by Executive Mandate. This law allowed capitalists employing less than 20 workers to fire them at will for the first two years of their employment. (2)

. The CNE was supposedly a solution to unemployment, but in reality it was a neo-liberal reform that left the workers to the mercies of labor-market competition with each other. Under it, any worker that didn't work hard and fast enough to suit the employer for two years could be kicked out the door and be replaced by one who would. Moreover, even if workers drove themselves as slaves the employer could still fire them in order to build up a workforce that was not covered by labor protections. (3)

. But this wasn't enough. On January 16 this year the government took the CNE a step farther by unveiling the CPE (Contrat Premier Embauche, or first job contract). Now, to supposedly provide jobs for youth--particularly the national-minority youth who had rebelled in the fall--the old laws protecting workers from being fired without cause were scrapped for all workers under age 26. Moreover, the CPE was actually Section 8 of a new Law for Equal Opportunity that lowered the minimum age for apprenticeships to 14, lowered the age at which young people are allowed to work at night from 16 to 15, and suspended some forms of public assistance when children skip school.

A new struggle erupts

. The CPE was immediately denounced as the "Kleenex law" (use us, and then throw us away) by youth all over France, while workers of all ages also saw that this institutionalization of a two-tier workforce would in the end weaken protections for everyone. Within days university and high school campuses all over the country became centers for organizing a movement to force the government to withdraw it. Moreover, general assemblies of thousands of students and others on many campuses also often voted to demand withdrawal of the entire Law for Equal Opportunity and the CNE as well.

. The movement they initiated grew for several months, and used various forms of struggle. The most notable of these included:


. The days on which demonstrations were called for cities and towns all over the country give a partial picture of the developing breadth of the movement, as well as of its increasing pace. Thus, on

. Besides these big national days of protest there were many locally-organized demonstrations on other days (sometimes very large ones), with some cities having demonstrations almost daily. Further, demonstrations were not only used as tools to draw more people into political motion, but beginning in late March they were also used as a form from which to organize surprise mass blockades.

Student strikes:

. Student activists began to blockade campuses and call for student strikes in February. By March two-thirds of the universities and more than 1000 high schools were either on strike, blockaded or shut down. The students and others wanting to get involved in the movement regularly held mass meetings in these institutions to not only organize defense of their particular blockades and strikes, but to also organize and spread the movement among off-campus workers and youth.

Mass blockades:

. In March and April the tactic of blockading or occupying highways, rail lines, postal centers, government offices, factories, town centers, etc. , was being taken up all across the country. This often had wide support from the workers at an affected place. In fact, capitalist news media opinion polls at this time were showing that two-thirds of the population opposed the CPE.


. Beginning March 28, the main labor confederations began calling for one day protest strikes on the national days of action, while unions at Air France acted on their own to do this. Approx-imately one third of the public sector workers and a quarter of the rail workers took this up on the 28th, as did workers at 740 establishments in the iron and steel industry, six oil refineries, and many workers in telecommunications, banking and elsewhere. Similar walkouts occurred April 4.

Resistance to police repression:

. The "days of action" and many other of the demonstrations were called as peaceful political protests, but this didn't stop the police from abusing or brutalizing individuals or militant sections in them, particularly national-minority youth. The latter were also often harassed on the way to demonstrations in attempts to keep them away. Moreover, crowds of people that very often continued protesting after the "official" events were over were also attacked by plainclothes and uniformed cops, particularly in Paris. (A worker in Paris was so brutally beaten by the police in one such incident that he was in a coma for several weeks.) But this police bullying did not go unchallenged. Street-fighting several times developed, including the masses fighting back against flash-grenades, tear gas and water canon.

The government fights back, then capitulates

. Unemployment among the youth of France is around 20%, with unemployment among the ghettoized young people of north and sub-Saharan African heritage often twice as high. Thus, when the CPE was unveiled amidst much TV chatter by Prime Minister de Villepin and other ministers that it was a law designed to boost employment among youth, some initial opinion polls actually showed a majority supporting it. Yet when faced with exposures of how this law tore up previous protections afforded new-hires, and faced with a big mass movement coming up demanding its withdrawal, the government officials just kept repeating their lie, while working to divide the ghetto youth and university students. Thus the students, even though many were from working-class origins and even national-minority origins(4), were stigmatized through the press as being privileged people who didn't care about unemployment in the banlieues, while the banlieue youth were stigmatized as being casseurs, thugs or smashers.

. But the movement kept growing in size and militancy anyway, with a large majority of the population coming to support it. To deal with this de Villepin attempted to co-opt student and trade union leaders by offering an amended CPE on March 31. When this failed, and three million people poured into the streets on April 4 amid increasing demands for a general strike from the students and ordinary workers, the government then capitulated on April 10.

A victory in a guerilla war

. The withdrawal of the CPE was a victory. Yet the rest of the Law for Equal Opportunity remains in place, as does the CNE -- and behind these laws a general neo-liberal offensive of the French and European bourgeoisies. Hence, pushing on with the politics of the mass struggle is necessary if the workers and student masses are to defend themselves against growing precarity (precariousness or uncertainty about the future). Moreover, this resistance is essential if the working masses are to be in a position to eventually overthrow the capitalist system of production, the root cause of unemployment, racial discrimination and other ills.

. Many student and worker activists clearly want to push on with the struggle. For example, after April 10 there were attempts to continue the struggle until the CNE and entire Law for Equal Opportunity were scrapped too, i.e., many attempts to maintain the blockades at universities and high schools, and a demonstration of 40,000 in Paris. (5)

. But the failure of these efforts shows that although victory against the CPE could be won, there were underlying objective and subjective factors that prevented the movement from immediately going farther.

The future

. A very important factor that must be dealt with is that progressive oppositional movements in France are generally smothered with reformism and bureaucratic control by the Socialist Party (PS), revisionist Communist Party of France (PCF) and other bourgeois parties that compete with the presently ruling center-right UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) over which has the politically "wisest" program for defending the interests of the bourgeoisie. In the conditions of the past dozen years this has meant the wisest way to implement its neo-liberalism. In fact, when the PS was in power (and in coalition with the PCF, which was given a few ministries) under Mitterrand it initiated the first big neo-liberal assaults against the masses in the early '90s, and its later Jospin government continued on the same path from 1997-2002.

. Now that the PS is out of power it continues this course, with the PCF always snuggling up to it. Thus if it doesn't think a UMP law or policy is the wisest it promises to change it if elected back to power in 2007. Further, it may use various mass movements that come up from below to bring pressure on the government to change a law, and to a limited extent even encourage these if they're kept within very restricted bounds, i.e., one-day protest strikes. But as a political party of the bourgeoisie it fears any movement that may break these bonds much more than it opposes the policies of the UMP. At the beginning of April, when the anti-CPE struggle was breaking through these restrictions with its calls to fight the CNE and Law for Equal Opportunity too, calls for a general strike, mass blockades, etc., PS leader François Hollande expressed this fear when he told the press that "I'm hoping that we can get this conflict, which has lasted too long, over with, that this will be the last demonstration. . ."

. To accomplish their party's missions, PS members play a big role in the leadership of the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) while the PCF dominates the leadership of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor). And members of both parties heavily influence mass organizations of students, women, and others, where they often bureaucratically control things from the top.

. So in these smothering conditions the anti-CPE movement had to for most part come up from below, and first among students because young people were most immediately and directly affected by the law, and the schools and universities are places that they're concentrated in and can therefore most easily organize from.

. But students come from bourgeois, proletarian and other class origins -- classes with conflicting interests. And their political ideas, in general, originate from the political parties or trends in society at large, which themselves express class interests. Thus, it was inevitable that there would be sections of students who were bitter opponents of the movement, i.e., sons and daughters of the rich, lovers of the governing UMP party, etc., while other students would argue for the ideas of the PS, the PCF and other parties that worked to restrict and put a brake on the movement. Moreover, France does not have an organized and truly Marxist political trend of any size that could help the students sort out what to do. In these conditions they revealed in a mass way many good political tendencies that have been lurking beneath the surface of society that should further be built on. These tendencies not only inspired the masses of French working people, but inspire us on this side of the Atlantic as well.

. (1) It was immediately understood by thousands of students that the CPE was part of a larger offensive of the bourgeoisie not only against themselves, but the majority of people. Hence they struggled to build the movement against the CNE and Law for Equal Opportunity as well as the CPE. Later, a general assembly in Rennes (where one of the first universities to be blockaded is located) in early April even voted to ban "CPE" from all student banners in order to emphasize that their demands were against the other laws as well. It also voted to condemn any union or organization that called to end the struggle if just the CPE was withdrawn.

. (2) Student activists didn't wait for anyone's "approval" to begin organizing, and they soon turned campuses into centers for day-and-night production of leaflets, banners, placards, etc., as well as organizing general assemblies through which to debate and decide slogans and tactics, draw more people into motion, etc. A national student coordination comprised of representatives from the local assemblies was also soon set up.

. (3) There were immediate efforts to draw the working class into the struggle through appeals, approaching workers at the workplaces, and opening general assemblies to them.

. (4) Although there were some students from the banlieues active in the movement from the beginning, there were continual efforts to draw in more people from the banlieues. Moreover, when government officials and the media began their racist campaign to paint the banlieue youth as just being casseurs the slogan "we're all casseurs!" was often raised in response. Further, many general assemblies and even the student coordination raised the demand for amnesty for those convicted of offences during the fall rebellion.

. (5) General assemblies in Rennes sometimes voted to have a banner calling for revolution as the lead banner. This seems to reflect that there was a broader trend of students around the country who not only wanted to fight the CPE as being part of a larger neo-liberal offensive, but who also wanted to point out that capitalism was the fundamental problem and that a revolutionary movement needs to be built.

. Nevertheless, mixed up with all these good tendencies were negative tendencies or historically bequeathed problems that must be grappled with and understood if the best student activists are to forge ahead.

. Firstly, regarding the trade unions.

. Although many students struggled to unite with the workers against the CPE, CNE and Law for Equal Opportunity, there were those among them who thought that the decisive issue was to get the trade union bureaucrats to agree to some demands, and that once this was done the union leaders would mobilize the workers for militant struggle. But the union leaders weren't interested in developing such a struggle. They insisted that demands be solely against the CPE. They initially resisted demands by students and some rank and file workers that strikes be called, and when they called their first day of action (March 18) they insisted it be on a non-working day. They said that they were adamant that the CPE had to be completely withdrawn but then entered closed-door negotiations over it with government ministers. They ignored or rebuffed many demands by students (and workers) that they call a general strike. And on April 10 they declared victory and folded their tents.

. Now even if the French trade union leaders were real fighters for the interests of the working class, which they're not, there would certainly have been an issue of judging where the rank and file stood, preferably by voting, before calling an action like March 18 (which the students wanted on the 16th). A failed action can waste energy and resources, cause demoralization, and so on. And one of the union leaders' justifications for opposing a general strike was that the workers were not yet ready -- something that from our vantage-point abroad we cannot argue with. But the issue was to prepare for one, and to prepare for a successful one would mean agitating among the rank and file workers with the truth: "The CPE is part of a general assault by the bourgeoisie that includes the CNE, Law for Equal Opportunity, and many other reactionary measures. Although the Socialist Party has now promised that it will withdraw the CPE if it's elected to power in 2007, and its possible coalition partner, the Communist Party, opposes the CNE and Law for Equal Opportunity too, it was these parties that launched the first big neo-liberal assaults against the masses under Mitterrand, with Jospin continuing them. These parties haven't changed. They fear mass struggle, and want to channel the movement into an election campaign for them. Along with the UMP, they're jointly responsible for bringing precarity to the workers and youth of France. We workers therefore need to take matters into our own hands by preparing for general strike as part of building our own class political movement against the bourgeoisie!"

. This, however, is not what the French trade union leaders are about. Their program is to be "social partners" with the capitalist government, and to "manage" the workers and their struggles on behalf of the capitalists.

. Furthermore, it's likely that one of the things that fueled the calls for a general strike were the many comparisons being made in the bourgeois press and elsewhere between this year's struggle and the great upsurge in the spring of 1968 that culminated in the May-June general strike and factory occupations. But those events transpired long before this generation of students and young workers was born. Many of them may therefore not know that the 1968 general strike was a wild-cat strike organized despite and against the desires of the trade union bureaucracy. Moreover, once it had broken out, the PCF and CGT leaders frantically rushed from plant to plant to negotiate deals around limited demands in order to divide and liquidate the struggle.

. There's also the issue that only 8-9% of the French workers are actually in trade unions. But since France is an open shop country this figure can't be directly compared with countries where closed shops prevail (i.e., where workers are not necessarily in a union by choice) when it comes to measuring the real influence the union leaders have in the class. Moreover, non-union members in France have traditionally gone on strike when the unions called a walkout in an enterprise or industry, and the Constitution protects them from being fired for this. Further, opinion polls consistently show stronger public support for striking workers than one usually sees in the US. Nevertheless, it's clear that besides the necessity of appealing to the rank-and-file workers in the unions rather than relying on the union bureaucrats to do this, the students also had to address the large number of non-union workers. That there were students who struggled to do this through leaflets and in other ways is something that should built upon in future struggles.

. Secondly, regarding the national-minority youth.

. Many of the most militant and long-lasting school blockades were in the suburban ghettos for people of northern and sub-Saharan African descent, and later thousands of national-minority youth flocked to the big demonstrations. And noted above were the efforts of students to draw more youths from the banlieues into the movement, and their raising special demands or slogans in defense of their interests. Not all students supported the latter, yet it was crucially important.

. When the UMP launched its racist campaign to politically isolate and repress the youth rebellion during the fall, the leaders of the PS and PCF raised their own voices demanding restoration of order, i.e., police repression. In other words, the struggle against ethnic discrimination and oppression had to take a back seat to bourgeois order -- precisely where it had previously been, and which was getting it nowhere. But to advance their own interests by uniting the entire working class the European-French workers can't be "color-blind" about the discrimination and oppressive conditions being meted out to the national-minority and immigrant communities, particularly the youth. Rather, they must actively support and help advance the struggles against ethnic discrimination and oppression, and against attacks on immigrants. The student slogans and demands (which were often formulated with the participation of workers) may help the European-French workers take further steps in this direction.

. As noted in the beginning, during the fall the bourgeoisie worked to politically isolate the rebelling banlieue youth from the rest of the working class. It did this by spreading various lies meant to enflame racist and bigoted ideas, i. e. , the riots were organized by Muslim fundamentalists or crime lords and gangsters (take your pick), polygamy(!) was "certainly one of the causes", etc. In March it again mounted a demagogic campaign against the banlieue youth, this time in the name of fighting against casseurs. The students who opposed this anti-casseur campaign were right to do so, yet the issue was not as simple as it might first seem.

. In its propaganda the bourgeoisie conveniently mixed together those youths who actively resisted police high-handedness at the protests, or who trashed capitalist property, police cars, etc. , with some youths who came to beat and rob demonstrators. But a part of the left (led by the PS and PCF) also tended to do this, while another part seemed to want to slough over the fact that there are gangs of youths from the suburban estates that for the past couple years have been showing up at political protests to prey on demonstrators. During the anti-CPE movement this happened mostly in Paris, where at one large demonstration many hundred or more banlieue youth arrived together and began beating and robbing participants. A section of the left believes that the police had a hand in organizing this incident, which is quite possible. But whether this is true or not, it still shows what the oppression, discrimination-caused huge unemployment, and seeming lack of any alternative is giving rise to. It's a clarion call for furthering the struggle against ethnic discrimination and oppression, and for building up the revolutionary movement.

. Revolution.

. The continuation of the capitalist system of production in France means wage-slavery and an overall precarious existence for the masses: precarity. It means racist campaigns by the bourgeoisie to enforce the super-exploitation of ethnic minorities and immigrants while artfully scape-goating them as causing unemployment and other ills endemic to capitalism. It means mounting environmental crises. It means French troops in Africa today enforcing imperialist interests, more militarism and military build-up, and new wars tomorrow. And it means building up a police-state apparatus to crush or imprison resistance. Thus, organizing for a proletarian revolution is the historical necessity.

. In this light it was interesting that during the anti-CPE struggle bourgeois pundits around the world were constantly making comparisons to the French events of spring 1968 and concluding that today's students are conservatives only interested in defending "privileges" whereas the students of yester-year were revolutionaries fighting for high ideals. Yet portraying defense of hard-won gains in job security as defense of privilege can only come from people who worship the naked rule of the market in all matters, i.e., neo-liberals. Moreover, when a big struggle like that against the CPE erupts the bourgeoisie is more than happy to counter pose revolution in the abstract (revolution as distorted by them) to the actual movement that is developing -- and champion that the masses should favor this abstract "revolution". But in reality, the activities of many French students this spring don't appear conservative from here.

. We can't say what the several thousand students who favored slogans and banners against capitalism and for revolution at Rennes and elsewhere were thinking, nor what the approximately 2000 who chanted "Long Live the Commune!" in the streets of Paris were thinking. But there was this tendency in the movement. And alongside it were the tendencies among students who wanted to go to the workers to arouse them in their interests, defend the national minority communities, and continue to organize despite the fact that the PS, PCF and union leaders said "struggle over". Furthermore, practical experience was gained with the various political trends in society, and practical experience gained in organizing. Thus, the possibility exists for putting these things together into an integrally connected set of revolutionary ideas, while the continuing neo-liberal offensive of the bourgeoisie drives home the urgency of doing so. Moreover, France has a certain tradition of criticism of revisionism and the PCF from the left. Why can't today's students begin to take this further? Why can't they turn today's worries by the bourgeois pundits over how allegedly non-revolutionary they are into a nightmare for the bourgeoisie as they struggle to lead the practical resistance movements based on the revolutionary theory that they've put together, i. e. , connect these movements with truly revolutionary ideals?


(1) See "Support the French youth in struggle against racial discrimination and police repression" in Communist Voice , Vol. 12, #1 for more on this. (Return to text)

(2) Since more than 90% of French businesses employ fewer than 20 workers, this affected a large number of people. But these workers were divided from each other, with most not being in unions. This no doubt contributed to the fact that initial calls for protests were not turned into concrete action. (Text)

(3) The International Monetary Fund loved this reform. In an October 2005 paper it said that it "takes an important step toward reforming the employment protection legislation in France"--that is, an important step in tearing down employment protection laws. (Text)

(4) French working class and poor youths haven't been driven out of the universities due to rising costs at the same rate they have been in the US, and many still receive government financial support. But France is also a country with one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the West, i.e. , if one is born of working-class parents one is almost certain to be a worker all one's life. The neo-liberals are horrified by the resulting situation: hundreds of thousands of university-educated factory workers and "menials". (Text)

(5) Also after the April 10 victory 20,000 people in Paris marched on May 14 against a new bill attacking immigrant rights. Meanwhile the banlieue youth continue to simmer under their oppression. Hence, on June 1 national-minority youth of the Parisian suburbs of Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois rose in a struggle against police high-handedness in which thirteen police were reported injured. (Text)

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August 10, 2006.