New Internationalist

Aux armes, citoyens!

Issue 394

Veronique Mistiaen chronicles the stubborn French resistance to neoliberalism.

‘We chanted slogans like: “Villepin , if you want to know where we’re going to put your CPE, it’s up your arse, up your arse; no hesitation! No, no, no to the rubbish CPE.’

Lou Pestel, a 17-year-old high school student from Rennes, is recalling nine-week-long protests against the First Contract Law (CPE) – a new law designed to make youth employment more ‘flexible’ that provoked mass demonstrations across France in this past spring..

‘When it poured with rain – which was often – we chanted less enthusiastically, but we all remained there under the rain for hours. At night, we walked through the streets, banging pots and pans. Some demonstrations were completely silent. It was very impressive: thousands of people marching without a word.’

In Rennes, between 2,000 and 50,000 people marched against the law, several times a week. Similar protests were staged in more than 180 cities and towns throughout the country. On days of national action, up to three million people spilled onto the streets. In Paris, thousands battled with the police for hours on the Left Bank to defend the occupied Sorbonne, a location steeped in memories of May 1968. The Eiffel Tower was closed for fear of violence. In Marseilles, the Alternative Libertaire’s red and black flag flew from the balcony of the City Hall in place of the French tricolour. Over the nine weeks of protest, two-thirds of the country’s 84 public universities were occupied or partially or totally shut down. Hundreds of high schools were taken over. All over the country, public places, workplaces, roads and railway stations were blockaded, and waves of strikes disrupted transportation, education and postal services.

Across France, a whole generation of young people erupted in spontaneous action against the conservative Government’s latest attempt to chip away workers’ rights. The young people’s unexpected revolt was part of a broader rebellion against US and British style liberalization of the French economy. Public rejection of such policies included the movement against pension reform in 2003, against public health reform in 2004, and the resounding ‘No’ to the EU Constitution – seen as an attack on the European welfare state – in 2005. The latest measure, the CPE, would have allowed businesses to sack young workers under the age of 26 without reason or compensation during the first two years of employment. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin bulldozed the controversial bill through Parliament in early March 2006 as an emergency measure to tackle youth unemployment – running at 23 per cent – a panicked response to the October 2005 riots by young immigrants from working-class suburbs. Critics argued the law would simply increase job insecurity and create a generation of disposable workers without solving unemployment. Replacing an actual ghetto with a ghetto of insecure ‘McJobs’ seemed a poor alternative to a well-resourced public employment policy.

‘This Government… was attacking a whole generation already exposed to unemployment and job insecurity – and the entire workforce, since the next step was the ‘generalization’ of this new flexible labour contract,’ according to Michel Husson, economist from the Scientific Council of the anti-globalization group Attac.

Students, with more free time, quickly mobilized – first against the CPE, which affected them directly and soon the whole labour legislation package called ‘Equality of Opportunities’. They were not only fighting for their future, but for that of all young people, indeed all workers. Some parents and grandparents, worried about their children’s future, backed them up. (A recent opinion poll revealed that 76 per cent of French people believe that it is harder for young people to make it than their parents.) They were soon joined by trade unions, casual workers, job-seekers, some teachers, retired people, left-wing activists and in some places, youth from poor suburbs who had rioted across the country last October. ‘Human beings are not Kleenex to be disposed of,’ said Roger Mayaud, 84, from Pau, echoing the views of the protesters. ‘Ultra-liberalism is a jungle. I believe in the spirit of Fraternity and Equality,’ added Emmanuel Hyvernat, a 35-year-old unemployed father of two from Bourg-en-Bresse, a small city between Lyon and Geneva.

‘It was a real spontaneous popular uprising, crossing generations and organizations,’ commented Husson. ‘We’ve seen parents supporting their children, unions supporting strike collectives, teachers participating in their students’ actions.’ Within weeks, de Villepin’s approval rating had plunged to 37 per cent.

While the protest movement gained momentum, part of the mainstream French and international press greeted it with scepticism. For them the protesters were anti-reformists stuck in the past, little Gauls in their villages who refuse to see that the world around them has changed. Economists repeated it was impossible for France to maintain its generous social benefits and strong labour protections while remaining competitive in a global market. For others it was just the French engaging once more in their national pastime – protest!

Ignacio Ramonet, managing director of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, rebutted the critics in an April 2006 editorial: ‘Accused by the Right of being “the sick man of Europe”, France, on the contrary, is a country which resists. One of the only ones in Europe where, with a tremendous vitality, a majority of the workforce refuses unbridled globalization… Social solidarity is a fundamental characteristic of the French identity. A solidarity that the CPE endeavours to eliminate.’

Many commentators predicted the movement would lose steam and that the Government would never give in. Sometimes the youngsters themselves got discouraged. Said Lou Pestel: ‘We felt the Government was ignoring us. There was no dialogue, just a lot of repression. The CRS (riot police) were on the streets day and night. Whenever we tried an action, we were dispersed with their teargas and batons. But going onto the street was our way to tell the Government: “You passed that law, but everyone is against it.”’

Ultra-liberalism is a jungle. I believe in the spirit of Fraternity and Equality...

And this so-called self-centred generation cut its political teeth on the anti-CPE protests. Mistrustful of traditional political parties or unions the young people created their own political organizations and networks. These proved very effective.

‘After the demonstrations, there was a General Assembly (GA) to discuss the progress of the movement,’ said Pestel. ‘It was an opportunity to debate with very different people: students, workers, unemployed, retired and even sometimes children.’ In front of the Rennes Regional Parliament protesting students built a ‘free, self-managed village’ with makeshift tents and scavenged furniture. ‘Everyone was welcome to spend a night there or just share a cup of coffee and discuss the CPE,’ Pestel added.

‘While the media showed trade unions negotiating with the Government, on the battlefield, in the GAs of the occupied universities, other alliances were forged between students, unemployed and casual workers,’ explained Sophie Gosselin, a philosopher, researcher and member of APO33 (an artistic, technological and research laboratory based in Nantes). These fragmented, autonomous cells disseminated their messages through blogs and websites, and wove new networks and alliances at regional and national levels, Gosselin continued. A similar type of resistance networking had already emerged during the campaign against the EU Constitution, Husson noted. ‘We had a mobilization of citizens, organised in several hundreds of collectives, which for the first time led to a kind of fusion between political parties, trade unions and various associations, such as the altermondialists.’

On 10 April 2006, French President Jacques Chirac finally caved in and scrapped the controversial law. Against all expectation, the young people and their supporters had won. ‘We had given the movement everything. We missed lots of school days, so close to the exams. It was long and tiring. Some schools and universities remained blocked for the whole time and we had to face parents who were not happy with this,’ Pestel said. While controversial measures included in the ‘Statute on Equality of Opportunities’ remained, Husson believes the protest movement achieved more than the withdrawal of the CPE. ‘It further discredited the neoliberal agenda and stopped the Government’s larger project of making labour laws more flexible. After this, they won’t be able to forge ahead with the next step of the project.’

‘It is also important to see that citizens who voice their opposition on the streets have had an impact on the Government’s conduct,’ added Marie Bardet, a 25-year-old philosophy student at the University of Paris. ‘It was a political training for a whole new generation. We have discussed politics like never before in family, among friends, in cafés. It was the first time I had seen this.’

Veronique Mistiaen is a London-based journalist specializing in social issues.

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