Solidarity spoke to Nico Dessaux, an activist in Lille.
How did the anti-CPE movement begin?
The student unions attempted to launch a movement against it a few months ago, but with little success. The left parties in the National Assembly also launched a parliamentary guerrilla war, with thousands of amendments. As a result, our prime minister, De Villepin, used article 49.3 of the constitution, a vote of confidence in the government, to push the full text through without discussion. This is what sparked the strike movement in the universities.
The 18 March demonstration in Paris seemed to be mostly workers rather than students. Why?
The CPE and CNE are measures against the working class, not just students. It is a first test for the government’s project of abolishing “unlimited duration contracts” (CDI). They want to break workers’ expectation of job security, which to some extent is still the norm in France.
For the trade unions, this is a major issue, an issue of survival even, since workers on secure contracts are much more likely to join a union. So they have added their strength to that of the student movement. One important feature is the creation of a common front of all the big unions, unlike the struggles of May 2003, when the CFDT opposed the strikes.
Did the government expect this level of opposition?
Remember May 2003: the government faced the biggest strike of teachers ever seen in France, strikes in most sectors, roadblocks and so on for two months — but they defeated that movement. De Villepin is also the likely to be the next right-wing candidate for president. He wants to appear as a right-wing strong man.
What role are student unions and political parties playing in the movement?
The general attitude of students towards the student unions is a mix of indifference and hostility. Most students taking part in this struggle are not members of any unions [in France students have to choose to join a union; they are not automatically union members as with the UK NUS]. This sometimes leads to contradictions: the national coordination of the student general assemblies voted against the creation of a delegation to the trade unions. As a result, it’s not the representative coordination but the student unions who act as intermediaries with the workers’ movement.
For both the trade unions and the media, it’s much easier to have the student unions as interlocutors. The president of UNEF [the main student union] is an experienced media performer, as is the president of the school students’ federation. Both unions are linked to the left wing of the Socialist Party [SP] and, to a lesser extent, the Communist Party [CP]. Recent years have seen the rise of two other student unions, more radical and democratic — SUD and CGT, which are both student branches of workers’ trade unions.
All the major left groups, from the SP and the CP to Trotskyists and anarchists are active in the assemblies, but none of them have a leading role. The left activists generally play a strong role, but students judge them not on their union or political card but on their real activity in building the movement.
Tell us about the assemblies...
The general assembly has a long history in the French student movement. They vary between towns and institutions in size and level of involvement, but what’s important is the relationship of trust between striking students and the assemblies. In practice there are a lot of specialised “commissions”, created by assembly votes and composed of volunteers, which prepare proposals on practical issues (demonstrations, relationship with workers, security, legal assistance, cooking etc). These commissions present proposals to the assembly to vote on. The reports, and my personal experience, suggest that the assemblies function well, with strong freedom of speech and a strong sense of solidarity.
Are you surprised that students are mobilised on such a “class” issue?
Most young people now go to university. Many students go to university to maximise their chance of a job, and when the government says: ok, but you must accept a rubbish contract, they feel it as a real injustice. They have come to understand that “every student is a worker in formation”. The cultural barrier between students and workers, which was a major feature of last generation’s struggles, is now very thin.
What links are being built between students and workers?
The situation varies from town to town. It depends mainly on the energy the students put into it. In my town Lille, in the north of France, there are teams of students who go every day to the factories, with union delegates, to call workers to join the movement. Links with precarious workers like those who distribute free papers have been established. “Interprofessional” assemblies have been held, with a good climate of discussion and understanding. This doesn’t interest all students, but it’s a good sign. Now the main issue is to transform the workers’ and unions’ sympathy into a general strike, which is not easy after the 2003 defeat.
What happens next?
We need a general strike. Even Bernaud Thibaut, leader of the CGT [largest French trade union, close to the Communist Party], has made declarations in favour. But not all the unions agree, and to preserve their united front they refuse to call it. On his side, De Villepin repeats again and again that he will not withdraw, and predicts the imminent end of the movement. But the signs now are of growth rather than collapse. The question is will the workers move, and which sections will move first?
If the government refuses to back down, we will be fighting for its removal. The main obstacle to this is the lack of perspectives: no party, no left-wing figures have the confidence of the movement, and a victory for the right-wing Socialist candidate Segolene Royal would not be a victory. The task of communists is to fight for the general strike, and to give political perspectives to this movement.