Sofie Buckland, Daniel Randall, David Broder, Sacha Ismail and Laura Schwartz were in Paris on 18 March for the demonstration against employment reform.
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Paris against the French government’s “Contrat Première Embauche” (First Employment Contract, CPE) proposal, which will allow employers to summarily sack workers under 26. The demonstration was part of a national mobilisation that brought more than a million protesters onto the streets across France, and part of a national campaign that shows no sign of ebbing.
Although we were aware that the anti-CPE movement has generated a high degree of unity between students and organised workers, we expected the Paris demonstration to be mainly students. In fact only certain sections of the protest, including Place de la Nation where the march ended and the CRS riot cops got their kicks by lobbing around tear gas and kicking a postal worker into a coma, were dominated by young people. All the union federations had large, organised contingents, as did Lutte Ouvrière, the LCR and the Socialist Party.
As usual, it was much more fun than the typical trudging along of a British demonstration, with songs, balloons, flags and so on. But it also struck us that it was above all a working-class demonstration, in terms of the organisations that mobilised for it, the people on it and the political demands and slogans it raised. In Britain the last labour movement demo of any size was the protest against the closure of Longbridge in 2000; we have got used to think of big marches as something that popular fronts like Stop the War do, while trade union efforts are inevitably tiny. Paris showed what even a minimally fighting labour movement is capable of.
The struggle against the CPE has similar lessons for the student movement. In contrast to the UK National Union of Students, whose idea of action is calling a demo once a year (and then cancelling it), and whose idea of working with the labour movement is inviting government ministers for canapés, the General Assemblies organising the university occupations which sparked the movement are in many ways a model of student activism. According to one activist we met, the student assembly at the Sorbonne involves “only” 800 students on a typical day, while “only” 50 or 100 are involved in morning picketing. Over the course of the struggle more than 60 out of France’s 84 universities have been occupied and picketed, producing similar structures to those at the Sorbonne.
So far the assemblies have maintained a high degree of democratic control from below, using a sophisticated system of semi-mandates to guide delegates to the national coordination meetings, which are now attracting something like 400 delegates from across the country. It should be noted that some activists have levelled strong criticisms at the internal democracy of the assemblies, but they are nonetheless exemplary compared to anything that has existed in Britain for a long time. Their political level is also high: the national coordination has just agreed to include in its demands opposition to a new anti-immigration law.
Meanwhile, anti-CPE activity is expanding fast in schools, 139 of which are occupied and 174 of which have experienced some kind of “disturbance”.
This movement faces many perils, not least that of being absorbed into the election campaign of the Socialist Party, which dominates the largest French student union UNEF and is keen to offer a so-called “political perspective” to activists by arguing for an end to mass action and a reliance on next year’s presidential and National Assembly elections. (LO activists on the Paris demonstration thought that the movement was already dominated by the SP with “negligible” influence from the far left; LCR members disagreed, accusing LO of being typically pessimistic.) On Monday 20 the unions announced that they would not be organising the expected general strike for some highly spurious reasons, instead calling a vaguely-defined “day of action”, including some strikes, on Tuesday 28.
But whatever the dangers, the opportunities are also huge. The De Villepin government is now extremely unpopular, and the polls suggest that 70% of French people oppose the CPE. Clearly, despite the unions’ hesitation, a big show-down is due.
On the Paris demonstration, one protester who saw us selling Solidarity exclaimed something like “My god! Even the English are here!” Our job is not just to build solidarity with the French students and workers, but to follow their example by challenging our own government to the maximum extent we can.
• www.libcom.org/blog — English language blog on the CPE struggle.
• www.stopcpe.net — French anti-CPE coalition.
• http://paris.indymedia.org — Paris Indymedia.