Reflections on the Student Movement in France

The Struggle against the CPE

The resistance of young workers and school and university students against the de Villepin Government’s attempt to create greater labour flexibility in France has been one of the most encouraging events of recent years.

The capitalist crisis

Since the early seventies global capitalism has been faced with a crisis of accumulation caused by the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This has not meant that profits cannot be made (as Marx said capitalism “must expand or die”) but it does mean that the rate of profit is so low that the whole system is engulfed by a form of stagnation. Growth rates of 5 or 6% in the post war boom (which formally ended when the dollar was declared by President Nixon to no longer be the “gold standard” of the post-war world economy) have been reduced to an annual average of 1 or 2%, i.e. scarcely more than that produced by the increase in population. The consequence of this was to heighten the tensions between the classes and in the seventies and eighties the working class fought back. However as the crisis wore on the balance of forces swung against the working class. It is one thing to fight for a decent living wage but to fight for a job when the capitalists are trying to restructure is a lot more difficult. Mass unemployment, which initially created resistance, became a weapon in the hands of the capitalist class everywhere.

Britain and the US were the leading capitalist nations in this respect. The gurus of neo-liberalism like Milton Friedman advocated the abandonment of the Keynesian idea of redistribution of surplus value from profitable to increasingly unprofitable but strategically significant basic industries such as coal and steel via either state regulation or state ownership. Dismantling these industries also became more thinkable as the Cold War came to a close and they were no longer so strategically significant.

The deepening of the crisis also forced the dominant capitals to look for new ways of increasing the rate of profit by investing abroad not just to get primary products as cheap sources of constant capital but also to decrease labour costs. This process began slowly at first but the impossibility of finding worthwhile investment opportunities in the main capitalist countries has driven the capitalists to “outsource” more and more of their production to Asia and Latin America. Over the years this has taken different forms like the maquiladores in Central America feeding US production but increasingly whole areas of countries like China have become oases for capital. Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that cheap European commodities based on modern industrial production “beat down all Chinese walls” in the nineteenth century. Today it is cheap Chinese labour costs which produce the commodities which batter down European, Japanese and American tariff barriers. The consequences of this were revealed in a recent Washington post report. US firms have managed to keep wages cost inflation at 0.3% per annum and these account for 70% of their corporate expenditure. It is little wonder that these firms now show rises in actual profits. The pattern though has been for wage costs to be reduced as both investment abroad and the use of officially encouraged and tolerated illegal or semi-legal migrant labour (see article “Immigration and Global Capitalism” in this issue) within the metropolitan states maintain the downward pressure on actual earnings.

This reduction in the value of labour power has clearly gone farthest in the Anglo-Saxon economies. There is much talk of the transfer of call centre jobs to India where English-speaking graduates can be employed at low wages but many call centre jobs in Britain are also done by those with degrees or other qualifications. The global village that Marshall McLuhan and others talked of nearly half a century ago is truly with us.

The situation in France

However these attacks on the working class have been slower to develop in continental Europe. Here the post-war settlement actually offers greater defence to workers than in the Anglo-Saxon countries. The fear of the communist threat from Eastern Europe meant that even the Christian Democrats (who represented the European right) had a notion of recognising some rights for workers in the name of a dubious “social solidarity”. In Britain and the US any worker going on strike loses all right to job security but this has never been the case in continental Europe. Indeed the Financial Times, the main journalistic organ of British capitalism puts the greater stagnation of the European economy over the last decade and a half down to the failure of the Europeans to tackle the “rigidities of the labour market” which the Anglo-Saxon economies have deregulated since the early 1980s. This is the background to the recent attempts by the Gaullist regime in France to attack the working class. The introduction of the CPE (or First Job Contract) is just one of at least three attempts over the last ten years to attack the working class.

The first was the Juppe Plan of December 1995 which aimed to cut Social Security provisions for all workers as well as pensions of workers on the railways and other state transport sectors. This provoked a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations and the attack on the transport pensions was withdrawn. However the “reform” of Social Security was maintained even if Juppe (the then Prime Minister) subsequently resigned. Then there followed the Raffarin pensions reform which provoked widespread resistance, particularly in the education sector in July 2003. Raffarin also was forced by huge demonstrations and a six weeks strike by teachers to make concessions but the outcome was that workers still have to work longer to get a pension. The failure of the unions to defend their members from this attack gave the green light to De Villepin to prepare the next attack.

Despite the success of these attacks on the working class the French ruling class are still behind their competitors in Europe, and certainly behind the UK and US, in making the working class pay for the crisis of accumulation. The CPE however is part of a more panicky response approach since the De Villepin Government already has at its disposal the CNE, the Contrat Nouvelle Embauche, (the New Job Contract). This was passed last August (when the whole country was on annual holiday) and is similar to the CPE. It only applies to small private enterprises with less than 20 employees (but this makes up 66% of all French firms) but unlike the CPE allows workers of any age to be sacked for any reason within the first two years of employment. The difference is that the riots of last November in the Paris banlieus and other cities had underlined the dangers of youth employment to the stability of French society. The riots (which we see as a mistaken attempt by some young workers to fight back - see Revolutionary Perspectives 38 for the Bureau statement on them) though were actually sparked by perceived state repression rather than by economic conditions. However the De Villepin Government with little consultation with its own ministers, let alone anyone else, decided that the solution was to make the conditions for sacking workers easier (thus claiming (without any evidence) that in a more “flexible” situation employers would offer more jobs to the unemployed from the banlieus). The aim of De Villepin’s policy was however too transparent and came as one attack too many. This provoked the resistance in March and April.

The student movement

We refer to the movement in France this spring as a student movement because, as we have already made clear, though the issue undoubtedly affected the entire proletariat it was the young, primarily university and secondary school students (i.e. those most directly affected) who provide the main drive behind the resistance. They had the advantage of not being under the control of the trades unions who had not moved a muscle in opposition to the CPE (whilst the main opposition party, the Socialist Party put up only token opposition in the National Assembly). The student strikes were the immediate response to the CPE. Though they developed slowly at first and only involved a relatively small number, they became much fuller just before the February holidays (which in France are spread over four weeks as each region has a different holiday period). The students who initiated the movement found that picketing the Universities was a good move since if no-one can enter then the university is 100% on strike and it means that the minority who initiate the movement cannot be victimised (by failing their exams etc.) when the movement ends. The weakness of the existing student organisation (the UNEF) was another bonus as the leading spirits in the movement had to turn to General Assemblies to draw in more and more students to the struggle. These eventually came to involve large numbers of students (although apparently in most cases still a small minority of each faculty). Here the usual problems of any mass movement emerged of how to involve everyone and who had the right to vote on resolutions in each assembly emerged. The picture is a mixed one with some assemblies more aware of the issue than others. In some assemblies there was a rotation of functions so that no-one committee came to dominant the proceedings or the agenda. In places where the Socialist Party-dominated UNEF (students’ union) was better organised the same people tended to run the daily affairs of the assemblies. In fact the movement benefited from the fact that the unions and the Trotskyists were caught by surprise so that they were left to develop and make their mistakes on their own. Being an immensely practical movement (which is essentially the root of what all revolutionary movements have been and have to be) the assemblies were the great success of the resistance. Although the issue of who could participate was not always solved the assemblies, in the best cases, the students were aware that they were not just fighting for themselves or that they could win alone. They consciously and deliberately tried to involve workers even if it meant getting their parents and grandparents involved in the assemblies, or, as in some places, dragging people in off the streets to address the meetings. Attempts were also made to coordinate the work of the various assemblies but this essential task was largely carried out by political elements (anarchists, the Trotskyists of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR and did not spring directly from the deliberations of the assemblies themselves. It was too soon to pass judgement on this development when the Chirac Government withdrew the CPE and the movement came to an end on April 10th.

The unions

Throughout all this the unions had done nothing. As we said in our leaflet issued on March 18th (see following text) the unions made no attempt to mobilise their own members, issued no leaflets, held no meetings, nor raised the question of a strike against the CPE. Only at the end of the movement did an appeal for a strike appear on union internet sites. Instead, as in 1968 the unions attempted simply to control anything they could. On the demonstrations it was the unions’ stewards who dominated the proceedings and attempted to put themselves at the head of the demonstrations as though they were the animators of the movement. On March 18th some students spotted this and ran round to take the head of the demonstrations themselves. The net result of the unions inactivity was that they are now seen as redeeming themselves a little for the defeat of 2003 and no doubt will no bask in the reflected glory of a movement which they did everything to ignore when they were not directly undermining it. For some older workers it brought back memories of 1968 where the main French union the CGT, dominated by the Stalinists of the French Communist Party did everything to ensure that the workers remained in the factories and the university students who had already been attacked by the riot police (the CRS) could not find a means to solidarise with them. The essential role of unions is the to bargain for wages under a system that they wish to preserve (after all if the system of wage slavery is abolished then there is no role for these organs of capitalist conservation). They undermine any movement which goes even minimally beyond this and hence they seek to sabotage anything that emerges from the real grievances of the workers. Here it was enough to hide behind the basic ideological premise that the attack on young workers was an attack on all workers (which was the unifying ideology of the movement) without actually lifting a finger to ensure the movement’s success.

The question of violence

Whilst the unions went in for passive sabotage the media, ever the servant of the capitalist state, tried to discredit the movement by highlighting incidents of violence on the demonstrations. These incidents took the normal forms of the usual violence of the CRS (an armed riot police not noted for subtlety) against demonstrators influenced by anarchism but also the demonstrators were attacked and robbed by the “casseurs” (wreckers) or young unemployed who had been involved in the riots of last November. The media (and De Villepin) played on this to suggest that the anti-CPE movement was really denying opportunity to these marginalised young people but it was not taken seriously. These casseurs have actually been around in previous demonstrations and turn up at carnivals and other social gatherings with the same intent to rob. They demonstrate what Marx stated long ago that if they are not lined up with the general movement of the working class they potentially become a lumpenproletariat who can be at the service of any reactionary social force. There was some attempt by the students to discuss with these elements and this has to be the first strategy to prevent them from becoming a useful appendage to the capitalist order.

May ’68 and All That

It was inevitable that this movement was compared to that of 1968 given the essential mixture of student and proletarian which were present in both. Indeed the question was raised from the floor of the public meeting the CWO held in London on April 1st which was partially devoted to the events in France.

Actually there was little similarity. In May ’68 the number of students of working class origin was in single percentage figures whereas today the nature of capitalist employment dictates that more than 50% of those seeking what passes for “higher” education are from working class backgrounds. Given too the fact we underlined at the beginning that the issue was about the capitalist need to attack wage levels, then it is clear that there was an essential unity of purpose between students and workers today. This was not the case in 1968. Then the student revolt and the workers general strike seemed to occupy two different areas. Whilst the students were posing questions about society the workers were rewarded for the biggest general strike in history (almost 10 millions on strike at one time) with a massive 10% wage increase conceded by De Gaulle in order to buy social peace. It was the beginning of a concerted series of struggles around the world, which lasted until 1976, in which workers fought and largely won against capitalism’s early attempts to make them pay for its crisis. At the time older workers (in some cases our parents) warned us that this money militancy would not of itself bring a socialist society. At the time many were animated by spontaneist theories according to which the money militancy would somehow be transformed into the struggle for communist society. The older workers were right. The question of consciousness is a much more complex phenomenon than a mere economic reflex.

This is indeed the greatest contrast between then and now. Whilst the movement, as we said, had its strength as a practical movement, its weakness was that it did not raise the question of “what is capitalism?” let lone examine why it attacked the working class. As we underlined at our public meeting the French bourgeoisie did not stand or fall by the CPE since it had other measures up its sleeve. The rivalry between the Gaullist leaders Sarkozy and De Villepin did not amount to a split in the bourgeoisie but simply offered an opportunity for a change of team as has already happened so many times under Chirac. And once the CPE was withdrawn the movement had no higher aims so came to an end.

We should emphasise that when we criticise today’s movement for its lack of political consciousness we do not have a rosy view of the “big ideas” thrown up in 1968. The students of the time were easy prey for anything which seemed outside the usual East versus West dichotomies of the Cold War. Hence the supposed popularity of such anti-working class characters like Herbert Marcuse. Dismissing the proletariat as a “one dimensional man” he concluded that the revolutionary agents of the coming period were the oppressed “minorities” of women, blacks etc., as if they too were not part of the exploited class who produces society’s wealth. Others found solace in the radical chic of Che Guevara who had found a new way to make Stalinist elitism palatable via the guerrilla struggle against (only US) “imperialism”. Some tragically tried to follow “guerrillerismo” in Europe and ended in the dead end of urban terrorism like the Baader-Meinhof group or the Red Brigades in Italy. And middle class students were absolute suckers for the supposed revolutionary nature of Maoism simply by ignoring his almost genocidal policies inside China itself. Many of the student revolutionaries, as we said at the time were the future managers of society just on an ego trip and this was the case with the vast majority. Even individuals who were attacked by the Stalinists at the time like “Danny the Red” Cohn-Bendit or Joska Fischer have since made their peace with capitalist society and found their places in managing it. Both are now Green MPs in France and Germany respectively.

We are also not lamenting about the lack of “ideas” in the same vein as the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique (see March edition front page) who talks about ideas as if they sprang independently from the minds of great men. When we talk of the need for revolutionary perspectives we are talking about those which truly reflect a basic consideration of the system of production and its apparatus. Whilst we applaud the students for trying to create the open kind of institutions, which are the basis of any massive movement, this is only the beginning. In every movement we have to look at not only its form but also its content and this was the big weakness of the French student movement. We have saluted many movements in the past which only implicitly pose the question of the nature of capitalism and the state system that supports it. We don’t expect a new movement to pose deep questions at the beginning but if the working class is to create a new society it will have to go through a series of struggles, which increasingly define both capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the solution which only the working class can offer - communism. At the moment such a perspective is only in the heads of the communist minorities like ourselves who as yet have no deep and widespread implantation in the working class throughout the world. Our task is to work within movements like that which we have just witnessed to bring back to the struggle the perspective of a better society. This means not only helping to bring back the lessons of the history of the struggle but also to organise ourselves within the working class. In order to take the struggle forward the proletariat needs the organs of mass mobilisation which we saw a glimpse of in the student movement but we will also know that it will have made a qualitative leap forward when it creates a political organisation of those who understand this perspective. This is what we call the World Party of the Proletariat. It is both the reflection of the proletariats’ coming to consciousness and the indispensable organisation for guiding the fight against all the political enemies of the proletariat who will attempt to gain the leadership of any potentially revolutionary movement and ensure that it does not threaten the system. The history of the working class has taught us that the Party is not an organ of rule but an organ of consciousness and its task is to spread the world revolution not to form a “government” in areas where the proletariat itself is already in control. This struggle in France has demonstrated that the working class has the organisational skills to carry out the practical tasks of running its own affairs what it has opened up is the question of what kind of society do we want to live in.


Revolutionary Perspectives

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