On the French Students’ Demonstrations

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

an interview with Daniel Singer

Daniel Singer was interviewed by Susan Weissman for her program on KPFK. She asked about the French student demonstrations last spring. We are printing his response.

IF WE ARE offered in Europe an American future, this was very much a strike against the American future. What was the government hying to do on this occasion? I’ve said that one of the things it wants to do is have the working poor, like in the United States. Therefore you have to have an attack on the minimum wage.

The policy was announced by Edouard Balladur, a kind of Teflon prime minister, and who now can’t put his foot right anywhere. This was a clever move, they thought You take the students who have graduated from a two-year technical college. We’ll start them on their first job at minimum wage, minus twenty percent. This was one way of bypassing the minimum wage—you either break the minimum wage, or you attempt to bypass it.

The idea was first you do it with the students and nobody notices. Then you can do it in general.

The biggest demonstrations were not in Paris but in the provinces. Paris would have 50-60,000 but Leon would have 15 20,000 and as many in other towns, proportionately much more than in Paris. And the reason for that is that the students in the province have less possible outlets than in Paris, they are more desperate. Here was the government trying to apply this recipe: go the American way. That was the choice.

So the government attempted and failed, completely. The students got mad. They were demonstrating against no future, they were not accepting it.

At the first Paris demonstration I attended, our suburbs (which are the equivalent of your inner cities) were involved. I was in the underground going to the demonstration. The crowd was about ninety-five percent students. There were a lot of “berrs,” that is, young Algerians. There were Blacks and some whites. But it was the suburbs coming to Paris and disliking that rich, opulent city.

If the government succeeds in imposing the cut, then you will see a right-wing backlash If the left is identified with the government’s attempt—successful or unsuccessful—to impose lower wages and to destroy the social services, then who will reap the advantage? The extreme right, which will say, “We’re the only ones who are up to something else.”

So the crisis of the left is a real crisis. In the past the social democracy has been quite willing to do the dirty work for the capitalist establishment. But now what they are being asked to do will destroy them as even that “respectable,” traditional left.

The second demonstration I attended was somewhat different because the young people from the suburbs were blocked by the police and didn’t reach the demonstration. It began near a big prison, La Sante. This became the highlight, stopping in front of the prison. The demonstrators said, “We are the outcasts and the outsiders,” identifying more with the people who are the extreme victims—-not political prisoners, just prisoners.

So you have this revolt, a deep revolt. The demonstrators this spring were as determined, as anti-establishment, as anti-government, although more proletarian than ’68, because there were more people coming from the poorer districts. But there is one big difference between that demonstration and ’68. They were against. They didn’t have hope or illusion that they were for something. What was lacking—and that is much more our fault than theirs— was a radical alternative.

July-August 1994, ATC 51