French Students Speak for Themselves What We Won—and Need

Against the Current, No. 122, May/June 2006

Erwan, Florent, Gaby, Gaelle, Guillaume, Laetitia, Nina & Steven

[The following collective interview was conducted for ATC by Patrick Silberstein of Editions Syllepse.  The participants are Erwan, Florent, Gaby, Gaelle, Guillaume, Laetitia, Nina and Steven, social science students at the Paris University VII Denis Diderot (Javelot); and Guillaume, a technical vocational student at Jacquart High School (Paris).  Translation from French is by John Marot.]

Q: TODAY, APRIL 10, Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin declared that he would “replace” the First Employment Contract (CPE).  You’ve been on strike more than seven weeks to get the CPE withdrawn.  What is your reaction to this declaration?

A: We don’t think it’s a victory but, well, it’s still a victory.  It’s not really a victory in that we did not limit ourselves to the CPE alone.  We had broadened the movement to take on the entire legal framework of “equality of opportunity.”  We really wanted to re-appropriate the political sphere and to influence the life of society, and that’s why we had much broader objectives than simply withdrawal of the CPE. So we think this decision is a little bit like throwing us crumbs to get us to sit still.

Villepin made it very clear that only the prevailing climate of insecurity for employers and students had forced him to take this step backward.  In fact, he didn’t listen to the voices of the masses.  He also said that he regretted that no one had understood what he wanted to accomplish.  What is crystal clear is that the legal framework of “equal opportunity” is a full-blown neoliberal project.  A genuine victory would have meant the withdrawal of the entire legal framework and de Villepin’s resignation.  Now he is retreating while trying to save face.

His retreat also allows the government to prevent the broadening of the movement, to prevent it from becoming a genuinely political movement against the system, against the 5th Republic.  For weeks de Villepin kept saying he “was listening to those who were demonstrating as well as to those who were not demonstrating,” but if he truly wanted to listen he could have organized a referendum on the law, something that would have been fully in keeping with the Gaullist mindset.  But he knew full well that organizing a referendum would have meant the utter repudiation of their policies, one coming on the heels of their defeat in the French regional parliamentary elections and their defeat on the European Treaty.

Now, the problem for us is that the government will hold talks with the unions, and the unions will think this a genuine victory: It’s going to kill the movement, stop it dead in its tracks.

On the other hand, the word victory can obviously be used, because for weeks the government kept saying that it and not the street governed.  But we see that three million people in the streets do count for something, even if after the first demonstration the government seemed not to have noticed.

What we challenge are the methods of this government that lead us to think the people don’t, in fact, rule.  We think we won a huge victory in winning over the public.  Right from the beginning we realized that all kinds of people became mobilized in this struggle; we have raised political consciousness.  If not this time—because we might be at a crossroads that will be fatal for the movement in its form of the last two months—then the next time, or the time after that because more and more young people are thinking and saying to themselves: “I have a part to play.”

We know that we have been able to accomplish things now that we did not think possible before.  Some in the media have compared our movement to that of May ’68, but there is a basic difference: Then people were struggling to win rights, while today we are struggling to keep them.  We have awakened a fairly powerful political consciousness among quite a few citizens who, from now on, will perhaps go into struggle not just to preserve rights but to win new ones as well.

What’s at stake is no longer the present but the future.  The struggle can really go forward if there is a fundamental rethinking.  Most especially, we have to re-appropriate the vocabulary that this government has usurped: liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy, Republic, development.  We’ve put it in a difficult situation, a government that was confident of its political tactics and was determined to go forward on a forced march toward job insecurity and liberalization.  In unsettling this government, we have, in a way, unsettled the 5th Republic.

Q: How did you organize yourselves at the University?

A.: At first we set up “filtering checkpoints” that allowed us to slow down entry onto the campus, giving us the opportunity to inform students.  We decided on a blockade as opposed to a strike, because when workers strike the consequences can readily be seen but when students do so the consequences aren’t visible.

The traditional strike isn’t possible for us. A blockade also allows no striker to be penalized because classes continue to be held just as before.  A blockade has the advantage of being visible and maximizing the number of people in struggle.  In some universities the students chose a straightforward blockade, meaning no one could gain entry to the campus.  As for us, after we voted in favor of the blockade we looked for a better term to describe what we really wanted to do in our university.  We found “re-appropriation of the university sphere” because the university is a domain of life, thought and analysis.  We wanted our university to be open to all outsiders—workers, the undocumented, other students—so that they could take part in the discussions.

We wanted to continue to receive knowledge here, other than what we normally got, but equally as interesting—”social knowledge.”  In “re-appropriating university space” we enhanced attendance at the General Assemblies (GA).  At first, we organized discussions about the CPE to explain what it was and why we were against it. Then the discussions became broader, embracing the legal framework of “equal opportunity” and the means to struggle against job insecurity as a whole.

This allowed us to take part in operations (blockading railway stations, for example) and in demonstrations.  The decision to “re-appropriate university space” also allowed us to set up “critical thinking cells,” to organize discussions and debates.  In truth, it’s not just about saying “no” and refusing, one has to propose.  In struggle there is a time to protest and a time to propose.

The reaction to the CPE has created and stimulated collective thinking and our “critical thinking cells” to set up a space where all those who did not belong to a party or a trade union could hold discussions.  We’ve especially talked about the economic system, the political system, the causes of low voter turn out, and the means to render the citizen an actor and not an observer.

Our campus is relatively small (1800 students of whom 400 to 500 are normally present each day) and we think this helped us to organize.  We were able to quickly go beyond the debates for and against the blockade to take up the most vital questions about job insecurity.

There’s a community of views among us given that we’re all students in the social sciences.  Moreover, the professors and the Director of the UFR did not pressure us. They even helped us. Economists, historians and judges agreed to give talks.

There was no trade-union presence on campus.  For the most part we’re non-union and we haven’t known the struggles pitting union against non-union people on other campuses.  We wanted our movement to be united despite differences and divisions.  Every morning we’d get together before the GA, and with money from the collective buy food and drink, and read the papers as a group.  In practice, we blockaded the entrance to the classrooms and re-appropriated the campus as a whole.  The university was ours: a university for the students and by the students!

Beyond local organization there were regional committees and a national committee that met each week and to which every university sent delegates.  There we’d talk about programmatic demands, prepared regional and national actions, and discussed prospects.  As for the student unions, which only represented a very small number of students, they were the engine that amplified the movement; but—and this is unfortunate—they arrogated to themselves the role of representative of the movement to the detriment of the spokespeople of the national committee of universities in struggle.

The Impact on Europe

Q: What is the significance of the struggle you have waged in the past two months?

A: The current discussion has gone far beyond our borders.  There’s been an echo in a number of countries.  Just as at the time of the European referendum, when all eyes were on France, people said: If the referendum was screwed in France, it would be screwed elsewhere.  We’ve gotten support from Hungary, where our movement was dubbed the “French Spring,” and from Poland, to mention but those two.

In Greece, some universities struck in solidarity.  Demos were held in front of the French embassy in Denmark.  Sensing the European-wide impact of our movement we realized that we weren’t alone.  Some said we had awakened Europe! We even got declarations of support from Mexico!

The current debate has also largely transcended the CPE framework.  It has put job insecurity at the center of discussions.  The CPE was the last straw that broke the camel’s back but long before there had been a totality of conditions that had piled on the straw.  We’re attacking this totality as well: the economic misery of the citizenry, the political misery, the social misery.

The citizen is under attack from all quarters.  To broaden the demands is to address oneself to all citizens because all of them are affected.  Today it’s the youth, but three years ago it was retired people who were under attack, and last fall the suburbs rose in revolt.  Sarkozy’s laws target young people, the elderly, the dispossessed, foreigners.  Real wages are forced down.  It’s wide-ranging policy of civic exclusion.  To deprive someone of his rights is to deprive him of his liberty, to enslave him.

By broadening the scope of demands we wanted to show that everyone was involved and that everyone could join the struggle against an illegitimate class and an illegitimate regime.  Everybody’s clearly understood that.  Our movement will serve as a benchmark for future struggles.

ATC 122, May-June 2006