Collective Action – and Victory! France: CPE Goes Down

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

Robi Morder

MILLIONS OF YOUNG people in France have lived through the experience of collective action and of an important victory, young people who just a few weeks earlier had paid no attention to political organization.  In the end the movement won: the “First Employment Contract” (CPE) has been annulled.

It has been 11 years since the last time a neoliberal reform was rebuffed; then strikes took place in many firms that had not struck in 20-25 years, the span of a generation.  The year 2006 marks an extremely important date in the revival of trade unionism and of politics.

Youth Unemployment

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin pushed through legislation implementing the CPE, using the excuse that youth unemployment is three times higher than in the general population.  This contract gave employers the right to fire anyone younger than 26 without cause during the first two years of employment.

Though youth unemployment is undoubtedly a real problem, the government has purposely over-dramatized the issue.  In fact, data show that, young or old, it is unskilled workers—those without diplomas—who are most likely to be unemployed.  Workers with diplomas always land steady jobs more quickly.

Fifty percent of those possessing a vocational training certificate sign an open-ended employment contract one year after graduation (70% after three years) rising to 80% for those graduating with a university diploma in technology or with an advanced technician’s certificate.  While the unemployment rate is at 15% for those without a degree, it is less than half for those with a high school degree plus two years of post-secondary education.  These are the conclusions reached by official think-tanks such as the National Institute of Statistics ( and the Study Center on Qualifications (www.

The fact of the matter is that France’s bosses want to put an end to the social conquests that are a legacy of decades of working-class struggles, and which they see as a fetter on free competition and the workings of a globalized capitalism.  A 1973 law provides that all firings must be for “real and serious” cause, accompanied by a letter so indicating and only after (minimal) due process whereby the worker targeted for termination may seek out the help of a fellow worker.

Now, the employers’ organizations—MEDEF no less than CGPME(1)—demand the “freedom to fire.”  The government responded by implementing the New Employment Contact (CNE) in businesses with fewer than 20 workers, and then, with the CPE, targeted at young people.

The employers’ organizations insist on exercising the “freedom” to fire, a freedom they portray as simply keeping up with the times.  But the employers, who view any defense of social conquests as “old-fashioned,” are themselves determined to return to the nineteenth century, when the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in 1872 that the freedom to fire was settled law.

Insecurity + exploitation = revolt

There was no working-class response to the CNE because the decision to implement it was taken in August, during the holidays, and because the small business sector is a “trade union desert.”  On the other hand, the CPE was met by a wave of protests and mobilizations—probably the biggest since May 1968 and winter 1995.

While the CPE indiscriminately targeted all young people below 26, for the student youth—the best organized and most easily mobilized among them—the CPE was the last straw.  Insecurity, “student jobs” and unpaid internships (“study periods” which many businesses exploit by manning an estimated 100,000 jobs with free labor) are the common lot of hundreds of thousands of young people during their school years.

For months interns had already made front page news protesting the misuse of their internships and their shameful exploitation.  Against the advice of a number of ministers, and without preliminary negotiations or consultations with the trade unions, the government invoked a fast track procedure (Article 49-3) to enact the law without a parliamentary debate.  It was an attempt to launch a social blitzkrieg against youth.

On February 7, before the final vote on the law, student youth expressed their alarm by coming out in the streets.  All the trade unions supported them.  The government had hoped that by adopting the law during the month-long school holidays the movement would peter out. Instead, the holidays consolidated the movement by fostering the creation of assemblies, committees, discussion panels and the publication of leaflets.

As schools reopened, the demonstrations grew.  On March 7, 18, 28 and April 4, millions of young people and workers (three million on March 28, and as many on April 4 after Chirac’s speech) demonstrated in over 300 towns.  These demonstrations were often more important than those of 1968, with strikes in the public sector and, once more, in the private sector.

The Movement Spreads

This is not France’s first student movement, but is one of its longest.  In 1968, the student strike movement took off at the beginning of May, joined by a multi-million strong workers’ general strike, and ended in June, on the eve of the school holidays.  Let’s not forget that in May ’68, right in the middle of the revolutionary crisis, at stake was the “Fouchet reform” scheduled to take effect in 1968/69.

Strike waves engulfing all the universities over university reforms and draft deferments also broke out in March/April 1973, and again in 1986, against the “Devaquet reform.”  The first wave ended after three weeks, during Easter vacation, the second ended in victory in 1986 when the government simply withdrew its bill.  In 1976 there was a long strike, lasting an entire semester, against the “reform of the 2nd cycle.”  In all cases students protested against the draft.

The peculiarity of the 2006 movement is its slow spread, like an oil slick rather than a tsunami.  First, there are more students and more universities.  School rhythms and calendars have been modified: holidays are staggered, exams are more numerous and more demanding This tends to slow the spread of the struggle.(2) It took several weeks for the strike to take hold in 80% of the universities and in one thousand high schools.

A good number of first-year university strikers are former high school students who went on a lengthy strike in the spring of 2005 against the Fillon Bill.  While they acquired experience in the struggle, many hesitated to again throw themselves so soon into the fray.  Finally, many young people had internalized lack of job security as something “normal” and it took some time for them to change their minds.

Unprecedented Union Unity

In February 2006, opinion polls showed 60% of the population favorable to the CPE. The mobilizations and discussions reversed this result.

The scale of the “blockades”—picket lines—were a novelty.  Only a powerful movement can adopt this tactic, and it is necessary as long as the strike is not total.  In truth, the blockades put every student on an equal footing since no classes were held (though preparatory courses for civil service examinations proceeded unhindered).

Only the UNI, a trade union linked to the UMP and to President Jacques Chirac and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy, supported the CPE. The two other representative student organizations, UNEF and FAGE, along with more recent unions such as SUD-etudiant, the Student Confederation and the CNT, came out against the CPE.(3)

Just as in the 1994 fight against the CIP,(4) student and workers’ unions acted jointly on a matter affecting labor law as well as the future of young people.  On March 7, workers’ unions came out in support of student protests.  On March 18 a joint demonstration was held on Saturday afternoon so that the entire population could participate.

Then, on March 25 and April 4 came calls for strikes in enterprises—a far cry from May 1968, when a good part of organized workers’ movement had erected a wall between itself and the student movement and young workers.

At that time, the workers’ bureaucracies were saying that the students were “sons of bourgeois” and “future bosses” and could not be trusted.  This was untrue.  Still, there were then only 500,000 students and very few from working class backgrounds.  Today, there are 2,500,000 students, the overwhelming majority of whom are destined to become wage-workers.  In every family there is a student and an unemployed, and this changes the relationship between the youth movement and society.

Moreover, there are between 600,000 and 700,000 students (interns excluded) who work their way through school.  They represent between 4-5% of the total workforce.  Entire sectors of the economy—fast food, childcare, large book and record stores—employ huge numbers of students.  Student-worker unity is a reality, not mere dogma.

Genuinely Democratic Ethos

Far from rejecting trade unions, young people understand their usefulness, though care must be taken to see that mutual trust is not undermined by substituting one for the other or confusing their distinct roles.  Despite some hitches, trade unions legally representing workers nationwide(5) and the inter-union association that encompasses all the trade unions, including high school and university unions, worked together in a committee.

The “committee,” a form born in the 1970s, has become a stock-in-trade in the repertoire of action.  It is drawn from rank-and-file assemblies of students, union and non-union, and electing delegates who meet in a “committee.”  In the 2006 movement, the committee met each weekend in a different town: Potiers, Rennes, Aix, Lille, Dijon, Lyon… It chose slogans, made demands and taken actions that have been more or less taken up by the trade unions.

In the universities, whenever a blockade was not unanimously endorsed, new voting procedures have been adopted so that the decisions taken will be implemented by all. A vote on a strike would be taken by a show of hands.  When a blockade was under discussion, balloting took place, with verification of the results checked against student ID lists, followed by a two- or three-hour discussion about the outcome.  Two or three times a week the issue of whether or not to continue the strike or the blockade was raised and discussed.

Tension, even limited confrontations, sometimes developed but in every General Assembly those who were for the CPE and against the blockade could speak freely, just as in some anti-blockade meetings pro-blockade people were invited to express their opinion.

It is this generation that held massive demonstrations on May 1, 2002 to fight Le Pen (the racist presidential candidate) in the streets and then in the voting booth.  For it, the street and the ballot box, direct democracy and representative democracy, are both sources of legitimacy.


  1. Those are the two main employers’ organizations: The “Business Movement of France” used to be the “National Center of French Employers,” and the CGPME is the Small Business Confederation.  No one is sure how representative these bosses’ organizations are. The only reliable figures we have pertain to the election of members to labor relations boards.  Only 27% of the employers voted, far less than the percentage of workers.
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  2. The LMD reform, bachelors—masters—doctorate, designed to conform to European-wide standards, has led to the introduction of semesters so that 4 or 5 weeks of striking during the school year now means missing one half and not just one quarter of a course.
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  3. FAGE, which is a more “centrist” organization, called for demonstrations but did not come out in favor of going on strike.  It opposed the blockades and, unlike the other organizations, was willing to meet with the government—all the while insisting on its opposition to the CPE. The CNT is anarcho-syndicalist, the Student Confederation is linked to the CFDT, and SUD etudiant was created on the heels of the 1995 movements.
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  4. In February 1994, prime minister Edouard Balladur had drafted a professional work placement contract which granted employers to the right to pay young workers—even those with degrees—a salary below the minimum wage.  After 4 weeks of mass struggles the decree and the law were abrogated.
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  5. CGT, CFDT, FO, CGC, CFTC are known as the main trade-union confederations.  Alongside them is UNSA or SUD-Solidaires, as well as the FSU, the federation of workers in education.
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Robi Morder is a lawyer, Professor of Labor Law at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, and director of the Study and Research Group on Student Movements.  This article was translated by John Marot for ATC.

ATC 122, May-June 2006