People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX

No. 17

April 23, 2006

Students & Workers Defeat French Law

A Confidence-Boosting Movement

G Mamta


‘PROBLEMS - Policies - Politics’. When politics decide your future; you decide what kind of politics should be there. The French student community has turned this exhortation into a reality.


Bowing to insurmountable pressure from the students and trade unions, French president Jacques Chirac has repealed the CPE law (Contract Premiere Embauche). The CPE was to allow a two-year trial period for employees aged under 26, during which bosses could end a contract without explanation. This law has to be seen as part of a whole series of neo-liberal attacks in France and right across Europe. With high levels of unemployment prevailing in France, the youth and the workers are much affected by these attacks on their rights. In the face of such increasing neo-liberal attacks, the heartening feature has been the growing struggles against this system of exploitation and oppression. The French students have won a major victory in the great moral struggle of our generation: taming global capitalism.


The students won because they put together an extraordinary protest movement. A powerful alliance of high-school and university students and of organised working class achieved this victory against the government's law. They refused to inherit a society of savage capitalism in which worker's rights are constantly undermined in the name of efficiency.


Over the past two months, millions of students and union activists filled the streets of France's major cities in some of the largest protests since the 1968 student uprising. Students forced the closure of more than half of the nation's universities including the Sorbonne which the police raided following a student sit-in. The protests had begun on February 7, 2006 when students stormed the Rennes University and shut down the school.


Politically, analysts say prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who championed this legislation, has suffered the most by these protests. His approval rating is today below 30 per cent. The  French education minister Gilles de Robien had ordered to reopen the blockaded high schools by issuing an instruction on March 29 to head teachers that they should do so by using police force if necessary. With the teachers' unions making it clear that they would strike if the police were called in, the schools remained closed. Almost all head teachers refused to budge and continued the blockade.


In some cities, like Lille, there are now “workers’ assemblies”, linking different groups of workers who have taken strike action with student activists. The Lille student assembly declared: “Because job insecurity is not just the CPE, we commit ourselves to support all the demands which may be defined by the workers in struggle, such as wage rises and the conversion of all insecure jobs into permanent ones, for example."




The student movement did not start with a single blow. At first it was just the students of Rennes who were confident that their strike would snowball, and who shut down their university, on their own for a week. So resolved the 300 university and high-school student delegates who met in Lille on April 1-2, 2006 to plan the way forward for the struggle in France.


The Lille student assembly gave a call for students to go to factories and offices, as they have often done in some areas over the last two months, and try to get workers’ meetings to discuss the future steps of the agitation including blockades of the main rail lines — again, something the students have already done in many areas. They also called on the unions to co-organise worker and student demonstrations.


The demonstrations started getting bigger as days passed by. The mobilisation of university and high school students was increasing, and a larger number of workers, especially from the private sector, took part in the demonstrations.


The action expanded into a general revolt against neo-liberalism. Already its demands have spread beyond the defeat of the CPE to others: the withdrawal of the governments so-called Law on Equal Opportunity (of which the CPE is part, but also includes the legalisation of night work for 15 year olds) and of the CNE (another government measure which allows workers in places with less than 20 employees to be sacked without the employer having to justify a reason). These measures had previously passed through the French parliament with little fuss.


It is the whole system called neo-liberalism the capitalism of today that the French students and workers are rebelling against. The whole system in which each year, more and more is privatised. More and more is given over to the free market. Jobs become less secure. Pensions dwindle. Workers have to adapt more flexibly to the demands of employers. Profits spiral.


Most of the workers, in the public sector and big private-sector enterprises, who have struck, are not directly affected at all by the CPE or the CNE. But they know about neo liberalism and about solidarity. Frances main unions threw their weight behind the struggle, organising mass demonstrations, and then calling two days of national strikes that mobilised millions of people for demonstrations across the country.


The protests shook French society like no event since 1968 – prompting former French president Valéry Giscard dEstaing to warn that the normal functioning of institutions must be re-established by scrapping the law.


This is a victory that builds confidence. Like the French students and workers, we also must resist our government's efforts to mould our futures without consulting us at all. It's our future, and we must play a role in defining it. The French students and workers showed us that this is possible.