France’s extrodinary movement

Issue: 111

Annick Coupé & Marie Perrin

A quite extraordinary movement

Annick Coupé

It was a quite extraordinary movement, which lasted two and a half months, from the first demonstration to the last

mobilisation—extraordinary also in terms of the very high level of mobilisation among young people, above all those in school and university. This is important because for years

people had been telling us that young /ppeople were individualistic, not involved in collective mobilisations, not interested in political questions, and so on. Here was proof

that there was a big potential among young people for struggle and also for major political debate, political in the sense of an issue which affected them as citizens rather

than party political.

The second important aspect of the movement relates to the issues involved. The CPE became the symbol of how insecurity is taking over the world of work, but increasingly there

is a sense that insecurity is a model of society which is being imposed on us. In the movement, beyond the question of the withdrawal of the CPE, which became its unifying

demand, there was a rejection of the generalised insecurity of society, where there are no more collective rights.

The third characteristic of the movement was its unity, which was very visible in trade union terms nationally. What happened between the unions in France was completely new.

For more than two months, for the entire duration of the movement, there was a united framework of all unions, representing all workplace organisations. In Britain this is

perhaps difficult to understand but in France there are various union organisations with different standpoints. For example, the CFDT, during the movement against pension reform

in 2003, ‘betrayed’ the movement by signing an agreement with the government even though the movement was very strong.

Even in 1995 there wasn’t the same unity between unions at all. In the street most union activists might have been together but at the level of their leadership it absolutely

wasn’t the case. The leadership of the CFDT was against the movement and supported the Juppé government at the time. So 2006 was the first time in France since maybe 1968 that

this kind of trade union unity has occurred in struggle over a period of two months like this. There was also an inter-generational element to the trade union framework, where

workplace unions and student unions, representing university and school students, were on the same footing in the discussions. This was also something new and exceptional in


The fourth very interesting aspect of the movement was the phenomenon of self-organisation among young people. The most visible element of this nationally was the student

coordination, but beyond that, in the towns, in the universities, in the schools, the movement drew a lot on the mass meetings, because in numerical terms the student union

organisations are very weak. Even if these organisations were very much part of the movement, it went beyond the usual framework of the student unions. There was the concrete

solidarity between school students, university students and workers, which we saw on the big demonstrations—especially the last two, each with over 3 million people on the

streets of France (something else that was quite exceptional). And beyond that there were lots of local activities in the last weeks of the movement involving workers and

students—blocking the roads into towns or demonstrating in front of employers’ associations and so on. The movement took over the streets for several weeks.

The movement is part of an ongoing expression of a rejection of neo-liberalism. There was the campaign against the EU constitutional treaty a year ago. This was a very big

campaign which led to the victory of a no vote on a left wing, anti-neoliberal basis, rather than a nationalist or xenophobic basis. It was an anti-neoliberal vote for another

Europe. There were also two elections, defeats for the government, which caused problems for the right. Then there were the days of action last year—at least three strike days

in the public sector which didn’t lead to anything but involved big numbers. Then there were the events in the banlieue popular suburbs last November. Of course the banlieue

revolt expressed itself in very different ways to the struggle against the CPE but we think these things should really be seen as part of the same thing: what happened in the

suburbs was the expression of a major social crisis. A big part of today’s youth doesn’t see itself as having a place in a neo-liberal society. The movement against the CPE

should be seen in this context.

Young people were at the forefront of the movement. They were the motor that started it and drove it forward. There was a strong movement of solidarity in society at large among

workers and adults generally. People understood that the CPE was the last straw. Obviously, the accumulation of insecurity in the world of work didn’t start with the CPE. There

was the CNE (new employment contract) last summer, but even before that, year after year, there were new kinds of jobs which introduced various kinds of insecurity. The fact

that young people who manage to enter the job market almost always do so now in an insecure way, all this weighs on young people, but also on families. There are figures on the

number of young people who remain at home, who stay with their family even when they’ve got a job, because they can’t find housing. This is becoming a widespread phenomenon.

So to start with the revolt against the CPE was widely understood and there was real solidarity with young people. This was partly a consequence of the work of trade unions, who

explained that the CPE might only affect young people but that it would have consequences for all workers if it became law, but this convergence, this solidarity, happened very

easily. The unions, nationally, helped it to come about, but it wasn’t difficult.

The legacy of the past

The movements of 1995, 2003 and 2006 are difficult to compare although they are all, to simplify, expressions of the same anti-neoliberal

movement. In 1995 the denunciation of neo-liberalism wasn’t as strong. We talked about 1995 as the first movement against neo-liberal globalisation. In 1995 we were still in a

period dominated by the ‘pensée unique’—the view that there was no alternative model of society after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that capitalism was the limit of our horizons.

1995 was the start of a challenge to all that, in quite a confused way. It was the expression of a sense that we’d had enough. The unions weren’t exactly overtaken by the

movement, but they weren’t able to control it.

In 2003 it was another scenario. There was a movement against neoliberal pension reform, along with quite a strong movement in the education sector against the decentralisation

proposed there, and behind that a number of other measures which fragmented the status of teachers. There was a fragile unity to begin with on the basis of two fairly clear

demands, but there was division in the union movement. Very quickly the CFDT abandoned the movement. Strikes got under way, notably in transport but in other sectors too, but

the leadership of the CGT took the decision to break this movement, to put a stop to the development of a general strike. So 2003 was a heavy defeat, a total defeat. We won

nothing. The pension reforms went through, as did the decentralisation of part of the education system, and those who went on strike, especially in schools but also elsewhere,

ended up paying a high price for it in financial terms. They had a large proportion of their wages docked for several months, in some cases for over a year.

That defeat left traces, a very deep sense of defeat and bitterness. We saw this in 2004 when there was hardly any mobilisation. When there were strikes they were very weak. It

seemed difficult to go back on the offensive. In 2005 there were some quite big days of action, in the public sector but elsewhere as well, and there was the referendum on the

EU constitution. There was quite a strong movement among school students in the spring against a reform which was essentially an attempt to set up elite streams in schools. The

movement didn’t turn out too well. But in 2005 there was a revival of combativity and in political terms, with the referendum, a real debate in society over the question of


The movement of 2006 was something different again. The youth were decisive in the movement. There was the unity of the trade unions which gave strength to the movement and

meant that the government wasn’t able to play on trade union divisions and lean on one union to break the movement, as they did in 2003 over pensions. That was very positive,

that the trade union front held up to the end. At the same time it’s true that none of the traditional trade union organisations wanted to issue a clear call for a general

strike. Our analysis was that things weren’t straightforward. There was no sector where the strike figures were strong enough to get an indefinite strike under way, in contrast

to 2003. We don’t think this was simply because none of the major confederations issued a clear call for a strike. The defeat of 2003 was still in people’s minds and so workers

found it difficult to commit themselves to a strong indefinite general strike with the defeat of 2003 still weighing on them.

So I think what we’ve just been through is another new situation. There was a desire on the part of the trade unions collectively to stick with the strategy adopted by the

national inter-union body, the intersyndicale, in particular the days of action, where workers and students converged, but not to go beyond that. It’s true as well that the

intersyndicale just had one demand, the withdrawal of the CPE, and that some organisations had other demands, like the withdrawal of the CNE (which was the same as the CPE but

for small firms and for all workers) and, even more generally, the question of insecurity itself. The students, for example, had as one of their demands the withdrawal of the

so-called law on equality of opportunity, which included the CPE but also measures like apprenticeships from the age of 14.

The role of the unions

The intersyndicale played a positive role in terms of the dynamic and the strength of the movement, but at the same time it was centred on a

single demand. That was its contradiction. But we think the fact that we won on the CPE, although it hasn’t resolved the whole problem of insecurity, has put a stop to other

projects, like the government’s plan to attack contracts of indefinite duration. So the victory over the CPE, in contrast to 2003, has left the government in a deep crisis and

changed the balance of forces in the country.

Many students in towns all over France met with trade union representatives and other workers and spoke in their workplaces, and they saw that they were well received, that

people supported them, but that they weren’t ready to go on strike. The student coordination tried to think about how to deal with that. Afterwards we had some discussions with

the student coordination and it’s true they were a bit disappointed. They thought that if there wasn’t a general strike it was down to the trade union leadership.

I think that was a factor, but not the only reason. There was something in this movement that I’d call a popular mobilisation to take control of the streets. On top of the

lessons of 2003, for many workers today the question of wages is so hard that they hesitate before going on strike. We don’t draw the conclusion from this that the strike is an

outdated tool. We still think it’s pretty decisive for blocking the economy at a given moment. But there was a need to be in the streets in large numbers and to confront the

government directly. The CPE involved a direct confrontation with the government and people’s response was to say, ‘We’re going into the streets to show there are millions of

us.’ This was very strong in the movement. But we had trouble getting strikes, even in the most combative sectors. What workers said was, ‘We’ll go on the demo.’ Some went on

strike; some took a day off; some took a few hours. The idea was to go onto the streets against the government. That was the dominant thing in the movement, for lots of reasons.

But for the students it was the experience of a first struggle, a first major social movement, with all the contradictions that we know about—the trade union movement, its

contradictions, its divisions, and the fact that part of the trade union movement in France has become, for some time now, what we call ‘trade unionism of accompaniment to


It’s too early to say what the effects of the movement have been on the trade unions. The reason that all the trade unions held on to the end is because there was pressure from

the youth. At the same time, for those organisations where traditions of struggle and mobilisation had almost died out, the fact that people went into the streets and

demonstrated has recreated possibilities for mobilisation. We’ll see if in the months to come there is a more combative trade union movement. I’m not sure. But we need to

understand that we’re in a period where confrontation is difficult, because there’s not a lot of space left for unions who are looking to negotiate. What was possible for the

CFDT in 2003 over pensions, to find a little space for negotiation, however pathetic, even that is practically impossible. Here there was no space whatsoever for negotiation,

even for the kind of trade unionism that is based on negotiation without struggle. It’s possible that a section of the employers, which wasn’t very happy with the way the

government dealt with the conflict, letting it drag on, might try to recuperate part of the trade union movement. We’ll have to see in the coming months, because the elections

of 2007 are going to weigh quite heavily on things.

The politics of the movement

As for the political alternative, what’s clear is that on the principal questions raised by the movement, on insecurity, the Socialist Party

doesn’t have many proposals which do justice to the problems posed. Moreover, they’re not in agreement among themselves, between those who want a third way like Tony Blair and

those who see themselves as more traditional social democrats. We didn’t hear the Socialist Party very much in the movement. They supported it but didn’t appear as a force

capable of making alternative proposals to neo-liberalism on the question of insecurity. That’s part of the crisis of the plural left since 2002, with the defeat of Jospin and

what happened around the EU constitution, where the majority within the party called for a yes vote, and the activist and electoral base voted no. So there’s a big crisis for

the Socialist left.

For the anti-neoliberal left there are a number of debates. Many activists, both those in political organisations and those who are part of the social movement more generally,

see that the 2007 election is going to be important and that if the question of a real political alternative is not part of that debate that will have a negative effect on what

follows. This could lead either to a kind of despair where the movement is concerned or to the xenophobic, authoritarian right being able to turn social questions into questions

of identity.

As a trade union organisation we can’t intervene directly on the electoral terrain but many of our activists and those in the movement more generally are quite concerned by the

question of a unity candidate for the anti-neoliberal left. At the same time I don’t believe in an anti-neoliberal political dynamic if there aren’t social mobilisations. In

2002 the election campaign took place on the terrain of law and order, and the left let itself get pulled onto it, with social questions being relegated to a secondary

status—that’s what led to the extreme right going through to the second round.

In the ‘29 May Collectives’ which are still active we insist on the importance of political content, that there are alternatives to neo-liberalism. In the mobilisations of the

past few years we’ve seen that there’s a need to be part of the resistance to neo-liberalism but that it’s also important, in debates with workers and in society more broadly,

to show that other choices are possible. The repoliticisation of French society isn’t necessarily happening via the political parties, following the defeat of the left in the

general sense of the term. The reconstruction of political debate is happening through social mobilisations, the various spaces like the Fondation Copernic, ATTAC and the 29 May

Collectives, which involve activists from associations and political parties along with many who aren’t in a party. There is a healthy repoliticisation of debate which goes

beyond the party machines and their alliances, which have shown their limits.

Annick Coupé, a leading member of the Solidaires group of radical trade unions,
spoke to Jim Wolfreys from International Socialism.

How we built the movement

Marie Perrin

Censier University was on strike from 23 February and blockaded from the following day. Efforts to mobilise around the CPE

had begun around one month earlier through the UNEF students’ union. Around 20 people got together after a fairly huge meeting on the question of the sale of Censier to discuss

how to organise against the CPE. We set up a mobilising committee which formed the motivated core who mobilised for the mass meeting of 200 people on 23 February. The meeting

voted for the strike and the next day the ferment began: selective blockade, banners, posters, calls on students to join the mass meeting that afternoon where 400 people voted

to carry on the strike and the blockade. From the moment the blockade was in place many questions started to be asked—how to spread things, reach the biggest possible number of

students, organise the debates, the chairing, etc.

The movement didn’t come from nowhere. There had been other experiences, other student movements, other strikes. A number of students had been part of the struggle against the

LMD university reforms in 2003, a movement which was very small compared to this one, but for them it was clear that they needed help from workers to win. The fact that

lecturers and support staff had joined us was crucial not just for organising the blockades and the debates but in order to say that we’re not just fighting against the CPE but

also against the CNE—it’s the same logic, and it affects all workers, not just the youth.

We insisted from the start on the importance of reaching out to as many students as possible. The first commission which was set up was information/reception—a table with the

text of the CPE and arguments against it, and then, as things developed, a big banner, an ‘information point’, coffee, cakes and a discussion space in the entrance hall. The aim

was that every student who arrived at the university and saw they couldn’t go to classes should be informed about the action we were taking.

As time went by, the blockade, combined with the huge work of reception and information, meant that the mass meetings got even bigger. What was at stake was really to ensure

that as few students as possible left for home once they saw the university blockaded. From the outset the blockade was a means to organise ourselves and to take control of the

campus, to make it a place for debate. The debates we had weren’t just about casual employment: we had debates on Argentina, on the anti-war movement, and so on.

The mass meetings

We argued that mass meetings should be held every day to inform as many students as possible about the CPE and to decide every day, in a democratic

manner, the renewal of the strike and the blockade. At the outset the mass meetings always started with information about the CPE, and after a week this was expanded to cover

the law on equality of opportunity.

Organising the meetings and holding debates which covered all questions allowed us to reduce their duration, which could be as long as four hours, but also meant everyone could

intervene ‘when they wanted on what they wanted’. Our demands, the preparation of demos, the commissions, every proposal that came out of the debate was marked on the blackboard

and voted on at the end. We tried to ensure that the chair was rotated regularly because it’s an important job which teaches you a lot.

The lecturers and the support staff joined us in an organised way after a week of the blockade. Mass meetings of just under 100 lecturers and support staff voted not just to

strike but to participate in the blockade of the university with the students, and then to participate with the students in organising debates. Their involvement also allowed us

to become aware of their conditions of work, to discover people like the university cleaners who we’d passed by every day without even seeing them. It’s because the university

became ours, and because we cleaned out the lecture theatres and classrooms that we were occupying all day, that we got into discussions with them. They backed the movement

because their children were at university but above all because they knew what precarious working conditions meant. In fact, most of the cleaning staff at Censier had, on top of

the job at the university, another equally precarious job. That was why they couldn’t come to the mass meetings. They nevertheless had a lot to teach us, not just about their

working conditions but about how to organise a strike. Two of them had taken part in major strikes, one at Roissy airport, the other at the H&M clothing chain.

The question arose very quickly of making our university a place of animation and debate and giving each student a task which allowed them to convince ever increasing numbers of

people and to take the movement forward. Several commissions were created—the blockade, reception/
information, animation, reflection, action, external relations, press, administration, postering, liaison with lecturers/students. Each had a clear role and its size depended on

its functions. People elected to report back from each commission made up the strike committee, which met in open session every day. This way of working, from the bottom up,

meant that we could involve more people and give the movement a broad leadership.

A number of debates took place in the university, on precarious employment, for example, to which people were invited from the outside—workplace inspectors, social workers,

casual workers, contract workers in the arts, doctors—and drew in around 100 or 150 students.

Spreading the action

There were certain activities—blockades, etc—during the first part of the movement which were complementary and not in opposition to the big

demonstrations. We went to see the workers at Citroen, for example, meeting the union reps and leafleting the workers as they left the factory. Later there were debates in the

movement about the kind of action which should take place. We always argued for mass leafleting rather than minority blockades which didn’t develop the movement or involve the

maximum number of people. There was much greater emphasis on links with workers after the first big demo, not just the blockades, but on leafleting supermarkets and other

attempts to persuade workers to go on strike. And after the big demonstration on 28 March there were blockades at a big sorting office involving students and postal workers, and

a blockade at the Gare de Lyon, where trains were stopped for quite a while.

As in all movements, people generalised and had political expectations. This was our weak point; we remained quite movementist and it was the students and the new comrades who

joined the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires (JCR) who pushed us to up our game and introduce politics into the movement.

Our big weakness was that most of our groups turned around what we were pushing in the movement. We didn’t sell the paper, either on campus or on demos. We did begin to correct

that, because the new comrades want politics—there’s really a demand from them which showed us that we weren’t political enough in the movement. They more or less said to us,

‘I’ve joined a revolutionary organisation, not the movement—I’m in that already—so now what is it to be revolutionary today? What are your ideas?’

We had initiated the setting up of an alternative to neo-liberalism on campus in mid-December. This anti-neoliberal collective only intervened late in the movement, but it

really developed, to involve around 60 people, and we have been able to hold meetings of about 100 people in our local area. At a big meeting to discuss the anti-neoliberal

charter, where all the collectives were represented, there was a big debate on building a political alternative, on the possibility of a unity candidate for next year’s

presidential elections, bringing all the groups and parties of the anti-neoliberal left together in a campaign with a perspective of building a new force on the left. In the

wake of the movement the main student union, UNEF, is recruiting massively. More broadly in terms of developing an anti-neoliberal political alternative it’s very important that

the anti-neoliberal collectives develop on campus as well, and those that are growing are doing so on the basis of a new anti-neoliberal alternative on the left. Marie Perrin is

a member of the Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires at Censier University, Paris


CGT: Traditionally the strongest French union federation. Very much under Communist Party influence in the past, the leadership has in recent years asserted its independence and

its ‘modern’ approach. Only a revolt of its activists forced it to back last year’s no campaign.

CFDT: The second big union federation, with substantial strength in parts of the private section. Arose historically from a leftward shift by Christian trade union federation,

but has moved to the right in recent years, expelling militants and opposing the strikes and demonstrations of 1995.

CPE: A government measure which aimed to take away employment rights from young workers, withdrawn by President Chirac in face of the mass movement. CNE Law that allows

employers to sack any workers without reason in businesses with less than 20 employees.

19 May: Collectives Anti-neoliberal network of activists and groups formed during the no campaign against the European Constitution last year.

1995: Year which saw the biggest wave of strikes and demonstrations for more than 25 years, leading to the defeat of the Juppé government pension reforms and, a year later, to

the electoral defeat of the right.

Chronology of the anti-CPE movement

16 January 2006 Prime minister Dominique de Villepin announces the creation of the Contract of
Initial Employment (CPE) as an amend

30 January Students take part in a week of mobilisation against the CPE.

7 February First mobilisations of students and workers against the CPE: 400 000 take part in 187 demonstrations.

9 February The government passes its Law on Equality of Opportunity, including the CPE, by decree.
14 February Students blockade the University of Rennes.

7 March Half France’s universities now on strike. One million demonstrate across the country.

11 March Riot police break up the occupation of the Sorbonne after three days.

14 March Student day of action. Demonstrations and mass meetings take place all over France. Nantes train station is occupied by students.

16 March Students demonstrate across France, as more schools and universities join the movement.

18 March 1.5 million demonstrate across France. In Paris riot police trample SUD-PTT union activist Cyril Ferez, leaving him in a coma.

23 March Paris demonstration ends with violent clashes between groups of youths, demonstrators and police.

27 March Nearly a quarter of high schools estimated to be on strike.

28 March Three million demonstrate across France.

29 March Poll shows 83 percent of population oppose CPE.

30 March Groups of students block roads and railway lines all over France. Constitutional Council declares CPE is legal.

31 March President Chirac announces on television that he will ratify the CPE, but declares that it
will not be implemented. Spontaneous demonstrations break out in many towns and cities.

2 April Student coordination meets in Lille and calls for indefinite general strike.

4 April Three million demonstrate across France for the second week running.

5 April Blockades of roads and railways, occupations of town halls, ruling UMP party offices and sorting offices continue throughout the week.

10 April The CPE is scrapped.