The demonstrations against the First Employment Act (CPE) are continuing as each day goes by. Over one and a half months several millions of secondary school students, university students and workers have come out on the streets or been out on strike to demand the withdrawal of the CPE – and increasingly also calling for the government's resignation. Faced with the growing extent of the mobilisations, the right wing has become scared and divided. Every day there are defections or critical voices inside the ranks of the UMP [the right-wing party]. They fear that the magnificent movement of the youth will end up involving the workers in a massive mobilisation. The student youth has already played in history the role of a catalyst for a revolutionary explosion. This was the case for example in May 1968. This is what is frightening all those who accuse Villepin of “playing with fire”.
In order to ward off this risk, the government and the media are trying hard to discredit the movement and to scare the population with the spectre of the “rioting mob”. And yet, in a movement as massive as this one, confrontations with the police forces are inevitable. Whatever one might think about their methods, the youth who are harassing the riot squads are driven by a legitimate revolt against the CPE or against an unjust system they are subjected to every day. Let us also keep in mind the numerous testimonies reporting provocations on the part of the riot police, which are completely in accordance with the reputation of this particularly reactionary part of the police. As far as those idiotic youth who have simply been taking advantage of these demonstrations to rob people of their bags and mobile phones, the only way of keeping these elements at a distance would be by reinforcing the student mobilisations with the stewarding services of the trade unions. However, of those hundreds of youth who have been taken in for questioning, several of whom have faced the humiliation of being imprisoned, the majority have nothing to do with the image of “rioters” fearing neither God nor man, as portrayed by the media.
The government manoeuvring
At the time of the May/June 2003 movement against the “reform” of the pensions, it was enough for the government to throw some meagre concessions at François Chérèque for him to betray the movement. Thus the leadership of the CFDT delivered a severe blow to the then mobilisation. In the hope of renewing this experience, the government pretended to slightly soften the CPE. They have proposed to reduce the trial period to one year, which would boil down to making the rope with which they want to hang the youth a few centimetres longer. In addition, the big bosses made it clear they didn't object to the need to “motivate” the sackings of young workers subject to the CPE – on condition, they added, that they cannot resort to an industrial tribunal! In other words, a young worker subject to the CPE who would have to go through the lay-off procedure would get some consolation from a letter and a talk, but would not get the juridical benefits of a short term or permanent contract.
The union leadership has rejected these scandalous proposals. The intransigence of Chérèque, who is as usual quick to capitulate, shows the power of the movement and the pressure on the trade union apparatus. Faced with this unified trade union front, the government is playing the card of using a delaying tactic – under the guise of “continuing the dialogue”. Thus, on March 24 in the afternoon, Villepin received the workers' unions for a dialogue. Was he going to announce the withdrawal of the CPE? Of course not. Besides, in order to make things clear, Chirac declared two hours before the meeting that the CPE “would be implemented”. But then what was the point of this mock dialogue? It served nothing from the point of view of the movement against the CPE. On the contrary, from the point of view of the government this manoeuvre was meant to give the impression that “something was happening” and that they were making “progress” – in short, that it wouldn't be necessary to strike and demonstrate on March 28. We have to recognise that by accepting this meeting, the union leaders have made a tactical mistake. The youth organisations, on their part, are a hundred percent right to refuse the invitation of the Prime Minister, who is trying to gain time and hide his resolve behind the smokescreen of a pseudo-dialogue.
The trade union leadership has decided to organise a “day of action with work stoppages, strikes and demonstrations of all sections of the working class”. Why use this convoluted watchword instead of the more simple and clearer call for a “general strike of 24 hours”? René Valladon, federal secretary of Force Ouvrière, says that the weakness of a demand for a general strike is in “its insurrectional connotations”. This type of statement on the part of a union leader illustrates the fear that a general strike of 24 hours would be the starting point for an unlimited strike. Let us not forget that in 1968 a general strike of 24 hours was organised on May 13, to protest against the brutal repression of the students. Five days later in France 6 million people were on an indefinite strike – and more than 10 million at the peak of the movement. Such are the great traditions of the French labour movement. Unfortunately, it seems that this fear is not only shared by the French ruling class, but also by a good number of trade union leaders.
For the dissolution of the National Assembly!
As usual, the CGT [Communist trade union] is the most combative of the trade union confederations. However, we think the demands of its national leadership lack substance in relation to the critical situation we find ourselves in now. In a note to its local organisations, the leadership of the CGT is demanding that, “in the demonstrations, the demands should be focused on the CPE, on questions of job insecurity, jobs, wages, without going into any political content.” Does this recommendation mean that we should not go down the road of demanding the resignation of the government and the immediate calling of new elections? If that is the case, it is clearly a mistake. De Villepin has said several times that he would not withdraw the CPE. At the same time the polls show that the government is completely discredited. The movement against the CPE draws its strength from the accumulated anger resulting from all the counter-reforms implemented by the right wing. On the electoral plane, the rejection of the government has been clearly expressed on three occasions: first in the regional and European elections of 2004, then in the referendum on the European Constitution. In this context, the call for the dissolution of the National Assembly would get a powerful echo amongst the population, as indicated by the numerous placards on demonstrations that demand the resignation of de Villepin. The youth and the workers would understand that it is necessary to fight not only for the withdrawal of the CPE, but also to overthrow a government that counts on using the rest of the year to launch new attacks on our rights and our working conditions.
The PS and the PCF should demand the immediate calling of legislative and presidential elections. It is time to remove the right wing from power. The CPE and the CNE are a brutal expression of the capitalist system. They show that the ruling class is ready to throw the youth and the workers into a deep abyss of insecurity in order to safeguard their profit margins. In this context we clearly have to say that on the basis of capitalism, progressive reforms can only have an extremely limited impact – which is precisely why the bosses are opposing them with all their might. A socialist or communist programme worth the name has to include decisive measures to break the resistance of the bosses, in order to start the nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy under the democratic control of the workers themselves.
Whatever the outcome of the present movement, one thing is clear: France has entered an extremely turbulent social and political period, in the course of which the mass of the people will draw the conclusion that we have to finish off the capitalist system. And once the French working class starts this decisive battle, no force on earth will be able to stop it.
- Mass protests and strikes in France: the dawning of a new era by Greg Oxley (March 21, 2006)
- Audio interview with Greg Oxley on the protests in France (March 20, 2006)
French workers and youth unite against the First Employment Contract: No to all precarious contracts by Mikael Duthu (March 16, 2006)