Mass Resistance & Reformist Treachery:
The Anti-CPE Movement in France
The recent struggle to spike the Contrat première embauche (CPEFirst Job Contract for young workers) demonstrated the social power of the French working class as it resisted capitalist attempts to slash working and living standards. This fightback, which was ignited and driven forward by university and lycée (high school) students, was supported by a majority of the population. In March and early April, tens of thousands of workers staged 24-hour protest strikes, while three million demonstrators, mostly students and workers, marched in opposition to the governments plans.
Six months earlier, on 4 October 2005, a million people participated in a day of action called by the trade unions in part to protest Prime Minister Dominique de Villepins introduction of the Contrat nouvelles embauches (CNENew Jobs Contract) allowing small companies to fire workers without cause during a two-year trial period. Having registered their objections, the union leadership dropped the issue, and went back to business as usual. By mid-January 280,000 new precarious contracts had been signed (Le Monde, 17 January).
During October and November 2005, thousands of mainly black and Arab youths in Frances suburban ghettos, chronic victims of massive unemployment and pervasive racism, exploded in anger after cops chased two innocent teenagers to their deaths. The government responded with heavy police repression. When things calmed down, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy renewed efforts to tighten immigration controls as part of his attempt to woo the electoral base of the fascist National Front (Le Monde, 30 March). De Villepin, Sarkozys main rival for the 2007 presidential nomination of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) had announced plans for legislation to, among other things, exempt certain employers from tax and social contributions, legalize night work for 15 year-olds, lower the age for entering apprenticeships to 14 and introduce parental responsibility contracts aimed at cutting off family allowances for those whose children were charged with skipping school. But the most contentious part of de Villepins Equality of Opportunity bill was the CPE for workers under the age of 26, a measure ostensibly aimed at reducing youth unemployment. In promoting the CPE, de Villepin let slip the suggestion that a single contract to ensure labor flexibility throughout the economy was under consideration. This was widely perceived as a threat to the wages and job security of all working people.
When asked for his reaction to de Villepins proposal, Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), immediately responded: The method is inadmissible (Le Monde, 18 January). The French union bureaucracy favors concertation, a class-collaborationist model in which legislation is drafted only after the social partners (union leaders and bosses) have been consulted.
Students & Workers Fight Back
On 7 February, 400,000 protesters, mostly students, took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of the CPE. This action was initiated by an inter-union meeting of National Students Union of France (UNEF), National Lycée Students Union (UNL), CGT, French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), Force Ouvrière (FO), United Syndical Federation (FSU) and National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA). The various left organizations, including the Communist Party (PCF) and the Socialist Party (PS), supported the day of action. The FSU, comprised mostly of teachers unions, even called on its members to walk off the job in solidarity.
The more militant elements in the so-called anti-CPE movement also wanted to defeat the entire Equality of Opportunity bill. Many protesters thought the campaign against the CPE could reignite the struggle against the CNE, and the more politically advanced elements understood the importance of including the defense of immigrants and ghetto youth as part of a general campaign against précarité (insecurity).
The success of the 7 February protest touched off a wave of student meetings and demonstrations. The UNEF leadership (which is close to the PS) instructed its branches on how to organize general assemblies (AGs) and curb the influence of leftists (Le Monde, 16 February). AGs are open to all students, and anyone who attends a meeting gets to vote on whatever is being discussedwhether to issue a leaflet, block access to the campus, occupy a building, etc. At the beginning of the anti-CPE movement, attendance at AGs on many campuses was limited, but as the struggle developed, participation grew steadily.
A national week of action was declared between 13 and 20 February. On 18 February representatives from student AGs from 30 universities, meeting in Rennes to coordinate the anti-CPE movement, called for student strikes and blockages. This was the first of several national coordinations, which at points began to operate as a parallel organizing body to the official students unions. By 1 March, according to the UNEF, students at 13 universities were on strike.
A 7 March day of action called by the inter-union group drew an estimated one million participants (two-thirds of whom were workers) in over 160 cities across France. Two hundred thousand marched through Paris, 100,000 in Marseilles, 70,000 in Bordeaux, 50,000 in Toulouse and 30,000 in Rennes (Le Monde, 9 March). The CGT leadership, which refused to issue a national strike call for the day, did authorize its individual branches to decide for themselves whether to go out. FO, Union syndicale Solidaires (which includes the SUD unions representing postal workers and rail workers) and the FSU issued inter-professional strike calls. Local public transportation was affected in Paris and other cities, and strikes occurred in many public-sector workplaces and in postal and telecommunications services (Nouvel Observateur [online], 7 March).
On 8 March, students occupied Sorbonne University in Paris for the first time since 1968. By 9 March, students were on strike at 38 universities, and unrest was spreading to an increasing number of lycées and polytechnical institutes. As momentum grew there was a widespread expectation that the government would take a step back, but de Villepin still attempted to ride it out.
The Conflict Hardens
On 11 March the vicious CRS riot cops attacked the students occupying the Sorbonne in one of the most publicized instances of police brutality against CPE opponents. De Villepin appeared on television the following night and arrogantly declared, the law that has been voted will be applied (Le Monde, 14 March). His remarks sparked renewed protests, especially among lycée students, tens of thousands of whom took to the streets on 14 March. Many shut down their schools, and others carried out coup de poing operations (e.g., occupying the local offices of the bosses association, blocking train tracks, etc.). A 16 March student day of action drew an estimated half million participants with more than 100,000 in Paris.
As the anti-CPE movement spread from the big cities and their suburbs into small towns and remote areas, it slowly dawned on the French ruling class that the situation was potentially serious. The IFOP polling agency reported that as the conflict hardens the youth are radicalizing and are more open to far left formations (Le Monde, 24 March). The governments obstinacy, while failing to blunt the protests, encouraged the fascists to crawl out of the woodwork. On 16 March, for instance, a couple of dozen rightist youths armed with iron bars stormed into Toulouse-I University to dislodge a student occupation (Le Monde, 17 March).
The next day, when a group of university presidents met with de Villepin, the head of Metz University, Richard Lioger, pleaded: Mr. Prime Minister, were on the verge of implosion. Do something (Le Monde, 20 March). Interior Minister Sarkozy fretted: There is a danger that this agitation of the lycée and university students will stir up the suburbs, which remain extremely tense (Le Monde, 24 March). Laurence Parisot, head of the MEDEF, (the main employers federation), worried aloud that the conflict was threatening the cohesion of the social fabric (Le Monde, 27 March).
A third national day of action on Saturday 18 March drew 1.5 million protesters, many of them workers. Three hundred and fifty thousand marched in Paris, 130,000 in Marseilles and 50,000 in Toulouse (Le Figaro, 19 March). Once again the police response was aggressive: 167 people were arrested in Paris alone and one 39 year-old trade-union activist, Cyril Ferez, was beaten so savagely that he ended up in a coma for three weeks.
Following the 18 March demonstrations, the union tops solemnly call[ed] upon the government and the president of the republic to bring an end to the social tensions. By 20 March, 67 universities and a quarter of Frances 4,330 lycées were reportedly experiencing disruptions. In some places authorities resorted to administrative closures of campuses and lycées to undermine anti-CPE activity. There were several instances of anti-blockage groups composed of student supporters of the conservative UMP, backed by university administrators, attempting to mobilize apolitical students to reverse the blockages and strikes. Despite some successes, the reactionaries were unable to diffuse the mounting anger and frustration among working-class youth.
A 19 March statement issued by the national students coordination meeting in Dijon called for escalating the struggle:
The national coordination calls for a general strike until the Equality of Opportunity law and the CNE have been withdrawn. It calls for the building and extending of the strikes and picket lines in the universities and lycées. It calls on the leadership of the union organizations to call for a general strike until the Equality of Opportunity law and the CNE have been withdrawn, and to build for it with the university and lycée students by calling for general assemblies in workplaces.
The coordination proposed that the inter-union meeting on 20 March initiate a general strike for 23 March. Instead, the inter-union group endorsed a 23 March student day of action while calling for a 28 March inter-professional day of action with work stoppages, strikes and demonstrations.
A statement released by the inter-union group following their meeting expressed the hope that the government must have the wisdom to get out of the impasse it has placed itself in. Despite having declared the withdrawal of the CPE to be a precondition for any discussion, the union leaders sat down with the prime minister on 24 March. They hypocritically claimed that they met with de Villepin merely to reiterate their demand that the CPE be withdrawn before engaging in any dialogue or negotiation. Following the meeting, CGT general secretary Thibault warned:
I didnt sense that the prime minister was aware of the gravity of the situation .It is dangerous to play for the degradation of a social mobilization. It inspires youths who want to resort to other forms of contestation. The government is playing with fire.
On 23 March, 450,000 protestersmostly studentsagain took to the streets. They were joined by gas and electricity workers protesting the privatization of Gaz de France. Once again the police attacked the demonstrators, arresting several hundred. The capitalist media focused much of its coverage on denouncing casseurs (wreckers), a term applied mostly to black and Arab youth from the suburban ghettos who participated in confrontations with the cops. The popular press played up the relatively few instances where lumpenized suburban youths stole cameras and assaulted protesters. The denunciation of the casseurs was clearly aimed at weakening the movement by promoting racist hysteriasomething the trade-union bureaucrats generally went along with. There was one ugly incident in which CGT marshals beat up a few youths from the suburbs and then turned them over to the cops (Libération, 29 March).
Three million people participated in the fourth national day of action on 28 March. Some 700,000 marched in Paris, 250,000 in Marseilles and demonstrations occurred in 250 other towns and cities. Public-sector employees were joined by steelworkers, autoworkers, communications and transport workers in walking off the job. None of the Parisian dailies appeared, and the Eiffel Tower was closed for most of the day. Again, the protests were violently attacked by the police and 800 were arrested (Le Monde, 30 March).
On 29 March the inter-union group once again appealed to the state authorities to grant a concession which they could use as an excuse to demobilize their ranks:
It is urgent that the highest authorities of the state take stock of the situation and respond unambiguously to this demand [the withdrawal of the CPE and the opening of negotiations]. To avoid the country sliding into a deep crisis, the government must resolve to do this. The inter-union group asks the president of the republic to use his constitutional prerogatives to have the CPE withdrawn.
On 31 March, President Jacques Chirac appeared on national television to announce that the Equality of Opportunity bill would become law, but that he would ask that the CPE not be applied while the government opened negotiations with the unions. This clumsy maneuver, intended to help de Villepin save face while also providing the union leadership with an excuse to pull the plug on the struggle, only further enraged the young protesters, and the actions continued to spread. The national students coordination (including representatives from the lycées) met on 1 April in Lille and reiterated its call for a general strike, while leading elements of the Socialist Party began to talk about a regime crisis (Le Monde, 2-3 April).
The fifth national day of action on 4 April once again drew an estimated 3 million participants. This time there was less public-sector strike activity, though more private-sector workers participated. Many trade-union militants were growing impatient with the governments stubbornness and their own leaderships temporizing. On 5 April Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the fascist National Front, denounced Trotskyist agitators disguised as trade unionists and accused Sarkozy of tolerating anarchy (Le Monde, 8 April). In fact more than 3,000 people were arrested during the anti-CPE struggle, as many as had been apprehended during the suburban rioting in October and November. Some of the anti-CPE protesters were sentenced to six months in jail after hasty, kangaroo court trials.
Union Leaders Pull the Plug
By early April events were coming to a head. The union bureaucrats, whose goal from the beginning had merely been to force the government to withdraw the CPE and enter into a new round of negotiations, were becoming worried about their ability to contain the struggle. While contacts between union leaders and the government had already been covertly renewed as early as 11 March (Le Monde, 12-13 March) the labor tops were concerned about the optics of openly negotiating prior to the withdrawal of the CPE. However, their anxiety that events might escape their control ultimately proved decisive. After de Villepin met with the heads of the five labor confederations on 24 March, the whole 12-member inter-union group demanded a similar meeting, and once again solemnly reminded the government of the gravity of the situation in which the country has been plunged.
Chiracs announcement of the promulgation and non-application of the CPE on 31 March effectively removed de Villepin from the dossier. Interior Minister Sarkozy immediately contacted the union leaders on 1 April to initiate negotiations. On 10 April, the government announced that the CPE would be replaced by new legislation. The labor bureaucrats hailed this as an authentic success, despite the fact that the rest of the Equality of Opportunity law and the CNE remain intact. The national students coordination advocated continuing the struggle and the union tops promised to support them. But while student militants, backed by workers in some cases, continued with coup de poing operations at train stations and postal sorting centers for a week or so, the anti-CPE movement quickly evaporated.
Fake Socialists Push Popular Frontism
For PS and PCF politicians the anti-CPE struggle was an opportunity to showcase policies and candidates for the 2007 elections. At the outset, PS leader François Hollande said: Lets be realistic, the text is going to pass. The explanatory work were engaged in will not end in the street but at the ballot box, in 2007 (Le Monde, 1 February). Despite the success of the first day of action on 7 February, Hollande insisted: I dont know a better way to beat the right than by winning elections, a statement that PCF general secretary, Marie-George Buffet, solidarized with, observing: No one thinks otherwise (Le Monde, 10 February).
The PCF and PS leaderships, and their allies among the labor and student bureaucrats, officially supported the struggle, but their chief concern throughout was to bring the government to its senses before an explosion threatened the unity of the nation. After Chirac attempted his 31 March promulgation/non-application maneuver, the PCF complained that the government was acting not as though it wanted to resolve the crisis, but as though it were looking to send it spiraling out of control (LHumanité, 1 April).
Between 1997 and 2002 France was ruled by a government of the left, i.e., a popular-front coalition of the reformist PS and PCF with a few small bourgeois formations (the Greens, Left Radical Party [PRG] and Citizens Movement [MDC]). Like all popular fronts, the watchword was unity, i.e., remaining within the limits of what the progressive wing of the bourgeoisie finds acceptable. The supposed need to maintain the coalition was used as an alibi by the PCF/PS leaders for implementing their pro-capitalist agenda.
The anti-CPE struggle unfolded as the PCF and PS were maneuvering to assemble another popular-front coalition for the 2007 elections. Among the potential bourgeois participants which endorsed the anti-CPE campaign were the Greens, PRG, Republican Left (GR), Republican Citizen Movement (MRC), Citizens Alternative, Alternatifs, Movement for a Social Republican Alternative (MARS) and Regions and Peoples in Solidarity. The pseudo-Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) occupies a slot on the far left wing of this movement for a popular front. On 31 March, as events were reaching their height, the LCR and other opposition parties met in the National Assembly for a joint press conference. The communiqué issued at the end of the meeting begged the government to back down in the interest of the country and called upon all citizens to take part in the day of action on 4 April.
The LCR had refused to participate in an 8 February meeting of parties of the left on the grounds that it was a trap for workers set by those whose real interest lay in creating a new Plural Left government. Yet two days later the LCR announced it would be participating in the comité Riposte (Fightback Committee) set up at the meeting. The LCR then scandalized many leftists by endorsing the committees servile popular petition requesting Parliament to debate [the CPE] again.
As the anti-CPE struggle reached its zenith in late March, the remarks of the LCRs 2002 presidential candidate to a meeting in Paris seemed to slightly bemuse the PCF:
For Olivier Besancenot, the situation is similar to 1968 or 1995. The LCR has at last said it is ready to discuss publicly with all of the forces of the left the content of the alternative to completely change politics, but reiterated its refusal of any alliance with the former Plural Left.
Despite occasional bits of vestigial pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, the LCRs popular-frontist orientation is well established. Its backhanded support to Chirac in the second round of the 2002 presidential election is proof positive that that for these revolutionary communists the fundamental Marxist principle of working-class political independence from the bourgeoisie is entirely meaningless.
The Workers Party (PTassociated with ex-Trotskyist Pierre Lambert) cast the fight against the CPE as part of a struggle for the reconquest of democracy. PT presidential candidate Daniel Gluckstein observed: The government is simply obeying the orders of the IMF and the Maastricht-Amsterdam Treaty [i.e., the European Union] in instituting its First Job Contract. He also complained that, the European Union is only playing the tune of the International Monetary Fund (in other words, Washingtons capitalists) (Informations Ouvrières, 19-25 January). This echoes the national chauvinism of the union bureaucrats, who never tire of pushing the lie that the main enemy of French workers are American, rather than French, capitalists.
Defensive General Strike: Strategy for Victory
As the tempo of the mobilizations increased, the possibility of a defensive general strike was clearly posed. Instead of timid 24-hour inter-professional days of action, a general strike to scrap the Equality of Opportunity bill and the CNE would have meant mobilizing the entire working class to shut down services, production and transportation. The youth who animated the struggle with their energy and enthusiasm would certainly have eagerly supported such an initiative.
The chief obstacle to launching a general strike was the opposition of the major reformist political parties and their counterparts in the trade-union bureaucracy. None of the larger far left groups seriously campaigned for a general strike. The ostensibly Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (LO) put little energy into the anti-CPE movement, and limited itself to calling for increasing the number and frequency of strikes. At no point did LO pose the necessity of meeting the capitalist offensive with a general strike. The PT at least mentioned the possibility of a general strike, but posed it simply as a bargaining chipi.e., something the unions could threaten to initiate if the CPE was not withdrawn (see Informations Ouvrières, 9-15 March). The LCR, which threw all its resources into the campaign, routinely confused the issue of a serious general strike with the bureaucrats 24-hour inter-professional strikes, which were never intended to do much more than blow off steam. The leftist leadership of Solidaires issued occasional pronouncements in favor of a general strike, but happily joined the other labor tops in solemn appeals to the government to end the crisis.
Launching a viable general strike would have, at the very least, required overcoming the passive resistance of the bureaucracy. The union leadership would only have taken up the demand in order to maintain control over the rank and file, and would have inevitably sabotaged any serious struggle at the first opportunity. This is why it was necessary to call for AGs in every workplace to elect strike committees and delegates to local, regional and national assemblies to carry out an effective general strike. The creation of such bodies would not be enough to negate the political influence of the bureaucrats and pseudo-socialist PCF and PS, but they could have provided an arena for revolutionaries to expand their influence by putting forward the measures necessary to win, while exposing the defeatist, class-collaborationist policies of the reformists.
An effective general strike could well have brought down the government and triggered a new round of elections. But while there was immense opposition to the bourgeois assault on job security, there was never any serious prospect of an immediate revolutionary challenge to the rule of the bourgeoisie. New elections would likely have produced a left governmenta popular-front coalition of the PS/PCF with the Greens, MRC and/or some other petty-bourgeois formations. The LCR, along with various other revolutionary groups, would certainly have offered their support, with or without critical fig leaves.
In 1974, the then-revolutionary Spartacist League/U.S. addressed a situation in which the combative British working class faced a generalized attack that required a generalized response, yet lacked any organization capable of approximating a class-struggle leadership. In such circumstances, the SL concluded:
it would be the worst kind of scholastic passivity to argue that the workers must accept, without struggle, whatever the Tories do to them because their leaders might betray a general strike that could win.
In recent years the degenerated SL and its satellites in the International Communist League (ICL, including the Ligue trotskyste de France [LTF]) have rejected this approach in favor of asserting that a general strike should only be attempted under the leadership of a hegemonic revolutionary party (for our critique of this idiocy see: In Defense of Tactics, 1917 No. 20). The propaganda issued during the anti-CPE struggle by the LTF entirely ignored the question of the general strike, except in unfavorably comparing the situation in France today with that of 1968:
The LTFs record in the recent struggle suggests that the leaders of the ICL are a great deal more demoralized than the French working class. By contrasting this years confrontation to that of 1968, the LTF is clearly suggesting that a general strike would have failed. In November-December 1995 the ICL rejected the call for a general strike for similarly pessimistic reasons (see 1917 No. 18 for our analysis of that struggle).
The August 1991 triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union was an enormous defeat for the international proletariatbut it hardly follows that the French working class has lost the capacity to beat back the bosses attacks. The problem in 1968, in 1995 and today is that the misleaders of the workers organizations, many of whom claim to be socialists and even revolutionaries, pursue a policy of class collaboration. The task of Marxists is to combat their pro-capitalist influence in the working class through advancing a program of class struggle and putting forward tactics that will enable the unions to defeat the capitalist offensive and win new gains. A new, mass revolutionary workers leadership for tomorrow can only be forged through class-struggle militants demonstrating the superiority of their ideas in the course of participating in the actual struggles of today.
The Groupe Bolchevik (GBa tendency that traces its origins to Stéphane Justs break with the Lambert group in 1984) was properly critical of the blatant popular-frontism of most of the supposedly socialist organizations. The GB advocated escalating the struggle with a general strike and called for AGs in every workplace. In its propaganda the GB also linked the struggle against the CPE to the fight against racism and xenophobia, and to the defense of immigrants and minorities.
The GB criticized the treacherous role of the labor bureaucrats and the PCF/PS (as well as their LCR fellow travelers) but much of their propaganda focused on demands that the union leadership initiate measures it was completely opposed toin particular, launching a general strike. For example, a 12 March GB leaflet was headlined: Union leaders: refuse to negotiate the CPE! Call for a general strike until the Villepin law is abrogated! In its 15 March leaflet, the GB advised the union leadership: your responsibility is to call right now for a general strike!
In principle there is nothing wrong with placing demands on the leaders of the workers organizations in order to expose the contradiction between their militant rhetoric and their craven actions. Yet, in this situation, with the bureaucrats openly seeking to demobilize the protests, to focus on their responsibility to initiate a general strike (something they would only have contemplated had they begun to lose control of their base) was more likely to create illusions than to dispel them. While a general strike could not be organized over the heads of the union leaders, it was necessary for revolutionaries to do more than exhort them to lead one. To take advantage of the contradictions between the union officialdom and their base, revolutionaries had to combine agitation for the creation of workplace AGs and strike committees with explanations of why the bureaucrats refused to undertake any serious preparations for a general strike.
Capitalist Precariousness v Socialist Rationality
The debate over flexibility and security that framed the recent struggle in France reflects the fundamental antagonism between capital and labor. The struggle against the CPE demonstrated that tens of thousands of youths and working-class militants are willing to fight attempts by the bosses to erode living and working standards.
The job of the Marxist vanguard is to explain that under capitalism precariousness is the permanent condition of waged labor and that no reform can change this fact. The anti-CPE movement presented revolutionaries with the opportunity to pose practical solutions to the immediate problems of vital concern to the mass of youth and working people, while also linking their struggles to the necessity of a socialist revolution. As Karl Marx observed almost 140 years ago, the working class has nothing to lose but its chainsi.e., its historical interests can only be advanced through the overthrow of bourgeois rule and the creation of a rationally planned international economic order where production is geared to meeting human need rather than maximizing private profit.
Posted: 27 May 2006