A New Spring

Since February 2006, French students have mobilized against a key governmental measure, the First Hiring Contract, which envisages, according to the French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the possibility of reducing youth unemployment, whose rate in 2006 (23%) is far higher than the overall unemployment rate (approximately 9%). The first hiring contract (CPE) will apply to all those under 26 years of age. Contrary to what its name indicates, an employee can be included under its provisions even if it is not his/her first job. Under the CNE (New Recruiting Contract), the provisions of the law will apply for a period of two years, during which the employer can terminate the employment contract without having to provide reasons for dismissal.

At the beginning of February, in a common call, organizations of young people created a collective against the CPE. These students define the CPE as a sanction for "insecure" employment. They estimate, rightly, that the contract will facilitate abusive dismissals and insecurity. The movement started relatively spontaneously, and was then latched onto by the left and the trade unions. The movement started with mobilizations of students in the large French cities. Tuesday February 7, 2006, 700.000 people demonstrated their opposition to the CPE. Certain universities, like the Universities of Rennes II and Paris III, saw their students go on strike. The movement then began to grow. The students organized "general assemblies" in the amphitheaters of the universities. In several, they voted to prevent the holding of courses.

On March 10, dozens of universities (a total of 84 according to the student movement) were affected or occupied following votes in "General Assemblies" in the amphitheatres. The universities of Toulouse-II Le Mirail, Rennes-II, Montpellier-II and III, Nice-Sophia-Antipolis UFR of Nice and Valbonne and the campus of Nice Ville II were all occupied. On the night of the 10 to the 11, the Sorbonne was evacuated by the police force before the end of the third night of its occupation by students demanding the rescinding of the law, the CPE. The Sorbonne, a part of the square and the adjacent streets, has been closed by the CRS [the Security Police] since March 11. Roving actions have also been organized, like the blocking of trains (Nantes), or expressways (Rennes, Nice).

On March 17, the government sought "to renew the dialogue" and to "improve" the CPE through discussion. It sought to include the unions, but they refused to negotiate as long as the CPE was not rescinded. On Saturday, March 18, a day national protest took place with 1,5 million demonstrators according to the CGT union, with marches in 160 towns in France. Clashes with the police force occurred at the end of the demonstration in Paris.

A general strike across France took place on March 28. Strike notices were put up by the trade unions for April 4 calling for demonstrations throughout France. At the end of March, president Chirac publicly intervened in support of the measures of his Prime Minister. The movement continues.

These events must be situated in a general context of the crisis of the capitalist system. The transition of capitalism towards a post-Fordist society reflects the progress of capital. And yet this progress has been bought at the price of a horrible social regression. The continuation of the existence of capitalist civilization and of a mode of production based on the operation of the law of the value leads the human species to devastation on a scale never before seen in history. The economic crisis cannot be managed, and the insecurity of ever-larger sectors of the population, globally entails war, destruction, famine, and, even in the most industrialized countries, the absence of a viable future for many young people. If these student struggles express the reactions of the unemployed of the future, the CPE institutionalizes the fall in wages, and that concerns the whole of the working class. The bourgeoisie, confronted with the reality of globalization, tries to reorganize the labor market. The shifting of productive activities to zones where the value of labor power is lower necessitates a reorganization of the labor market and the opening up of other sectors, utilizing different workers, adaptable, pliable... entailing for workers as a whole an increased insecurity.

The determined reactions of young people also express their dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of the forms of teaching, and the very structures of education. The crisis and the effects of post-Fordism disturb the basic function of schools, which have increasing difficulty in transmitting any kind of meaning to the acquisition of new knowledge, "competence" simply allowing an unspecified insertion in a world of production, or non-production for the unemployed, the sole point of which is the valorization of capital. The school, which functions as the site for the reproduction of the social and cultural values of the bourgeoisie, is also confronted with the effects of the transformations of post-Fordism and has ever-greater difficulty in carrying out its traditional role. Today, there is a gap between the institutions that teach the population at large, and the specialized institutions (the so-called "Grandes Ecoles," the ENA, the ENS) reserved for the future elites of France’s state apparatus.

The movement expresses a reaction against the logic of capitalism, the prospect of a generalized insecurity, the necessity for exploitation, wars, an exacerbation of poverty. It is against this logic that the movement is directed, instantiating the expression of a desire for change, though one that remains fuzzy as to its precise demands. This movement thus expresses the lack of perspective for youth. It is obvious that it is not a simply a question of asking for an unspecified right to live "with dignity". The demands, which appeared spontaneously, are quite succinct: NO to the CPE, and its institutionalization of insecurity. These elements highlight the reality of an increasingly obvious dysfunction of society and also clearly express the absence of any adherence to the alternative "solutions" of the left.

This time, the working class has reacted and transformed the very terms in which the struggle is being waged, forcing the unions to reveal themselves by overtly seeking to contain the movement, and preventing its generalization to other sectors. If the possibility of a generalization to the working class were possible at the beginning of the movement, the unions have been able to recuperate themovement, transforming it into a political expression of the left/right oppostion, with the next presidential election (2007) as a backdrop. This is also what can explain the intransigent reaction of the current, right, French government, which is sticking to its guns. This situation thus unleashes state violence, the power of the French bourgeoisie utilizing a democratic discourse, in the justification of a new attack against the standard of living of the workers. Without a reaction of the working class, the bourgeoisie can let the situation deteriorate, putting the spotlight on the violence of fringe-elements, accentuating the insecurity even more.

Riots in the suburbs, generalization of the student movement, increasing strikes, the social climate is profoundly changed and opens up the perspective for breaching the social dikes that capitalism has constructed. The reactions of French youth presage a new spring.

April 1, 2006

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