What remains of the anti-CPE movement? Echanges et Mouvement

Anti-CPE protest 2006

A retrospective written by friends of Echanges et Mouvement. The text criticises the movement on a rather general level, e.g. of not being able to go beyond the boundaries of its student character and provides some overview of past student mobilisations in France.

Some 'revolutionary people', in an article about the autumn 2005 suburbs riots in France asked the question: “Could these riots be integrated into class struggle?”. The question, in fact, implied the answer which was “NO, they couldn’t be”. These people were not alone to adopt such a position.

The same people did not asked the same question about the spring 2006 anti-CPE movement in France. As if it would have been totally irrelevant to ask then such a question because the answer would have evidently been “YES, it was”; these people thought it did not even have to be asked.

It is not difficult to explain the differences of opinion and analysis about these two major social events that appeared in France only a few months apart. All kinds of organisations (official ones, established parties and unions, revolutionary groups, the rainbow of 'organised' individual vanguard people were totally alien from the suburbs riots and on the contrary, all of them were like fishes in the water in the anti-CPE movement, of course for different and opposed purposes.

On all sides, the capitalists and their ruling bodies (parties and unions) and all the vanguard people (organised or not in formal or informal groups) were contaminated by a common disease: the May 1968 syndrome. There is a persistent legend that in May 68, the student movement was the vanguard of the workers general strike, in other words that this specific category of people (not a class in itself) was more radical and had a better 'consciousness' than the workers and could show them the way and lead them towards an emancipation revolutionary movement. So, in the spring 2006, the vanguard Diaspora felt itself mobilised to intervene in the anti-CPE movement in order to push it on revolutionary paths, to help it to 'go beyond' (according to the words of one of these groups). In general, these vanguard groups were welcomed by the intellectual milieu of the students, because the students were very receptive to intellectual speculation on the future, a practice they mastered well and could easily instil into neophytes’ heads. Even if they did not reveal the conscious or not unconscious purpose of their intervention, the general meaning was that they hoped that the anti-CPE movement could lead, as in May 68, towards a general strike and who knows, towards a 'revolutionary situation'.

On the capitalist side and from the various auxiliaries of the capitalist domination (including any party or union), they were also obsessed by the remembrance of May 1968 and what they considered as the prospect of a student movement sparking a general worker's movement, not only damaging the national economy but also somewhat ruining the political and social role of all the mediating structures working around the labour exploitation.

If we consider the various student movements in France for the past twenty years we can see they were strictly limited to the education problems even if they spread all over France and gathered hundreds of thousands demonstrators, even if they were concerned with conditions of the labour contract for young workers (as with the CPE). In November - December 1986 more than 500,000 demonstrators obliged the government to withdraw a university reform and the education minister to resign (the Sorbonne was occupied and one demonstrator was killed by the cops); November 1990 more than 150,000 student demonstrated in the streets asking for more money for the university system from the social democratic government; 1994, hundreds of thousands of students in the streets against a proposal to pay the young workers only 80% of the minimum wage (called CIP or nicknamed 'Smic jeunes'); though this measure, like the later CPE) concerned the labour contract, in spite of huge demonstrations all over France there was no extension of the movement amongst the workers; anyway the project was totally withdrawn; 1999 again, hundreds of thousands of university students against a reform of the education system: reform withdrawn; 2003 in a confused struggle mixing the reform of the retirement system and the structure of the education system, students, teachers and workers demonstrate and took other actions for months throughout the spring, but without a clear result mainly because most of the workers did not participate in the movement which remained essentially limited to the teachers and controlled by the unions; 2005, more limited demonstration against a new reform of the secondary school system (more than 50,000 demonstrators in the streets).

All these various reforms were aimed at a more efficient education system and the ease of exploitation of young workers by the employers – regardless of when the young person left education entered the labour market. However – all the various movements resisting these reforms, even though they concerned future workers and sometimes (like the CIP and the CPE) concerned young workers who were never students, the movements never spread beyond the education system and had no direct influence on class struggle, a struggle involving actual workers.

On the other hand, what we could see is that, if these struggles were important considering the number of demonstrators and the wide spread of the demonstrations all over France, practically they only attracted university and secondary schools students and had no connection with workers’ struggle (even if they sometimes involved adults, parents of students or a display of union bureaucracy). So, although it was of course a social movement, it stayed on the political side with the central demand being the government withdrawal of the CPE.

Amongst all the questions raised by the anti-CPE movement, some deserve more attention:

• Why the movement ended so abruptly only with a vague withdrawal of only an article of a repressive law (even the word 'suppression' was not used for this article) and without having provoked a political turmoil (e.g. the departure of a minister).

• Why, if we deny the role of the traditional student and worker's unions in the movement (insisting for instance of the importance of the universities assemblies and of the national or regional collectives) could then the movement have stopped so abruptly in one day when all these traditional organisations claimed 'victory' leaving the 'revolutionary' groups powerless and calling for a last demonstration reduced practically to their own members and followers.

The answers to these questions have to be considered according to the social background of the 'strikers' and demonstrators involved in this movement. This question raised quite a lot of controversy. Even if we think that most of them didn’t belong to the traditional 'middle class', we have to consider that most of these students (over 16 years old) have already been selected according to their social background, roughly according to the family income. The French education system is built in such a way that most of the children below 16 from families having the lowest income have practically no access to the top levels of the education system (over 16).

Until recently most of these students over 16 years old could hope to climb the social ladder and at the end of their studies have access to a job with a permanent working contract with a 'normal' wage and the hope of 'building up a career'. It is evident that for the past few years more and more different forms of working contracts (over forty different contracts) have been affected by a new precariousness.

For the last few years, this precariousness was the 'normal' lot of many the young people who were obliged to accept any kind of working contract to make a living. These young people did not feel threatened by the new law because for at that age it was simply their life at work for a while and not their future. But, for most of these young over 16,the CPE was the concretisation and generalisation of what they could already see invading the present , dashing their hopes to get, with their fresh degree a more settled situation.

Some commentators have observed that in some demonstrations adults were mixed with the students, jumping then to the conclusion that workers were involved in the movement. In some cases, parents of the young demonstrators normally felt concerned by the future of their children (the reproduction of their social position in the labour force). Then there was also the usual parties', unions' and groups' members who take any opportunity to be seen in the streets. And finally those who used the demonstration to express their general political and social discontent (in a certain way, the movement in itself was, beyond its specificity, the expression of this general discontent which gave a more political than social colour to its meaning).

Some 'revolutionary' groups thought to push the movement to 'go beyond'. The students assemblies, the co-ordination committees, the demonstrations, could provide successful opportunities for promoting any materials for discussions about a future society and the elimination of capitalism. But it was only words even if they could have an echo outside the university walls. The Internet was a marvellous instrument to distribute, all over France and all over the world, this blazing literature propagating the idea that a kind of revolution was in progress. Bur anyway, sit-ins in the universities and secondary schools had no other effect anyway on the normal course of capitalism and for quite a lot of students, they cared about their university career and examinations, providing lessons so the 'strike' would not be too harmful for their future: in a certain way the same purpose as their action against the CPE. About this question of what was said inside and outside of all the collective organisations of the movement, we have to say that what is essential is not what any people say about themselves or about their aims but what they are effectively doing. On that respect there was an collossal gap between the words and the actions.

To be 'efficient', the 'strikers' had to go elsewhere to be heard and somewhat hoping to 'extend' the movement towards the working class. One of these attempts was the blockade of ways of communications: railways and roads or the entrance of some public buildings. It was a traditional means used frequently by workers or peasants but often, proposed or supported by the traditional unions and harmless for the economic activity as far as they don’t last more than some hours. Just like the demonstrations these actions, even repeated, did not go very far and totally lacked the pretended radicality they were supposed to express. Even more, their repetition was somewhat discouraging which was a means used traditionally by the union to soften the too strong movement. But anyway, the social background of most of the students, as described above, and the worry about their future, prevented them using more radical means to extend their movement.

It was the same with the efforts to extend the movement directly towards the workers by distributing leaflets or sometimes picketing at the factory gates; even if sometimes they were supported by some individual or members of some radical groups or unions, even if their blockade of railways lines or stations or the picketing was seen with some sympathy by the workers, all these actions were without consequence particularly for the running of the economy. Even there, all these actions were noticeable by their lack of radicality, for instance they did not even try to resort to sabotage.

It was for all these considerations that the somewhat frustrated 'vanguard minorities' tried to reshuffle the movement with some 'coups' supposed to awake the sleeping giant (the May 68 syndrome). The short occupations of the Sorbonne, or of the university school EHESS, failed as well simply because the present situation, even mobilising quite a lot of students in occupations and in the streets, completely lacked the 1968 background. A close analysis of the movement from its beginning could have led to such a conclusion but, as ever, it is precisely the function of the vanguard (organised or not) to see in any social event the eventual potential for a revolution.

What remains of the anti CPE movement?
The pretended victory which brought an abrupt end to all kinds of actions (except in some universities, but not for long) was a Pyrrhic (paper) victory:

All the students run to recuperate the 'lost' time and pass their examinations and some of them to repopulate the left (or ultra left) parties (more than 60,000 for the Socialist Party); as in the previous students movements in the past, we certainly will see some of the 'leaders' climbing the political ladder in the years to come. Some more 'radical' tried during the summer to gather what was left of the co-ordination committees, making plans to start something up again when the school year resumed in October, and they failed. Some commentators could explain that the movement was a good training for young people and that the experience gained during these days would not be lost and would be a good start to trigger class struggle when they start a professional life. That has to be seen, as then their fight will depend on their place in the production process and for sure most of these students don’t be at the lowest levels of the hierarchy.

The precariousness which was the actual stake in the movement was 'organised'. Some commentators tried to explain that the movement had a wider political background, at first that one of the aims was to remove the 'equal opportunities' law. As the movement stopped abruptly as soon as some obscure discussions between the government and the traditional students' and workers' unions proclaimed that only one article of this law was put on the shelf - the one concerning the CPE - we can jump to the conclusion that most of the students did not care at all about this repressive law concerning essentially not them but the suburban population. On the other hand the movement, though not expressly showing this character, was more the consequence of a general discontent already seen in other movements or in recent polls: this tendency gave a more political tone to the whole movement.

The anti-CPE movement has been the students' and workers' unions cat's paw: and they have played their usual function. Not only were they not initially against the CPE any more than against the CNE (the movement was not initiated by them) but quickly they see their interest in being more or less the organisers (fixing the dates and characters of the biggest national days of demonstrations and even providing them assistance to keep order). Workers' unions had been discussing modification of the labour laws for a while, in order to find an answer to the unemployment and precariousness. The government and the boss unions were studying the same questions from their side. A general plan was already well on the way with contacts between all these people: on each side references were made more and more openly to a complete structuring of the labour laws under the name of 'Professional Social Security' who's specific aim was to “organise” precariousness, to give it a legal general frame at the same time artificially reducing unemployment. The anti-CPE movement helped in fact, even if the CPE was removed, to go ahead with this reform with all the social representatives. This new organisation of precariousness is already actually tested in some parts of France: if it succeeds the project is to generalise it: so the anti-CPE movement will be buried in its pretended 'victory'.

To come back to the 'equal opportunities' law, we can say now that it is not by chance that this law was not dismantled. On one hand as has been mentioned, most of the students were not at all concerned by this law. On the other hand all the organisations and political parties as well as the government did not know how to cope with the suburbs riots and more generally with the poverty of an important part of the population because it was the very problem of capitalism and of a communist revolution. Nobody wanted to remove this law which presently appears even inefficient against the 'suburb problem'. Recently figures were given on an serious increase of crime in the suburban areas and of the consequences of the autumn 2005 riots: young people have become more aggressive, provocative and less respectful of the law. In a certain way the clashes between the students and the suburbs young during the spring anti-CPE demonstrations were somewhat expressing the distance between the two movements. If the students have come back to their future (even not very clear), the suburban young have come back to their present with no future.

[prol-position news #7 | 11/2006]