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Reflections on the Uprising in France; Lessons Learned

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Reflections on the Uprising in France

A new and in some ways unprecedented radical movement has emerged in France. Beginning in February as a protest against the CPE, a law that would have made it easier to fire young workers, it rapidly developed into a widespread and much more general contestation. Over the next two months millions of people took part in demonstrations, universities and high schools were occupied, public buildings were invaded, train stations and freeways were blockaded, and thousands of people were arrested. A compromise offered by President Chirac on March 31 was rejected by just about everyone. On April 10 the government backed down and canceled the CPE.

The American media reacted even more cluelessly than usual, solemnly scolding French youth for "resisting progress" and "modernization" -- i.e. for not realizing that a "healthy economy" requires us to return to the dog-eat-dog "free market" conditions of the nineteenth century. Behind the commentators' grumblings one senses their uneasy awareness that America's supposedly free-market system is hardly a model of success, and that the United States lags behind France and many other countries when it comes to health care, employment security and other social protections.

But in France as elsewhere those protections have been eroding in recent years, as the owners of society chip away at the reforms they were forced to accept during the last century (social security, unemployment insurance, labor regulations, and other social-democratic or New Deal-type programs). The CPE (Contrat Première Embauche -- First Employment Contract) was one more step backwards. It would have enabled employers to fire workers under the age of 26 at any time during their first two years of employment without needing to provide any justification or compensation. The supposed rationale was that this additional "flexibility" would make employers more likely to hire more young people, thereby reducing unemployment (the same sort of logic that pretends that the way to spread the wealth is to give more tax breaks to the rich, on the theory that their increased profits will eventually "trickle down" to the poor). In reality, the CPE would have made it possible to fire people because of their race or gender, for example, or because they engaged in radical activity, or simply because they were about to pass the two-year threshold and it would be cheaper to continually replace them with new "apprentice" workers. It was felt that if the bosses could get away with this, worse inroads would soon follow. It was a slap in the face, a too glaring expression of the contempt with which capitalism treats people. "They want to be able to throw us away like a used kleenex." "If you take short part-time jobs, the next employers see them on your resume' and won't hire you permanently. You're stuck in a cycle with no job security. Young people can't afford anywhere to live, thanks to the rules in France that landlords demand proof that you earn three times your rent. No one with a CPE contract will be able to find anywhere to live." "But I'm not giving up. This is about more than the CPE. It's a general malaise. We're sick of being the kleenex generation of disposable youth, shat on by bosses and screwed by the government. We need a complete regime change in France -- the end of the Fifth Republic. It's dying before our eyes."

Although the movement was initially aroused by the CPE, its underlying theme was opposition to pre'carite' (precariousness or insecurity) in general -- the uncertainties caused by the dismantling of social cushions, the mutual fears and suspicions engendered by a system of desperate economic competition, the increasing attacks on human rights and civil liberties, the physical and mental stresses produced by the destruction of communities and the degradation of the environment, and the ultimate threat of nuclear or ecological apocalypse. (People are manipulated into panic at supposed threats from "terrorists," "sexual deviants," immigrants, racial minorities and other scapegoats precisely in order to distract their attention from these far more serious systemic threats.) Employment insecurity is just one aspect of this general insecurity, but it is the one that confronts most people most directly as rapidly increasingly large portions of the population are relegated to the status of pre'caires -- temp workers, part-time workers, seasonal workers, migrant workers, black market workers, underpaid or even unpaid "trainees," and others in precarious employment situations. This "pre'cariat" is a new sort of subproletariat that not only has "nothing to sell but its labor power" but that often has little prospect of even being able to sell that; a vast underclass trapped in a limbo of temporary minimum-wage jobs, temporary unemployment benefits, panhandling or prostitution or petty crime when the benefits run out, and from there to incarceration in the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex, where the system provides its "final solution" to the unemployment problem: a revival of slave labor.

(The "unemployment problem" is of course purely artificial. In a sane society the fact that less work needs to be done would be considered a cause for celebration since it would mean that the remaining work could be shared around more widely, reducing the necessary work for everyone. But capitalism, which has developed a range of technological capacities that could potentially reduce necessary work to virtually nothing, maintains its own existence by suppressing that potential, forcing people to carry out absurd tasks in order to obtain magical pieces of paper that can be exchanged for the things they need. See "We Don't Want Full Employment, We Want Full Lives!")

The government's retreat of April 10 was an encouraging moral victory for the protesters, but at the same time it took the wind out of their sails. The previously widespread support from the general population diminished and the school strikes were discontinued. (The students of Rennes 2, who on February 7 had been the first to occupy and blockade a university, also had the honor of being the last to give in, on April 18.) Thousands of people have nevertheless been continuing the struggle in various ways, calling for the repeal of a number of other labor laws similar to the CPE and of some particularly mean anti-immigrant laws, and for the liberation of all the people arrested during both the current conflict and the suburban ghetto riots of last November. If the movement has subsided, it has in no way been defeated. The rebellious spirit still seems to be very present, even if most of the participants are taking a breather while considering where to go from here.

Some radicals have disparaged this movement for being "reformist," for focusing on the repeal of a few particular laws and not making a more explicit critique of capitalism, and in particular of wage labor. This objection misses the point in two ways. First, it is quite natural that people react against particular grievances without waiting until it becomes feasible to envision more fundamental social changes. (Moreover, they are unlikely to ever arrive at the latter stage if they have never tested their strength or developed their critical capacities in more immediate struggles.) Second, many of the participants were quite clear about their opposition to the whole system, even if they didn't follow their critics' practice of pedantically repeating the same radical platitudes in every other paragraph. Among all the signs and leaflets and declarations one would have a hard time finding a single one that extolled the merits of wage labor. The protestors were not saying "Please give us jobs, then we'll be satisfied." In effect, they were saying: "We find ourselves in an intolerable situation. Those who run this society are responsible for this situation and it's up to them do something about it. What that might be is their problem. We are going to keep the pressure on until they deal with it. If they prove incapable of doing so, we will look into other ways of dealing with it." It seems to me that one can hardly ask any more of a mass social movement than that, at least at the present stage.

Others have dismissed the movement as a mere rebellion of "privileged" middle-class youth destined for elite roles in society. It is true that students formed the backbone of the revolt. But French college students can scarcely any longer be considered much of an elite. (The real future elites go to the select few Grandes Écoles.) An increasingly large portion of them are working-class youth, and even those with middle-class backgrounds realize that their future is far from secure. Moreover, high-school students, who naturally represent an even fuller spectrum of the population, participated in the movement to an even greater extent than college students. There was also considerable participation by the banlieusards, the immigrant youth in France's suburban-ghetto housing projects who rioted so desperately and furiously last November, though in this case it must be admitted that separations and tensions remain. (There were a few reports of gangs of suburban youth attacking urban demonstrators while police stood by, leading to suspicions that some of the more gangsterish suburban elements had made deals with the police; but such incidents seem to have been exceptional.)

In any case, rather than quibbling over class distinctions as if they represented some mechanistic fate, it is more to the point to look at what the participants actually did. Many of the general assemblies held in occupied school buildings were opened up to other sectors of the population, leading to dialogue and collaboration with workers, immigrants, retirees, unemployed people and pre'caires. The students showed little interest in narrow "student" issues and seem to have freed themselves from many of the other faults for which their predecessors were so scathingly criticized in the classic situationist pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life (1966). If their "program" was rather ad hoc, they nevertheless seem to have assimilated many of the most basic lessons of past radical struggles. In the general assemblies they brushed aside the student-union bureaucracies and imposed direct democracy, implementing open discussion and voting on all issues and coordinating with other assemblies around the country by means of strictly mandated delegates. (This insistence on rigorous democratic procedures, which had been a little-heeded demand by the situationists and a few other "radical extremists" in May 1968, had now somehow become standard operating procedure, so widely taken for granted that it was scarcely even debated.) National coordination in no way impinged on the fundamental decentralization of the movement. People in different towns and cities used their own imaginations, carrying out a remarkable variety of experimental actions on their own initiative without waiting for anyone else to tell them what to do. There were no leaders -- or thousands of leaders, depending on how you define the term. (No one paid the slightest attention to the media's pathetic attempt to designate the president of the national student union as "the leader of the movement.") When they took part in mass demonstrations, they resisted being shepherded into preordained routes by either the police or the marshals of the labor unions or student unions, often branching off to carry out independent actions. They rejected attempts to divide the movement into violent "vandals" (casseurs) and "responsible" protestors, remaining focused on the goal while accepting a variety of tactics and tendencies in the struggle for that goal. Much as they detested the conservative politicians, they were almost equally contemptuous of the leftist parties. If some of them end up voting for the latter as a lesser evil, it will be with few illusions -- they have learned through their own experience that direct action is more effective (as well as being a lot more personally liberating and a lot more fun).

In May 1968 the contagion of a youth revolt inspired the first wildcat general strike in history, with factories and workplaces all over France occupied by 11,000,000 workers. The possibility of a repetition of this scenario was in many people's mind as masses of workers began to join the struggle. But the same labor unions that sabotaged the 1968 revolt once again managed to hold back the efforts toward a general strike. Workers' participation in the movement was extensive, but it remained largely within the union-controlled framework of regimented demonstrations and brief, purely token work stoppages every week or two. It seems likely that one of the reasons the government finally gave in was that wildcat worker actions were beginning to break out of the union straitjacket. Such actions virtually ceased once the unions were able to acclaim the "victory" of April 10.

But the young rebels did not fixate on strikes or factory occupations, or passively wait for them to develop. They went right ahead and carried out their own blockades and occupations. First at their own schools, then spreading to other schools, then invading all sorts of other locations. To give some idea of the astonishing quantity and variety of these actions, here is part of an Agence France Presse dispatch for just one day:

Anti-CPE Blitz Actions Across France.
In Paris, more than 1000 high-school and college students invaded Gare [railroad station] de l'Est in the morning, then disrupted train traffic for 15 minutes at Gare Saint-Lazare, then blocked the tracks near Gare du Nord for an hour and a half, some of the demonstrators throwing rocks at the forces of order. The young demonstrators then tried to get onto the Pe'riphe'rique [the freeway circling the city], but were blocked by the forces of order. At Porte de la Chapelle certain demonstrators used an empty bus as a battering ram to smash police cars.
During the morning other demonstrators disrupted the routes to Orly Airport.
At Toulouse, the fire department reported that five students and one police officer were slightly injured during the violent evacuation of the tracks at Gare Marabiau, which had been blocked for nearly two hours by several hundred people. On the outskirts of the city, students and unionists blocked several of the entryways to the Airbus factories at Colomiers and Saint-Martin-du-Touch.
Also in the southwest, Narbonne police dispersed a demonstration on the train tracks, arresting eleven persons. During the morning a "toll-free" operation was carried out at the East Narbonne toll road.
In the north, 500 to 1000 demonstrators occupied the tracks near the Lille-Flandres station for less than an hour, delaying several trains. At Boulogne-sur-Mer (Pas-de-Calais) college and high-school students blocked truck roads to the industrial zone of the harbor for two hours.
In the west, where the protest movement originally emerged, demonstrators blocked major highways at Nantes, Rennes, Lorient and Quimper. At Rennes hundreds of students invaded the Law School, which was not on strike, and trashed the office of the UNI, a conservative student union in favor of the CPE.
In front of the cathedral at Rouen, an 18-year-old high-school student entered the eighth day of his hunger strike against the CPE.
Near the University of Grenoble campus a hundred students, wearing clown noses and with barcodes drawn on their skin, invaded a supermarket for an hour, chanting: "Consume! Consume! They've put us all on sale!"
Around 150 high-school and college students blocked the Europe Bridge over the Rhine between Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany, for an hour and a half.
In the outskirts of Nancy some fifty medical students blocked the highway for 40 minutes. Near Reims, on Highway A4, several dozen high-school students carried out a "toll free" operation from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.
At Clermont-Ferrand, fifty students set up a filter barricade for an hour. An anti-CPE demonstration took place in downtown Lyons without any injuries. Traffic in Limoges was paralyzed a good part of the day by barricades.
In downtown Caen, confrontations during the early evening between the forces of order and hundreds of young demonstrators led to several injuries.
[AFP, 6 April 2006, with a few additions from a slightly different version appearing in Libe'ration.]

This report was picked virtually at random -- almost any other day in March or early April would have offered a similar range of actions. And these were of course only the most "newsworthy" actions that the AFP reporters happened to hear about; countless other smaller or less visible ones were continually being carried out in dozens of towns all over the country. Other recent struggles, such as the French jobless revolt of 1998, have included a few somewhat similar actions, but the scope and variety of such actions in the current movement is unprecedented.

Some of these actions were announced in advance and carried out by thousands of people. But many more were carried out on the spur of the moment by smaller numbers. These "blitz actions" (actions coup de poing) or "lightning raids" (raids e'clair) undoubtedly represent the most original and most promising aspect of the movement. A few dozen or a few hundred people would suddenly converge on a single point, carry out their operation, then disperse just as suddenly so as to avoid or minimize arrests. The destination was often kept secret until the last minute so the police would not know where to send reinforcements. In many cases the goal was to invade some building -- a department store or supermarket, a newspaper office, a radio or television station, a postal sorting center, an unemployment bureau, a temp agency, a real estate agency, a Chamber of Commerce office or the headquarters of some political party. In others it was to block a transportation network -- a train station, a traffic intersection, a freeway, a subway, a bridge, a bus terminal or an airport. Sometimes the blockage was only partial, as in the case of "snail operations" (slowing down traffic) or "filter barricades" (blocking a street in such a way that cars could only go through slowly so that each driver could be leafleted, or blocking the entryway to a building so that individuals could be talked to on the way in or out).

Besides disrupting the usual flow of business, the blitzers often added creative or educative elements -- writing graffiti, posting huge, difficult-to-remove signs or banners (the winner in this category was undoubtedly the 100-foot vertical banner mounted on a crane in Dijon), distributing leaflets exposing the social role of whatever particular institution they were disrupting, talking with workers and passersby, or engaging in various types of guerrilla theater. Frequently there was a series of raids, with alternative destinations agreed upon in case the original targets were too heavily guarded. And, rather new for France (which in this respect had previously lagged behind other countries), many of these actions were planned via email groups, then immediately afterwards communicated online by way of texts, photos and even videos, making it possible for the participants to coordinate their actions and for others around the country, or even in other countries, to compare and contrast various tactics they might want to adopt in their own situations.

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Ken Knabb is a writer and translator living in Berkeley, California. His translations include Guy Debord's film scripts and the "Situationist International Anthology" (texts by the notorious group that helped trigger the May 1968 revolt in France). (more...)
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Reflections on the Uprising in France; Lessons Learned

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