Socialist Worker

This is the spirit of the 1960s

The French elite have been shaken by protests and occupations by students, supported by workers. They are right to fear them, writes Jim Wolfreys

Issue No. 1992

The wave of protest in France reflects anger at the CPE labour law, which would drastically undermine the job security of young workers.

But, as Le Figaro, a pro?government newspaper, warned last week, what is at stake is the future of the right in France. Students have a long history of making the French right suffer.

In 1986, a wave of protests against the introduction of further selection into university admissions, which escalated after riot police killed a student, forced the then prime minister, Jacques Chirac, to back down.

His administration never recovered and was voted out two years later. In 1994, the government of Edouard Balladur withdrew an earlier version of the CPE in the face of huge mobilisations by school students.

This was the beginning of the end for Balladur’s career.

In 2003, another prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin won a major victory over the unions on pensions, but was forced to make concessions to school students over education reform following a long campaign of resistance last spring.

He resigned in May after he was humiliatingly defeated in the referendum on the proposed neo-liberal constitution for the European Union – the government’s third major defeat at the polls in recent years.

Raffarin’s successor, Dominique de Villepin, is in charge of a government which is on its last legs. The interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, has made no secret of the fact that his main priority is to get himself elected president next year.


Sarkozy poses as the mainstream right’s alternative to the Nazi leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Last autumn he referred to young people in France’s impoverished suburbs as a “dirty rabble”.

This helped spread three weeks of rioting, which only came to an end after a state of emergency was declared.

The government is ­desperate to avoid the present conflict escalating. They are haunted by the memory of May 1968, when student protests triggered factory occupations and the biggest general strike ever seen in Western Europe.


Ten million people stopped work for three weeks, causing a crisis that paved the way for the demise of president Charles de Gaulle.

Back then the Sorbonne university in Paris was a focal point for the protests. This is why last week’s occupation was too much for the government to bear.

For the first time since 1968 it had to ask the riot police to reconquer the country’s most prestigious university, in the heart of the capital.

Sarkozy made no bones about why the government had used force on the students. “What should we have done? Waited for hundreds more to join them? With demonstrations taking place on Saturday, we had to make sure there were no crossovers,” he said.

However, “crossovers” are beginning to happen. The students have realised that this is not just their fight.

This is why the national coordination of the movement has called for workers to strike with them on 23 March.

It is why students invited workers in “precarious” casual jobs to attend the next national coordination meeting this Sunday.

At Poitiers university, where mass meetings have been up to 4,000 strong, students tried to get bales of straw for their barricades from peasant leader José Bové’s Confédération Paysanne.

Students at Censier university in Paris voted on Monday of this week to organise action in the suburbs, scene of the recent riots.

Years of neo-liberal attacks, and a decade of revolt against them, mean that links between workers and students are closer now than before.

Driving the protests is a desire to stand firm against market values in both education and in the workplace.

This gives the resistance tremendous potential.

As one student put it on Monday, “These measures affect everyone. But our forces – students in schools and universities, salaried workers, casual workers, the unemployed – can make the government back down.

“And that’s what we are going to do.”

Jim Wolfreys is the author of France: Ten Years of Revolts, in the current issue of the International Socialism journal. For more information phone 020 7819 1177 or go to

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