French youth are in revolt. From the poor suburbs to the elite universities, young people have taken to the streets, occupied universities and closed schools in protest at new employment laws that will trash their rights at work.
This movement is now in direct confrontation with the state, with mass demonstrations in towns and cities across the country, and daily clashes with the feared CRS riot police.
Oriana Garcia is a student Paris III-Censier university. Her college is one of 67 out of 84 universities that have gone on strike since the protests began on 24 February.
She told Socialist Worker, “Our movement has the spirit of 1968. If that uprising was against repression, ours is a revolt against neo-liberalism and a government that wants to drive the working conditions of young people back to the 19th century.
“Our movement is now growing in an important way. We have the sympathy of millions of workers across the country. The students have been able to take the lead because we are in a good position to confront the government. But our revolt is pulling in workers, the poor and the unemployed.”
The revolt was sparked by the introduction of the “first job contract” – known as the CPE – a youth employment law that makes it legal for employers to sack workers under the age of 26 without notice or compensation.
The CPE is the brainchild of right wing prime minister Dominique de Villepin. He claims the new law will encourage employers to hire the children of Arab and African immigrants who live in the banlieues, the belts of poverty that ring many French cities.
The banlieues erupted in riots in November 2005 after years of racism, unemployment and police violence.
Marie Périn, a representative on the mobilising committee at Censier, said the new law forced many students to directly address the problems in the suburbs.
She said, “We organised meetings and debates on neo-liberalism, the November riots and racism. These meetings helped to win students and many workers to the idea of taking our campaign to the banlieues.
“The obvious route was by linking up with the schools students of the lycées [high schools], but we also went into the poor areas and appealed directly to the alienated youth.
“Our occupation is part of the movement that successfully campaigned for a no vote in the European Union constitution referendum last summer, and part of the anger that erupted into rioting last November. It is part of the anti-war movement and the movement against French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.”
Villepin hoped that by linking the new law to promises of more opportunities for the banlieues, he would be able to drive a wedge between workers, students and unemployed youth.
The government tried to shame the students, saying they were selfishly defending their privileges against the needs of the unemployed. Many newspapers ran stories claiming that the banlieues would welcome the chance of jobs, even if the conditions of employment made them second class citizens.
But the law has stoked the simmering anger in the suburbs.
High school students of the lycées brought the struggle of the banlieues into the heart of the university protests. They were welcomed by student militants.
“Showing the lycées we are serious was the most important test for us,” says student Adan Sylva. “University students have taken the lead, but it is the high schools that have given the movement momentum.
“The government wants to portray this as a revolt by privileged students, but we are only one element of a wider struggle. The lycées, the unemployed, those who exist on part time or low wages, the poor of the banlieues and workers are also part of this movement.”
Last Thursday’s student demonstration was an important test of that unity.
University students marched out of the occupied campuses, while streams of high school students from across the capital, including tens of thousands from the banlieues, converged on the historic Left Bank chanting “resistance”.
By 2pm over 150,000 had gathered in Paris, while over half a million protested in towns and cities across the country. Many of the lycées decided to strike.
Milan, Yohann, Stephane, Alexandra and Antoine joined the march after organising a strike at their school that morning.
They told Socialist Worker, “We tried to pull our school out on Tuesday, but it was difficult, so this morning a group of us decided to make a protest at the school gate at 8am.
“We called for a strike and the whole school came out. Even the teachers encouraged our strike – they are also very unhappy with the new law. We made a banner and marched down to the demonstration.”
Pierre Tuboule is from the Lycée Honoré de Balzac in north west Paris. His school has been on strike since Tuesday.
Pierre said, “This government is in deep trouble, but it is vital that we keep up the pressure and keep our movement on the streets. The important question for us is what happens next week.”
Claudine Martin is a member of the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire, the 180,000 strong teacher’s union. She was part of a delegation of teachers on the demonstration.
She said, “We are very unhappy with this law. As teachers we object to educating children just for them to become fodder for the bosses.
“As parents we don’t want to see an uncertain future for our children. If you do not have a work contract you will not be able to get a flat, or a bank loan.
“We also object to the constant attacks on our pensions, wages and conditions. This government would like us all to be put on short contracts, so that we can be hired and fired at will. This is why the country is behind the students and the youth.
“They are fighting for us all, and they are ahead of us in this struggle. The unions will be meeting over this weekend to plan our next step. Many of us would like to see a strike.”
Gerard and Denis, train conductors from the southern city of Montpellier, joined the demonstration.
“The CPE is part of a Europe-wide offensive by the bosses,” says Denis. “For this reason the revolt is more than just about the young and the students. They have taken the lead in resisting this law.”
“The government want to shit on us, and shit on the young people,” says Gerard. “If the government does not retreat we have to keep on the streets. It is the only way.”
The protests have left the government reeling. French president Jacques Chirac called for calm while Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister whose actions helped spread the November riots, unleashed the CRS riot police.
The CRS stormed into the Sorbonne university on the night of Saturday 11 March. This university, in the heart of the historic Latin Quarter, was the centre of the 1968 uprising. Sarkosy hoped that by smashing the Sorbonne occupation he could halt the movement in its tracks.
He miscalculated. The students of the Sorbonne joined the occupation at Censier, while the revolt spread to the schools. By Tuesday unofficial strikes and walkouts took place across the country, while there were nightly clashes with police outside the Sorbonne.
On Thursday’s demonstration trade unionists linked arms to form a cordon at the head of the march, while students formed human barriers around the riot police along the route of the march.
But the police were determined to attack the demonstration.
At the end of the route the front of the march was blocked in at all sides by the CRS. Police sprayed the trade unionists with tear gas while snatch squads beat young demonstrators.
For over two hours police baton charged the demonstration, threw stun grenades and fired tear gas. The government then blamed the trouble on gangs of “hooligans” from the banlieues.
Censier student Marie Périn said, “If the students can reach the workers in the same way that we have reached out to the banlieues, then we can defeat not only this law, but the neo-liberal project across Europe.
“The stakes are high.”