Tuesday's mass strike in France went ahead because the protest movement against new labour laws for young people continued to grow throughout last week. It put mobilisation first, not a vain hope of successful talks with the government.
Students maintained occupations and strikes in universities and lycées (high schools) across France with a quarter of lycées in occupation according to official government estimates.
Young people took to the streets on Tuesday and Thursday of last week for two more days of action against the CPE laws, which allow bosses to sack anyone under 26 without reason or notice any time during the first two years of their employment.
While the movement’s focus has been on Paris, the protests have been taking place across the country.
Towns like Poitiers, in west central France, ground to a halt last Thursday with thousands protesting in the street. The university occupations in southern cities have been particularly militant.
It’s as if in addition to hundreds of thousands of people marching in London, there were big mobilisations in Bristol, Wolverhampton, Gloucester and a hundred other towns and cities as well.
The movement has defied increasing levels of police repression. The demonstrations in Paris on Thursday of last week were noticeably more violent, with riots cops battling groups of young people from the suburbs.
But the violence has failed to split the movement. University students have experienced the riot cops’ behaviour at first hand and blamed them, not the youth, for the trouble.
The case of Cyril Ferez, a 39 year old telecoms worker lying in a coma after being trampled by police in Paris on Saturday of last week, has fuelled the mood of anger. Initial claims by the police that Cyril was attacked by other demonstrators have been exposed as lies.
To build Tuesday’s general strike, students went out to leaflet workplaces. And some trade union branches invited student activists to address their meetings.
Many people called for Tuesday’s strike to be extended into Wednesday as well. Certain unions, such as the railway workers’ section of the Sud union, gave legal notification of a Wednesday strike, effectively giving a green light to workplaces to walk out should they wish.
But the trade union bureaucracy is also trying to keep control of events.
A leaked internal memo from the CGT, France’s main union confederation, instructed strikers on Tuesday to stick to economic slogans against the labour laws and to avoid raising wider political issues.
The student movement, in contrast, has no compunction about attacking the Tory government directly and calling for prime minister Dominique de Villepin’s resignation. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), France’s main radical left party, has also joined these calls.
The continuing crisis has increased divisions among the right. President Jacques Chirac has been locked into a long running feud with the hard right interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Last November Sarkozy led the charge against the rioting youth of the banlieues (suburbs), boasting that he would clear the “scum” off the streets with a power hose. But he has been singing a different tune over the anti-CPE protests, preaching “dialogue” and criticising Villepin for inflexibility.
Chirac has sought to distance himself from Villepin while simultaneously insisting that the prime minister does not back down. Villepin for his part was forced to offer talks with trade unionists and student leaders last weekend.
The main trade union leaders met with Villepin on Friday of last week, but the talks rapidly broke down, strengthening the mood for Tuesday’s strike.
The main student group refused to meet with Villepin.
With the government in crisis, parties on the left are manoeuvring for position. The Socialist Party, roughly equivalent to Labour in Britain, has backed the anti-CPE protests in an attempt to regain some left credibility after it disastrously backed the neo-liberal European Union constitution last year. But many militants know that it is committed to the pro-market policies which spawn measures like the CPE.
The Communist Party is powerful in the trade unions but has little influence over the student movement. The student movement mainly involves one current allied to the left wing of the Socialists and another that looks to the far left, chiefly the LCR.
The political stakes are very high. If the CPE is defeated it will shatter the resolve of the Tory government and setback the neo-liberal project across Europe.
But the Socialists will seek to be the main beneficiaries of the magnificent mobilisations against the CPE. This poses the question of building a unified radical political alternative to neo-liberalism in France even more sharply.
Building up momentum
Two student members of the far left LCR at Paris III-Censier university spoke to Socialist Worker
‘The student movement is on the offensive and shows no signs of slowing down.
The trade union leaders have been more or less forced into calling for a general strike. The pressure for this has come from below.
The mobilisation on the ground has been healthy and it’s forced the bureaucracy to move.
There are links between the student movement and workers, but they’re not systematic. We’ve been going to stations, supermarkets and schools to hand out leaflets and build support for Tuesday.’
‘We had very big demonstrations on Thursday of last week that brought together university students and lycée students.
It was similar to last week, but a bit more tense – there were clashes between the police and lycée students from the suburbs.
Our university has been on strike for one month now – it’s great, but it’s hard work sustaining the occupation and we are all feeling rather tired. This week’s strike is critical for us.’