Socialist Worker

French workers and students speak out

Issue No. 1995

Danièle Obono is a student activist at the Sorbonne university in Paris, which has been shut down by the authorities since riot police attacked a student occupation on 11 March. She spoke to Socialist Worker about how students built for this Tuesday’s strike

This will be a crucial week for us. But every week so far has been crucial, and every demo has been crucial.

The success on Tuesday of last week, when three million students and workers demonstrated and struck across France, is what allowed us to step forward and raise the stakes even higher.

The main effect of that day was on people’s confidence. It gave us the idea that we can win on the CPE, that the social movement can defeat the government.

This idea is now there among the students—but also among the workers. It was very important to get that feeling of confidence back after the defeat of the 2003 pensions movement. We can now imagine that we can win.

The other aspect of this is the reaction to Chirac’s announcement on Friday of last week, when he agreed to pass the CPE into law.

There had been strong reformist currents in the movement—the Socialist Party, some of the trade unions—asking Chirac to intervene and trying to channel the energy of the movement into institutions such as the constitutional court. But Friday’s announcement has shown that this doesn’t work.

People now realise that instead of institutions we need action, both symbolic actions and strike action. There were spontaneous demonstrations of up to 10,000 students across Paris that night.

These protests and actions have continued throughout the week. Over 2,000 school students blocked the tracks at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Thursday of last week. On Monday students blocked a runway in Chambery airport, preventing flights from taking off.

This Tuesday’s events were really important. We had a good turnout for last week’s demo and the strike action was reasonable—it was comparable to the one-day strikes of 2003, though nowhere near a full general strike.

Now people are becoming aware that only a general strike can win. And that isn’t a matter of the big trade unions calling a general strike and it just happening.

In May 1968 the general strike happened because workers at a local level were confident enough to take to the streets. That’s what makes a general strike real.

We’ve been visiting railway stations, hospitals, factories and other workplaces to leaflet and build for the strike. What we have to do is give confidence.

We’re all aware that our role is to increase the confidence of the workers. On Monday of last week we went to a local Citroën factory where workers had been striking.

It’s a young workforce, about half of them are on casual contracts and there’s no great tradition of militancy. But they struck against casualisation and won most of their demands.

We contacted one of the trade unionists there and brought a delegation of around 30 students to the factory to give out hundreds of leaflets calling for people to strike and demonstrate on Tuesday. We had a very good reaction from the workers.

We’re keeping up with organising and mobilising Sorbonne students. The main forum for this is our general assemblies, which we hold every two or three days.

These include discussions on political developments and reports from the different commissions which organise leafleting, working with other universities and building links with the banlieues (suburbs).

Our general assemblies typically attract around 150 to 200 students. At the beginning of the mobilisation, we were getting up to 400.

But you can’t judge the strength of the movement from the size of the assemblies—we have kept up our momentum, the demonstrations keep getting bigger and more dynamic, and there’s lots of actions every day.

Basile Pot is a railway worker at the Gare de L’Est station in Paris, an activist in the Sud Rail union and a member of the far left Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire party.

After the fantastic strikes and demonstrations all over France on Tuesday of last week, a lot of people expected the government to back down or to make massive concessions over the CPE law. So Chirac’s address to the nation last Friday came as a bitter response.

After the announcement all the trade unions made statements saying how this was unacceptable and calling for an even bigger strike and demonstration on Tuesday of this week.

The trade union leaders did not respond like this in 1995 or in 2003 around the pension reforms—it’s a strong signal.

In my workplace quite a few people went to a demonstration for the first time. Some young workers went on strike for the first time.

It’s really important that we mobilise people even more. On Monday of this week some 20 students from the Sorbonne University came to the Gare de L’Est to talk to signal workers, conductors, ticket staff and to the young employees who are on youth contracts.

Pierre Khalfa is the national secretary of the Solidaires union and a leading member of the Attac France campaign against neo-liberalism.

Chirac’s public announcement was totally surreal. He passed the CPE law—but in the same breath he said that the law wouldn’t apply. We’re in a thoroughly absurd situation.

From one point of view, by not applying the law he gave in to the millions of demonstrators.

But in reality nothing has been sorted, since Chirac has not scrapped the CPE employment laws.

He has transferred responsibility for changing the law from Villepin and the governement to the majority party in the national assembly—Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP. This is an extraordinary development that has never been seen before in France.

We’re now in a situation where the social crisis is coupled with a very important political crisis.

The functioning of institutions has been badly hurt.

We in the social movement are still united—and the CPE, whether in its first, second or third version should not exist.

Interviews by Christophe Chataigné

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