The wave of protests which spread across France in March and April generated little real interest, but a lot of idiotic comments in the British media. The protesters were usually described as "rioters" and the movement as a whole, as a follow-up to last Autumn's suburban riots.
Yet, it was nothing of the sort. This was a militant reply to a blatant attack on workers' rights by the French right-wing government. Millions of people took part in this movement - mainly university and school students, who initiated it, but also large numbers of workers, who used the opportunities offered by the national days of action called by the trade union confederations to express their support for the youth's protest.
Eventually, the French government was forced into a retreat, at least over the main issue which had triggered the protest, if not over all its related anti-working class measures. But it may well turn out that this retreat is not the end of the story and that the movement will re-emerge at some point. Only the future will tell.
We publish here extracts of an article taken from the April issue of Lutte de Classe (#96), the journal published by our French sister organisation, Lutte Ouvrière. It was written on April 1st, before the French government's partial back down. However, it provides what we believe is a useful description of the political and social backdrop to this movement, as well as an analysis of its strength and limitations. As an add-on, our readers will find an Annex at the end of this article, with two editorials written by our French comrades in the heat of the events. The explanatory notes were added by Class Struggle.
Chirac's ridiculous contortions to salvage the CPE (N. First Employment Contract - it is targeted at young workers under-26 and provides for a 2-year probation period during which the employee can be sacked at will without the employer having to give any reason or advance notice, nor pay any compensation. In addition the employer is awarded a large cut in National Insurance Contributions) without appearing to be doing so, did nothing to settle the power struggle between the Villepin government and the mobilisation which has developed against the CPE and the legalisation of casualisation, quite the opposite. At the time of writing - April 1st, 2006 - no-one can tell for sure where the present situation is heading to. With Chirac's support and the backing of the Constitutional Council (N. Constitutional Council - a special court whose remit is to decide on the legality of legislation passed by the National Assembly with regards to the Constitution. The Socialist Party had filed a writ against the CPE with this Council, which had rejected it.), the Villepin government has chosen to play tough. Now, everything hinges on the capacity of the anti-CPE mobilisation to face down this challenge, by maintaining itself and expanding.
The government has initiated a power struggle over the CPE and everything must be done to win.
The "equal opportunity law" which provides for the introduction of the CPE, also includes other scandalous measures such as the lowering of the age for apprenticeship to 14 and the legalisation of night work from 15years. However, this law is but the latest in a series of anti-working class laws passed, first under the Chirac-Raffarin administration (N. Raffarin - first prime minister after the right wing came back into office, in 2002) and then by the Chirac-Villepin administration.
Like every measure introduced by these hard-line anti-working-class governments, the CPE is designed to serve the interests of the bosses, in that it will make the situation of workers increasingly precarious and flexible. However, its actual content and the way it was imposed initially were dictated by electoral purposes.
By proposing the CPE on 16 January this year and then by using the 49-3 article mechanism (N. 49-3 article - a constitutional amendment which allows the prime minister to force a law to be voted upon in the National Assembly without discussion or amendments) to impose the whole of the "equal opportunity law", i.e. by resorting to a parliamentary coup against its own majority, Villepin was taking aim at his rival Sarkozy. His moves were meant to allow Villepin to appear as a pro-active strong man, who was demonstrating "reforming" courage without allowing himself to be hindered by any kind of bargaining, neither with the parliamentary opposition, nor with the trade unions.
For the time being, this attempt has turned out to be a flop. Villepin's rating is at its lowest in opinion polls. But then, of course, everything hinges on the outcome of the present mobilisation. Again, if opinion polls are anything to go by, while right-wing voters, who were targeted by Villepin, are beginning to think that the CPE was not such a good idea, given its consequences in the streets, nevertheless they do appreciate Villepin's boldness in resisting the growing discontent. In the rivalry between Villepin and Sarkozy, what is decisive are the feelings of this electorate, which is strongly in favour of anti-working class measures. However, at the same time, the parliamentary majority, which had been so unanimous at first, in backing the introduction of the CPE, is beginning to say aloud that, in Lellouche's words (N. Lellouche is a well-known pro-Chirac MP.), "support does not mean going as far as suicide."
Faced with the street mobilisation, of course, Villepin has watered down his attitude. While he had not even been prepared to discuss his law with his own parliamentary majority, he is now repeating that his is willing to "stretch out a hand", "establish a dialogue" and possibly to "amend" the CPE. Chirac officially declared the cancellation of two of the most shocking aspects of the CPE - the 2-year length of the probation period and the bosses' right not to justify sacking workers recruited under such contracts. Upon which, Chirac tried to get the unions and youth organisations into bogus negotiations, which both the union confederations and UNEF (N. UNEF - the largest university student union, whose leadership is aligned with the Socialist Party) turned down.
Of course, from the point of view of the right-wing electorate, it is one thing for Villepin to capitulate by withdrawing the CPE and it is quite another to devoid the CPE of its original content. And, quite obviously Villepin is gambling his future political career on his ability to win the power struggle which he initiated.
Everything hinges, therefore, on the strength of the mobilisation itself.
The anti-CPE opposition and the Socialist Party
To add insult to injury, the CPE was initially portrayed by the government as a measure designed to boost employment among the youth. As a result it did not generate opposition immediately. For a while, Villepin may even have thought that his coup had succeeded since the first opinion polls showed that a majority of public opinion supported the measure - but then, of course, the only information on the CPE available to most people was what ministers told them on TV.
Of course, right from day one, the CPE was opposed by far-left organisations - as well as by the Communist Party - as were the whole string of past anti-working class measures. However, it was the university students' growing mobilisation, starting from February 7th at Rennes University, which turned this opposition, confined at first to political activists and small political groups, into the embryo of a mobilisation.
Once this mobilisation took off the ground, the Socialist Party jumped on its bandwagon. It made a stand on the CPE issue, through its leaders, using the relative ease with which they can gain access to the media, and through its various mouthpieces in society, especially among the student milieu.
Since the spectacular defeat of the Socialist Party's candidate, Jospin, in the 2002 presidential election, and its subsequent shameful call to vote for Chirac on the second round of this election, it had remained silent on social issues. It had even refrained from committing itself to repeal, if it was voted back into office in the 2007 election, the worst measures introduced by the right-wing after 2002. But with the CPE, the Socialist Party found an agitational issue which was narrow enough for its tastes and could help it to revamp its image among left-wing voters.
But this concerned only the CPE. Indeed, while the Socialist Party leaders have been willing to engage in rhetorical opposition to the CPE, they are completely silent about the CNE (N. CNE or New Employment Contract is another kind of casual contract, which was introduced in August 2005. It is similar to the CPE except that it can be applied to any worker, regardless of age, provided the employer has 20 or fewer employees). From the very first meeting of the former "plural left" (N. The "plural left" was the name of the ruling left-wing under Jospin's premiership, between 1997 and 2002) on February 8th, the Socialist Party positioned itself as the figurehead of the anti-CPE opposition, by proposing to the other left-wing parties, including the Communist Party which had already began to agitate on the issue, to make a common stand. This took the form of a leaflet carrying a petition with the stated objective that this petition "would be handed over by hundreds of thousands of citizens, thereby forcing the National Assembly to have a new debate on the issue." Despite the moderation of the Socialist Party's position, the interventions of its leaders in the media acted as a counter-weight to the frantic propaganda organised by the government. By the same token, these interventions helped people to understand why presenting the CPE as a remedy to youth unemployment was a fraud.
The calculation made by the Socialist Party leaders is easy to make out. If the anti-CPE movement is successful in forcing Villepin to back peddle, the Socialist Party will claim to be the political artisan of this victory. If Villepin does not back down, the SP's stance against the CPE and its statements in the National Assembly on this issue will provide the Socialist Party with a social agitational theme, which will remain valid until next year's election. Given the limited scope of the issue, the Socialist Party takes no real risk, neither to be outflanked on its left today, nor to be forced to disown its own stance tomorrow, if it is returned to office. In fact, Hollande (N. Hollande is the SP's first secretary, the highest rank in the SP hierarchy) has even committed the Socialist Party to repeal the CPE should the left be successful in the next election. While some Socialist Party leaders have, occasionally, particularly during the campaign for the referendum on the European Constitution, promised to repeal one or other of the measures introduced by the present government, this is the first time that the SP's first secretary has made such a commitment on behalf of the party. Of course, such a commitment comes cheap for the SP. The CPE can be withdrawn without this affecting big business, which has many other forms of casual contracts of employment at its disposal - if only by resorting to agency workers and workers on short-term contracts. Besides, having denounced the CPE so vocally today, what will stop the Socialist Party from inventing another similar form of casual contract, which will be as favourable to the bosses as the CPE, if not more, but will be portrayed as a "left" remedy to youth unemployment? In fact, there is a lot of "think-tanking" going on in the top spheres of the Socialist Party, with Hollande, followed by Aubry hurriedly producing their own counter-proposals to the CPE, before Strauss-Kahn could do the same. (N. Aubry and Strauss-Kahn are both ex-ministers in past SP-led government, who belong to rival factions within the SP). We will not dissect here the content of these three proposals. Suffice it to say, that they would not cost anything to big business, but could, in some cases, result in (yet another) rebate on National Insurance Contributions or on the corporation tax paid by companies which are willing to employ young workers. In this respect, the SP leadership can be trusted not to be short of ideas, except that none of the proposals it will produce will ever be able to force the bosses to create jobs when they are unwilling to do so.
In addition, from the point of view of the Socialist Party, taking the leadership of the fight against the CPE has a subsidiary advantage: it helps to focus criticisms of Villepin's anti-working class policies on just this one issue, while leaving the rest in the shadows.
The mobilisation gathers pace among the youth
The anti-CPE mobilisation was not a spontaneous explosion, but a growing mobilisation. It must said that between the first protests called jointly by the trade unions and students' organisations, on February 7th, and the next protests, on March 7th, the universities were on holidays in rota, on a regional basis. And it was after March 7th that the mobilisation began to spread in earnest.
The first actions of the mobilisation involved the "blockading" of universities - i.e. blocking their entrances with piles of tables, chairs and other obstacles - and picketing. Initially these actions were carried out by small minorities. The geographic extension of the mobilisation across the country took place before it got deeper in terms of the numbers involved.
The blockading of universities was advocated by the most determined among the students - whether they were members of political organisations or activists produced by the mobilisation itself - as a convenient means to get their universities involved in the general movement, without having, or being able to, convince the majority of the students. Besides, it provided a ready-made answer to those students who risked being penalised for not attending lectures - particularly among those who have subsistence grants (N. Unlike in Britain, there are no tuition fees in French universities and the poorest students can get a small subsistence grant, without having to repay it later, provided their exam results and attendance record meet certain criteria) - since no lectures could take place in a "blockaded" university. Beneath its radical appearance, such methods were an adaptation to the low level of determination which existed among the majority of students, at least in the early days of the mobilisation. These methods allowed the mobilisation to spread to a large number of universities, but on the basis of a low level of participation in each one of them.
However, the mobilisation was growing. Although the "blockading" of universities involved only small numbers, they met with a growing sympathy among students, to the point where "blockading" eventually became another word for "striking".
From March 7th, the UNEF called for strike action in the universities. From then onwards the numbers of participants increased continuously. This was reflected by the growing numbers of demonstrations involving university students alone, but also by the growing number of students who took part in the national days of action called jointly by the trade unions and the students' organisations. The numbers participating in the successive demonstrations - on February 7th and then on March 7th, 16th, 18th, 23rd and 28th - kept increasing (with the exception of March 23rd, for which the support of the trade unions was merely symbolic). The estimations produced both by the police and the protest organisers showed that the numbers involved had doubled between March 18th and March 28th - and this was all the more significant as the first date was a Saturday, meaning that workers could join the protest without being on strike, whereas the second date was a Tuesday.
March 28th was the first day of action for which the union confederations called workers to take strike action. This call was followed up by union branches in the public sector and in a number of private companies. On that day, the demonstrations were particularly massive (3 million according to the trade unions, 1 million according to the police). It was even estimated that these demonstrations were larger than those of December 1995 against the Juppé Plan (N. The Juppé Plan involved raising the age of retirement from 60 to 65 in the public sector. It was withdrawn following a huge wave of strikes and protests in the winter of 1995) and those of May 2003 against pension "reform". (N. In May 2003, the right-wing government went back onto the offensive with a plan similar to the Juppé Plan, except that, this time, the wave of protest was unable to force the government into retreat.) So, during the 2nd week of March, the anti-CPE mobilisation had reached a new stage of development.
The level of mobilisation after March 28th
At this point, the mobilisation has already achieved something significant - it has attracted the public's attention to the hidden anti-working class intentions behind the government's rhetoric presenting the CPE as a measure favourable to the youth. As a result the CPE is now rejected by a large section of the population and the anti-CPE mobilisation enjoys a large level of sympathy.
However, it is one thing to be sympathetic to those fighting the CPE, but it is quite another to join their mobilisation.
For the time being, the mobilisation involves mostly university and school students. Even among university students, the number of those involved varies considerably. In some towns it is massive, both at mass meetings (4 to 5,000 at Rennes university, over 6,000 at least once at Grenoble university) and in street protests. But the mass meetings are not always so well attended. In greater Paris, for instance, the number involved in these meetings is not usually more than a thousand, which is very small compared with the total number of students - 50,000 at Jussieu and 33,000 at Nanterre, for instance. (N. These are two among the largest of Paris' 13 universities.) As to the number of students actively involved in extending the mobilisation, it is even smaller.
This, again, gives an idea of the level of determination among the majority of students, including among those who agreed with opposing the CPE. But it is also likely that the form of action which was originally adopted by the movement - the "blockading" of universities - played a role in maintaining the low level of student involvement: the majority of students remained at home and, at best, only participated in demonstrations.
These widely publicised demonstrations attracted students and played the dual role of both collective actions and mass meetings. In addition to the national days of demonstrations, street protests were organised locally - in some towns, almost daily, and in others less frequently - thereby providing the most active university and school students with a permanent focus for agitation.
School students joined university students from the very beginning of the mobilisation. But the new development during the 2nd half of March was that while the involvement of university students seemed more or less stagnant, that of school students was growing. There is a logic in this. Schools are more scattered than universities and many of them are located in towns where there is no university. But school students have far more resources to feed the growth of a mobilisation than university students. The "blockading" of schools, often with the teachers' support, developed fast, including in small towns and even in private schools.
As to the working class, it has not, or not yet, got really involved in this mobilisation. On the February 7th and March 7th days of action, for which the trade unions had issued no strike call, the majority of the workers present in the demonstrations were trade-union activists, shop stewards, etc. In the Paris demonstration, each one of the biggest companies was represented by a few dozen workers.
On March 18th, workers' involvement in the street protests was wider. But many came in their capacity as parents, who took part with their family, rather than as workers. On March 28th the union confederations not only supported the demonstrations but also issued a strike call. The largest section among the demonstrators on that day still came from the schools and universities. But this time workers' participation was more important, mainly from the public sector, particularly teachers, but also with larger contingents of private sector workers.
Some questions raised by the mobilisations or by those who claim to lead it
Right from the beginning, in the student milieu, the mobilisation displayed a number of features which, although largely accepted by the majority of the participants, did not reflect a very high level of politicisation, even compared to the requirement of the mobilisation itself.
We already mentioned the "blockading" issue. It was one thing for a large majority of students opposed to the CPE to decide to close down a university in order to stop a minority which supported the CPE from attending lectures. But it was quite another for a minority to propose to resort to technical means in order to make up for the lack of consciousness of the majority. It was fortunate that the geographical development of the mobilisation and the sympathy it met with prevented the "blockading" of universities from feeding divisions among students.
Another method of action, which was widespread, was for the small minority of students who were actively involved to occupy universities or, as in the case of the Paris Sorbonne, to try to resume its occupation following the intervention of the police, instead of using all the resources available to spread the mobilisation to other universities or schools.
The growth of the mobilisation and its extension to schools raised other kinds of problems. The gratuitous violence - when it was not self-serving - which took place during many demonstrations, particularly from March 23rd onwards, was not only due to outside elements trying to use the opportunity of the demonstrations in order to mug some of their participants. Getting technical schools and suburban youth involved in the movement could have reflected its growth and the fact that it was gathering strength. But only provided the movement had the capacity and the will to integrate the youth who were seeking to take part in a social mobilisation and to reject those who had no interest in the movement's political objectives, nor even the slightest feeling of solidarity with its participants, and only joined in to have a good fight or in the hope of making easy pickings.
Any mobilisation requires a certain level of collective discipline which is determined by the objectives pursued. Those who attack demonstrators within their own ranks, beat them up or mug them, are enemies of the movement and should be treated as such. Those who, under the cover of an alleged radicalism, burn cars show no more consciousness or solidarity towards the movement than the suburban youth who rioted in November 2005.
But how could the students find the correct attitude to adopt, when many of those who claimed to inspire, or even to lead the mobilisation - especially among far-left groups, some which call themselves anarchists or autonomists, but also others - wooed the least conscious among the students. During a demonstration, on March 23rd, in Paris, a leading member of the JCR (N. The JCR is the youth organisation of the LCR, one of France's three main Trotskyist organisations) was heard stating over his loud-speaker that "our mobilisation has inherited some things from the three main youth movements of the past few years: the 2003 university students' movement, the 2005 school students' movement, which gave us the 'blockading' technique, and last Autumn's suburban movement which gave us its energy and radicalism." And meanwhile, only a few hundred yards from the speaker, a few hundred unconscious youth were beating up and mugging demonstrators and throwing stones at the protestors!
In how many coordinating committee meetings and university mass meetings did surrealistic arguments take place over whether the movement should feel in solidarity with these thugs, whether "open marches" should be organised in order to "integrate" them or whether, on the contrary, stewards should be organised to protect the marchers?
However, after the incidents which occurred on March 23rd, the movement began to be more conscious about this problem and stewarding was organised. On March 28th, in Rennes, the same students who, one week earlier had carried a banner saying "we are all thugs", were now shouting "thugs out of the demo". However, of course, slogans are not enough and it takes more than shouting to achieve such a result.
In any case it is the responsibility of all those who are conscious of this problem, and especially of those who pose as leaders of the movement, to convince the demonstrators that they need to form self-defence groups capable of protecting the mobilisation and its marches against all those whose actions may weaken it, whether consciously or not.
It was rather paradoxical to hear, in the aftermath of the March 23rd incidents, student demonstrators protesting against the passivity of the riot police, because they had done nothing against a gang of thugs who were beating up a demonstrator a few feet away, and the same students protesting against police brutality!
The word "radicalism" has become the keyword to justify just about anything, including the most mindless behaviour. Burning the car of one's relatives or one's downstairs neighbour in a council estate - a standard form of "action" among some suburban youth last November - did not reflect a high level of consciousness, nor even a minimum level of social solidarity. But it is neither more clever nor more justifiable to have the same behaviour alongside a demonstration against the CPE! Ransacking a suburban railway station on the way to a demonstration in Paris was not either. Nor is it justifiable to take opportunity of a march to loot shops along its way.
The political groups which claim to provide the mobilisation with a leadership and think that they actually do, just because they align themselves with its shortcomings instead of seeking to increase the level of consciousness of its participants, bear a heavy responsibility. Despite their abuse of the word "radicalisation", instead of pushing the movement forward, they push it backward.
Another problem was raised by the mobilisation. After March 28th and despite the success of the demonstrations on that day, which was also a success for the student mobilisation itself, many activists of the movement resorted to spectacular "actions", again in the name of "radicalism" - for instance, by blocking the traffic on motorways or rail tracks. This was certainly not the best way to win over, or even retain, the support of public opinion. A worker who felt sympathetic to students distributing anti-CPE leaflets at his factory's gates, in a railway station or market, will not necessarily have the same attitude if, when he is tired after a day's work, he finds himself stuck in a traffic jam or in a suburban train due to one of these "radical" actions.
On March 28, between 1 and 3 million people took part in the demonstrations. The next day, Villepin announced that he would not bulge. The most urgent task for the movement at this point was not to propose secretively prepared actions to the few hundred more impatient students, who were tired of demonstrating and had come to the conclusion that more "radical" actions were needed. The most urgent task was for the movement to address itself to those who had not demonstrated on March 28th, despite being sympathetic to the movement. It was necessary to show to these people that the movement was not over, that it was not just based on a minority, and that the only reply to Villepin's arrogance was an even larger mobilisation. Proposing forms of action which, by definition, could only involve very small minorities and usually had to be prepared in secret, thereby leaving out the vast majority of students and protesters, was beside the point, at best. One cannot radicalise a movement by indulging oneself in isolation from the majority of the movement. This is not radicalising a movement, it is merely a way of losing the interest of all those who could and should be won over to the movement in order for it to carry on expanding.
In fact, this is an old practice of the anarchist milieu which, by focusing on spectacular action, if not radical action, carried out by individuals or small groups of individuals, under the pretext of "awakening the masses", only exposes its contempt for these masses.
Besides this, the movement displayed prejudices against everything related to being organised or politically involved. In and of itself, the fact that the movement was apolitical does not explain everything. Such a characteristic is often the result of the activity of people who conceal their own ideas by pretending to be apolitical. Conscious choices can only be made if everyone feels free to state their ideas and defend them, before submitting to the collective discipline of the movement. Refusing such openness and freedom is merely a form of dictatorship imposed on the movement itself.[..]
The mobilisation needs to be extended and strengthened
The future of the anti-CPE mobilisation depends on those who have been instrumental in its development so far: university and school students. To date, their mobilisation never ceased to gather strength, by attracting a growing number of youth. There are reasons to believe that this will carry on, despite the blackmail over the issue of exams or, in the case of school students, the threat made by Education minister de Robien, to evacuate schools by force. With the movement extending and more youth getting involved in activities and decisions, they will learn to avoid the traps and stagnation which threaten any lasting mobilisation.
But in order for the mobilisation to reach another stage, a more massive involvement of the working class will be required. The student movement is already contributing to the involvement of workers, due to its development and strengthening, its many demonstrations, the fighting atmosphere that it creates and the pressure it puts on the union confederations.
But the student mobilisation could contribute even more to the involvement of workers by having the preoccupation of reaching out towards the working class, wherever this can be done, at factory gates, but also in market places, outside railway stations and shopping centres.
However, the attitude of the union confederations is decisive in this respect. For the time being they are unanimous in their rejection of the CPE and their demand for it to be withdrawn. And this includes even the CGFT, despite the fact that it makes "social dialogue" the very basis of its policy. For the time being all union confederations are supporting the April 4th day of action. So far so good! The fact that these calls have been unanimous and that the various days of action had a prompt follow up, helped to involved a growing number of workers.
In any case, despite its limitations and weaknesses, the students' movement can be credited for rising to the government's challenge and carrying this through to the working class and to society as a whole. Beyond the political manoeuvring of the Socialist Party and its allies in the former "plural left", aimed at channelling the movement into becoming part of their election campaign, beyond Villepin and his political career, the real stake in this mobilisation is to force the government to back down for the first time in a decade. Since 1995 and the large demonstrations which had forced Juppé to shelve his plans, there have been many attacks against the working class, during the past 4 years under the right-wing but also the previous five years under the SP-led government. Some of these attacks did spark off reactions from the working class, of some importance, but none of them was successful. So, everything should be done to ensure that the present mobilisation is a success.
The following two texts are translated from editorials published by Lutte Ouvrière in its workplace bulletins and weekly paper, during the course of the mobilisation against the CPE. The first one came out just after the April 4th national day of action in which between one and three million people joined protest marches across the country. The second editorial was issued on April 10th, following the government's announcement that it was shelving the CPE.
After April 4th - this is not the time to suspend the struggle, but to take it further (3 April 2006)
The day of strikes and demonstrations, on April 4th, was unquestionably a bigger and more spectacular success than that of March 28th. It was the only possible response to Chirac's announcement on TV, on March 31st, that he had decided to enact the law introducing the CPE, thereby making it enforceable - even though, at the same time, he was asking the bosses not to use it for the time being. The point is that Chirac was refusing to withdraw the CPE, regardless of the fact that this was demanded by millions of protesters with the support of over 3/4 of public opinion.
Chirac insists that he is taking into account the "disquiet which is expressed" and will ask the government to prepare "two amendments to the law concerning controversial issues." The probation period would be reduced from two years to one. But even then, the CPE would still only provide a casual form of employment, giving bosses the legal right to sack their young employees at will for a whole year.
Chirac also stated that, contrary to the current formulation of the law, "the right of young workers to know the reasons" for their being sacked "will be written into the new law."
Big deal! Assuming that the government delivers on Chirac's promises, a young worker might know why he is sacked, but would still have no legal redress against his sacking - not even the very limited redress available to permanent workers.
Even in this amended form, the CPE would still represent one more step towards the legalisation of casual employment. The CPE and CNE are not reformable, they must be dropped altogether!
Of course, more and more workers are in casual jobs. This casualisation is experienced by all those hired under one the many forms of insecure employment contracts which all governments - whether left or right-wing - have been engineering, under the pretext of creating jobs. It is experienced by the many different categories of casual workers employed by the state itself, as well as by the growing numbers of production line workers, who are agency workers and are now less and less likely to get a permanent job. And how many workers have to scrape a living out of temping intermittently for a few days here and a few days there (when it is not just for a few hours)? In fact, even the situation of permanent workers is becoming increasingly precarious, in so far as all of them can be at the receiving end of one of the redundancy plans, which are implemented regularly by all big companies, whether it be to cut jobs, to offshore activities, or simply to boost the price of their shares on the stock market!
The CPE and CNE are unacceptable because they are a vehicle for the government to legalise casual employment, by providing it with a statutory endorsement. And, although the CPE is meant to be applicable only to the under-26s and the CNE to workers in small businesses, they provide a blueprint for what the bosses have in store for all workers.
The existing protection against sackings may not be very effective, but should casualisation be legalised, there would no protection left at all. This should not be tolerated.
The trade union confederations all agreed that there was nothing to bargain for, over the CPE and demanded its outright withdrawal. They stuck to this position on April 5th. So far so good. But then, why did they agree to meet the leaders of the UMP parliamentary parties in the National Assembly and Senate - i.e. the representatives of a government with whom they claim to have nothing to bargain about? And what is more, why has each confederation met the UMP representatives separately, when one of the main features of the mobilisation so far, has been their united stance? Why did they fail to set the date for the next stage in the struggle this time, as they have done after the previous days of action? Why did they set a de facto deadline for the government's withdrawal of the CPE to April 17th - that is, the beginning of the parliamentary recess? Why, if not because the confederations' leaders, despite their radical rhetoric, are willing to agree to a face-saving compromise with the government in return for its recognition of their importance?
By so doing, the union leaders are taking the risk of demobilising workers and students at the very time when their mobilisation is reaching its highest point and their chances to force the government into retreat are highest. The fact that workers joined ranks with university and school students in the street protests played a role in shaping the mobilisation. Adopting a different policy now would be pushing the students towards minority actions, which would involve the risk of depriving them of the sympathy they have enjoyed so far from a large part of the population.
In any case, the school and university students' movement is going to carry on. The working class must also carry on expressing itself. There is no reason to offer Chirac any respite in this mobilisation, which had the means to win, and still does. All those who have taken part in protests against the CPE and CNE for weeks must voice their determination to see the struggle carry on, without any let up, until the total withdrawal of the CPE and CNE.
Not everything has been won (11 April 2006)
To avoid talking about the "withdrawal" or "repeal" of the CPE, Chirac-Villepin-Sarkozy have opted to talk about "replacing" it. Item 8 of the "equal opportunity law" (which introduced the CPE) is now replaced with an item on "helping marginalised youth into employment" - which includes an improvised mish-mash of existing employment contracts, which are just as useless against unemployment. To explain what is, in fact, a retreat under pressure from the anti-CPE mobilisation, Villepin even dared to defend his good intentions, by claiming "I have been misunderstood and I regret it".
On the contrary, the university and school students who initiated the movement understood him all too well. They understood that the CPE was but another step towards the legalisation of casualisation, which would do nothing to reduce unemployment. It was their struggle which forced Villepin, Chirac and Sarkozy into retreat - and with them the handful of people who claim to represent the majority of the population only for the sake of carrying out a policy designed to benefit a wealthy minority. The CPE is out, but not the CNE, which is just as much a way of legalising casualisation. Besides, only one measure in the "equal opportunity law" is withdrawn, whereas this law introduces at least two other measures which are clearly against workers' interests, especially against the interests of the working class youth. One of these measures lowers the minimum age for apprenticeship to 14, thereby handing over to the bosses a very young labour force, which they can exploit as they wish, to sweep the floors in their workshops. And the other legalises night work for young workers from the age of 15, which amounts to turning the clock back many decades to the past, in terms of social improvements.
The youth who choose to carry on demanding the withdrawal of the CNE and "equal opportunity law", calling for new protests on April 11th and after, may have no certainty that they have enough strength to win. Nevertheless, they are right. They deserve the support of the working class.
The union confederations are content with grabbing the government's proposal of a "dialogue", allegedly to find remedies against youth unemployment. But this is a fake dialogue which will lead nowhere.
Youth unemployment exists because unemployment does. And unemployment exists not only because the bosses are free to sack agency and other casual workers: it exists because the bosses are free to carry out redundancy plans involving permanent workers as well, under the pretext of "restructuring", offshoring or simply to boost the price of their shares.
The only way to reduce youth unemployment, as well as adult unemployment, would be to be able to ban redundancy plans and to impose on the bosses the obligation of using part of their huge profits to keep and create jobs, including if this means sharing out the available work between all workers.
But these are issues that no-one talks about, neither the left-wing opposition, nor the right-wing majority. Because neither of them is prepared to dent the bosses' profits. On the contrary, the left parties' proposals involve advocating more state-subsidised jobs, whereby the bosses get help through a cut in their national insurance contributions or corporation tax, if not through part of newly hired worker's wages being paid by the state.
The withdrawal of the CPE can be considered a success, primarily due to the way it was won, through action in the streets - because this shows the way forward. The mobilisation has mostly concerned school and university students, who won the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of the working class. This sympathy was expressed on the various national days of action. But at no point were the bosses threatened with the loss of what really counts for them - their profits.
Those who talk about the end of a social crisis and spend their time talking about the crisis within the right-wing majority and the rivalry between Sarkozy and Villepin may well turn out to have sold the bear's skin before the bear was dead. Because this social crisis is a by-product of the ferocious class war waged by big business against the working population, with the backing of every government. And it will only be stopped by the working masses taking to the offensive, by means of street demonstrations and strikes, using all their social weight which, alone, can force the bosses and the government into retreat.