After the events in the banlieues – the urban suburbs of France – last autumn, French youth are in the streets again today. Why?
It isn’t exactly the same type of young person who has taken to the streets. The anti-CPE  movement is not a re-enactment of the urban violence of last autumn. There are certainly bridges between the two worlds (“banlieue talk” and styles of clothing and behaviour) and points of actual encounter which are often points of friction (the rioters who have turned things violent, endeavoring to rob the high school demonstrators of their legitimacy, and sometimes even their possessions). It is interesting to note that some of the main scenes of the youth protest movement are in precisely the urban areas which formed the epicenter of the November riots. This is especially so in Seine-Saint-Denis.
There are huge differences, however. Though the November crisis in impoverished areas with a high concentration of immigrants produced political fallout, it was insubstantial. This outburst of violence laid bare the effects of the abdication by the political system in the face of a staggering rise in class inequalities amplified by issues of ethnicity. The self-destructive explosion of these young people left entirely outside the education and employment system is not only an expression of the underlying fragmentation of huge swathes of classes labeled as « communities » closed in on themselves, but also the inability to expand the horizon of the possible background history. It reflects the lack of an overriding political force that could turn this scattering of oppressed “minorities” into a new political majority.
– Could the present anti-CPE movement not be described in similar terms?
No, it is substantially different because this is a true social movement in the sociological sense of the term. It is not simply a movement based on opinion, or a protest in response to a situation. Rather, it is the manifestation of social groupings voicing demands that are significant, long-term and in conflict with government policy .
With the two key measures – the two-year probationary period for newly hired people under 26 and the employers’ right to dismiss without cause – we are facing a frontal attack on the fundamentals of labour law. On the pretext of battling youth unemployment, the government is institutionalizing the lack of job security. In an effort to protect corporate profits, it is imposing massive job-insecurity among workers. There was a time when economic policy considered profit to be earnings on capital in return for risk-taking. Neoliberal policy seeks to transfer these risks onto the workforce by maximizing corporate profits.
Beyond its economic aims, the anti-CPE movement as a movement for the purpose of overturning neoliberal laws is committed to the strategic mission of fighting against divisions among the work-force. It is also a movement that didn’t simply come out of nowhere. The first union action against the New Hire Contract – a similar measure applicable to all workers in companies with less than 20 workers and adopted by decree in the summer of 2005 – date back to October. A lasting movement is likely to grow more radical and attract solidarity – nurturing fraternity between previously unrelated activists. Finally, it isn’t simply a protest movement but rather a collective endeavour that acknowledges the need to negotiate and apply a different economic and social policy.
– The demonstrations are being led by the young people. The unions are following, while the political parties seem relegated to a secondary role.
The unions have been on the front lines from the beginning. They are not strongly represented in companies, especially in the private sector (the unionization rate in France is under 10%). But they have the ability to get hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets when they are on the same wavelength as the work-force and public opinion in general. For the time being the unions are perfectly united, and that unity is spreading the message far and wide throughout society. They are independent of political bodies and their refusal to be used for partisan purposes gives them a directly political role.
However, the unions have no desire to take the place of the parties for the purpose of resolving the political crisis caused by the growing failure of the political class to represent the people. They do not want to be directly involved in a reordering of the political world because they would risk losing their legitimacy with their membership.
Hence the difficulty in France of moving from a position of ideological anti-neoliberalism, which is shared by the majority of public opinion, to political anti-capitalism, which seems to be marginal as a force in public protest. By contrast with the parties, the unions (including university and high school student unions) have no legitimacy problem. What they lack is effectiveness. Their main difficulty is showing that they can affect the course of events and influence the shifting of forces in favor of the workers.
– The events of today are being compared (especially abroad and, I might add, a little hastily) to those of May 1968. Is there a parallel?
In the Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx observed, quoting Hegel, that history’s big events appear the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. This historical analogy, while interesting as a comparative perspective in political science, does not withstand empirical scrutiny. The anti-CPE movement is neither a post-modern re-enactment of May 68 nor is it its antithesis. It needs to be analyzed as a comprehensive social event (in the sense of Marcel Mauss) which requires fine and innovative analytical tools.
Though it can’t be compared to the labour movement of the Ford period (1945‑1975), it is nevertheless a movement which reaffirms the key role of labour as central to social life and the focus of conflict between the different sectors of society. A multi-sector-based movement which carries within it the seeds of a crisis of governance, it constitutes a meeting point between educated young people in revolt and militant unionized workers. It’s a protest movement combining unionist and material demands and symbolizes an increasingly popular challenge to government lies, one that is gaining widespread popular support. It is an ongoing confrontation with the political power structure, a jagged process composed of national days of action alternating with days of relative calm for the purpose of nurturing the dynamic of mobilization.
– Why is France such a hotbed of social upheaval today?
Historically, France is a politicized nation par excellence. You can’t walk down the street here without seeing a public building bearing the slogan “Freedom, Equality and Fraternity”. The No vote on the constitutional treaty in the May 2005 referendum was yet another confirmation of this fact. Despite the crisis in progressive politics, popular resistance to the neoliberal juggernaut is deep-rooted, relentless and original. It is multifaceted and taking place on a wide range of fronts.
The independence this social movement represents an authentic politicization beyond the reach of vote-grubbing politicians. It exists outside the bounds of traditional politics as such. It’s about the struggle for women’s rights and for an alternative world, it’s about defending illegal immigrants, it’s about battling genetically modified organisms and junk food. Despite the drift of the intellectual and media elites toward the dominant ideology, critical thinking has never ceased to flourish in France. Paradoxically, French exceptionalism represents not a refusal to face up to the modern world, but is instead the vanguard for the decisive battles that must take place throughout Europe and the world in defence of democracy and social rights.
 The CPE is a type of open-ended contract for young people provided for in the « equal opportunity law » proposed, and later withdrawn, by the French government.
 See Sophie Béroud, René Mouriaux, Michel Vakaloulis, Le mouvement social en France. Essai de sociologie politique, Editions La Dispute, 1998
(First Published in Avghi: 1 April 2006. Translation : Gillian Sloane Seale and Rod Cozzarolo, Coorditrad)
Source : Attac France