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Issue 34, January 1999

France: a new generation takes to the streets

IN FRANCE the beginning of September is known as the 'rentrée' - the 'going back' after the holidays - to work, school or university. It is also the start of the political year. Political parties, unions, the government and employers' organisations, all hold press conferences and issue statements. The first strikes and demonstrations after the summer are closely scrutinised to try and gauge the mood of workers and youth.

It is not unusual for the start of the autumn term to be marked by strikes and protests of teachers, often supported by parents and pupils, particularly against overcrowding and staff shortages. This year was relatively calm and Claude Allègre, Education Minister in the Jospin government, publicly congratulated himself on a smooth start to the school year. As events were to show, his self-satisfaction was a little premature. It was based on the poor response to one-day strikes called by the main teachers' union. The planned strike by secondary school teachers, announced in June for the start of term, was postponed for a fortnight while the union leaders discussed with Allègre. They came back empty-handed. When the strike finally took place it was a semi-flop and Allègre was able to maintain a 17% cut in overtime pay. Even less successful was the strike by all teachers on 18 September (hardly surprising as it was not called around teachers' real and urgent demands over wages, conditions and class sizes, but around the vague slogan, 'For the democratisation of the education system').

Allègre and the government thought they had pulled it off. And that is where the school students came in. Starting from the South-East their movement rapidly took on a national character. On October 15 several thousand school students took part in 349 separate demonstrations across the country. Opinion polls showed 88% of the population supported them. Further mass demonstrations took place on October 20, joined this time by a limited number of teachers. The school students' demands were simple: more teachers, smaller class sizes, decent conditions for studying and rationally organised timetables.

These largely coincided with the teachers' own demands - in fact, faced with the inertia of the teacher unions' leaders, the school students' movement was playing the role of defending the education system, and the conditions of teachers and students alike, from government cutbacks. Behind these cutbacks, Allègre has a wide-ranging programme which would increase social inequality, reduce choice and tailor education to meet the needs of employers.

Once the movement began to take on a mass character, it started to organise in what is now the traditional fashion - through 'coordinations'. These are simply meetings of students representing the schools involved in the struggle, which can then elect executive bodies. In the recent movement there were two national coordinations. One was organised by school student unions led by currents within the ruling Parti Socialiste (PS). This coordination, which sought to avoid a confrontation with the government, was quickly recognised by Allègre and invited to negotiate. The second and more radical coordination was influenced by school students from the Communist Youth and Trotskyist organisations.

  One aspect of the demonstration in Paris on 15 October was the role of the 'casseurs' (breakers). These are gangs of youth from the grim housing estates around the city who come to demonstrations and use them as a cover to wreck and loot shops, and to rob demonstrators and passers-by. These actions are not simply provocations organised by the police. They express the frustration of a section of youth - school students or unemployed - who see themselves as already rejected by society. They descend on 'rich' Paris and other big cities to even things up a bit and get their share of the cake.

Nevertheless, there is more than a suspicion that the police let the casseurs run riot in Paris on 15 October to try and discredit the movement and scare off students coming on their first demonstration. The events of that day were then used to justify a massive police presence on the subsequent demonstrations in Paris, on a scale which had not been seen on any demonstration in the city for over 20 years.

Allègre came back on October 21 with his response to the movement. His proposals amounted to very little: a maximum of 3,000 new teachers, whereas the students were demanding 100,000; and practically no new government spending, just interest-free loans to the regions. He followed this up with other measures which were not actually a reply to the students' demands but a pursuit of his own reforms aiming to reduce the quality of education under cover of lightening the workload. The movement's élan was cut across by the autumn holidays which began on 23 October. The radical coordination described Allègre's proposals as 'a 100% swindle' and called for a new day of action on November 5 (the schools went back on November 3). Significantly even the PS-influenced coordination called the proposals 'insufficient' and called for demonstrations on November 5, although it later backtracked.

The radical coordination also called for a general strike of the whole education system on the November 5, appealing to teachers and university students. Unfortunately, there was very little response to this appeal. The November 5 demonstrations marked the end of the movement, although 30,000 school students still demonstrated in 90 towns. Many school students felt that Allègre wasn't ready to give any more, and there was a barrage of propaganda in the media along the lines that they had won what they could and that the movement was over. The lack of response by the teachers' unions and by university students was also a demobilising factor.

  Nevertheless, the situation is far from stable. There is widespread discontent at all levels of the education system, among students, teachers and administrative staff. It will be surprising if Allègre gets to the end of the school year without these problems erupting somewhere. Already there are strikes by university students, though not, as yet, on a large scale.

The school students' movement was far from an isolated phenomenon in French society. It coincided with a rash of strikes, particularly in public transport, which have centred around demands for taking on more workers and giving permanent contracts to casual workers, and which have sometimes been successful. These strikes are continuing.

Since the public-sector general strike of November-December 1995, Jospin and his predecessor, Juppé, have nervously watched every important struggle - the lorry drivers' strikes in 1996 and 1997, and the unemployed movement last winter - fearing that they could spread. In a country still marked by the memory of the massive general strikes of 1936 and 1968, this fear is real. It would be foolish to predict a timescale, but the ingredients for a new generalised movement are coming together.

David Cameron

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