france 2005: brief notes on the movement of secondary school students (2005)

I emphasise that these are just notes, very incomplete and not much of an analysis.

In mid-April 2005, a Parisian annexe of the Ministry of Education was invaded by between 150 and 200 lycéens (secondary school students from the age of 16 upwards), and the offices were wrecked, with virtually every computer smashed, two being chucked out of the window. When the CRS (riot cops) arrived, the students quickly rushed up the stairs to the roof, quickly covering the stairs behind them with oil and liquid soap that they’d found there. As the cops slipped and fell, a fire extinguisher was chucked at them, and the students escaped over the rooves, though some, caught on CCTV, were later arrested. This was the culmination of a national movement against the “Fillon” law, named after the Minister of Education who brought it in (Fillon, like most Ministers of Education in France, didn’t last long: he was forced to resign in the government re-shuffle after the NON vote in the referendum on the EU constitution1).

The Fillon law is complicated and virtually nobody seems to know exactly every aspect of it, but its principle policies involve:
a) assessing the “bac” (roughly equivalent to ‘A’ levels) differently depending on which school you come from, so that universities will value a grade A from a ‘bad’ school as of less value than one from a ‘good’ school; this doesn’t just crudely make overt what was covert, but intensifies hierarchy and competition. The school students immediately realised that it was an intensifcation of the attempts to set them against each other, which the ban on the Muslim scarf had failed to do*.
b) part of your exam results to be assessed by your class performance, so if you don’t get on with your teacher then that will affect your results;

c)the future option of placing a cop in every school, as a replacement of the old ‘pions'[3], who in the past were usually young people – at one time, students and then later as a job for the young unemployed – paid to act rather like professional prefects, though generally not as bad as the notion of ‘prefects’ conjures up.

In other words, it intensifies the misery of compulsory mis-education, overtly setting school against school and intensifying the stratification of ‘education’, intensifying it as a means of social control, of separation and of preparation for the sink or swim world of wage labour.
Undoubtedly some of the discourse amongst lycéens reflected a fear of increasing precariety amongst previously slightly ‘priveleged’ more middle class sections. But some ultra-leftists, eager to develop an image as an extremist, complete with ready-made ‘correct’ line, used this tendency to remain indifferent to how these very ‘priveleged’ kids were moving towards a partly radical, partly a little Leftist, critique of schools and the system. Take this, from a leaflet at the end of March:
“What is at stake is the Fillon reform itself, which intends to sabotage the schools by adjusting education to the needs of industry. The reform wants to turn the students into industrial robots and bans all knowledge and necessary means for a critical mind and self-development from the schools. In general, and for a long time now, schools have been reduced to institutions of social control and their inner hierarchies leave no space for real life. It is obvious that neither the teachers nor the students want to work in these institutions. The Fillon reform concerns us all and it is up to us to discuss here and now about the kind of school we want and how to put it into practice. Let’s continue the occupations!…”

*******

The movement began in February with large demonstrations organised by the students themselves (the teacher’s unions had virtually nothing to say about this law) in various towns, though the Paris ones were the biggest. Some of them involved a bit of a punch-up with the cops. On March 8th a well-publicised attack on the school students took place on the Paris demo – not by the cops but by youths from the estates on the periphery of Paris. The CRS and the other cops watched passively as mobile phones, money, etc. were stolen from groups of students by gangs of “casseurs” – literally “breakers”, a term used from ’69 on to describe those who smashed shop windows on demos. In the past those from the estates would often go on demos just to attack the shops and businesses. Lefties usually said that they were police provocateurs, almost as a ritual denunciation. But this time they left the shops unharmed and attacked the demonstrators, some being hospitalised. Many thought they had been manipulated, and not just traditional Leftists. The fact that they all gathered at one point when they belonged to different gangs, that they had a clear plan to divide the demonstration in two, which they did, and that they were directed by 20 or so older, tough Mafia-looking types, who seemed to be co-ordinating the attacks, made the Left’s cry of wolf seem genuine this time. On the other hand, the fact that they were open to such a manipulation is indicative of the decomposition of the times. The effect of these attacks was that on the next demo turnout was down to about 25% of the previous numbers, plus they were well stewarded by Union bureaucrats and surrounded by masses of cops.

But the effect on the school students was simply to change tactics: instead of largely ritualised demos they started to occupy their schools. By the end of March over 7% of ‘lycées’ were occupied, rising to maybe as much as 25% in the Paris area. These were self-organised occupations, often involving confrontations with the headmaster or the deputy and the cops, and always run by a general assembly of the students. And these occupations took place despite the fact that Fillon’s proposal had already become law: in the past, as soon as something became law it was seen as a defeat. In the rush to Thatcherism/Blairism, there’s no way the French State is going to retreat on a piece of law as big as this2 but many of the school students are also not prepared to retreat, and are talking about re-starting the movement after the summer (predictably, after the April holidays, social peace has reigned in the schools: this is the season for exams).

It should be said that from about mid-March onwards there was virtually a media blackout in relation to this movement, so information has been very sporadic, either through the internet or through chance encounters. The little we know is:
The atmosphere in the Paris area changed a bit during these times. Some gypsies who were squatting a house with a door leading to a school playground offered to help students defend the occupation from the cops if they should try to evict the students. The students reciprocated with an offer to the gypsies if they should suffer an eviction attempt. This, given the enormous traditional separation between gypsies and others, was indicative of a significant breakdown in normal separations. Likewise, in this atmosphere, about 15 – 20 primary school kids, aged about 10, demanded a big reduction in homework from the headmistress, and then walked along the road chanting “Homework strike!” The burden of homework is ridiculously high for these young kids: even though it is technically illegal to give more than a couple of hours homework a week, primary school kids are often given over 7 hours of homework, part of the drive to make primary schools as miserable as secondary schools.

There was an occupation of a school in the suburbs of Paris that attracted the attention of the main national Trot group – the Ligue Communiste Revolutionaire. At 11p.m. mid-week in this villagey suburb they marched, all 20 of them, up the middle of the road loudly and proudly singing the Internationale, heads popping out the window as they did so. They arrived at the occupation and decided to hold court in the courtyard – setting up a podium with loud speakers speaking into loudspeakers. The occupiers, bemused and stoned, offered the Trot militants a spliff, which the LCR felt they had to accept in order to ingratiate themselves. After that they couldn’t really get into their hectoring rhetoric roles and, under orders from those who didn’t inhale, packed up shop whilst they denounced the occupiers, saying “You’ll never get anywhere without serious politics” blah blah blah.
In Paris, the occupations and actions are organised by word of mouth – mobile phones are strictly avoided so as to escape the intrusive ears of the State.

In Toulouse, strikes and occupations by school students coincided with an occupation of the University by students, though the school students proved more militant. Over a thousand of them boarded a train to Paris without tickets, insisting they be taken to a demo there for free. They had to be kicked out by the riot cops. The riot cops also had to protect the ‘prefecture’ – the administrative centre – to stop school students occpuying. So instead they occupied the ‘Chambre de Commerce’, an admin building concerned with the taxes and bureaucracy of small businesses and the self-employed. Several thousand blocked the town’s main square with a sit-down, preventing the circulation of traffic for a few hours.

In Angers, a few schools were occupied towards the end of March. In a demo of about 3000, round about 300 lycéens (the most motivated ones at the head of the demo) rushed towards the barrier of cops and pushed their way through onto the bypass (which is in the town), blocking all the traffic. The older demonstrators climbed over the barriers and joined up with the others on the motorway.

Next day there was a ‘wildcat demo’ of between about 1500 and 3000 youngsters in front of the occupied “J. du Bellay” school which was a kind of general meeting point for the movement. The headmaster and his deputy tried to initimidate them but they were thumped by the jubilant crowd and the canteen was wrecked. But the majority of young people who mobilised were not too keen on the violence. Still, groups of school students (several hundred young people per group – two or three thousand in total) opted to stroll from school to school so as to get them to come out on strike.

As in most of the demos and occupations, everything was based on spontaneity and the speed with which information circulated. The youth of Angers created their own Assembly of Assemblies (Council) which worked well: direct democracy, with the unions and parties totally out of the picture. Three or four clowns from the LCR, CGT and unions offered themselves as demonstration stewards. They were loudly shouted down and humiliated so that they stopped speaking.4 For every night of the occupation of the second biggest school in Angers there was equally a simultaneous occupation of the Town Hall or of the Administrative Building or of another institution representing State power. Every evening the place occupied changed so as to avoid the cops.

On March 31st at 7.30 a.m. a small demo of 20 students blocked the main artery of the town to all traffic; just before the cops arrived, the students were joined by 20 more and they had a sit-in in the middle of the boulevard. The cops tried to nick some youths, but the 40 or so students rushed to pull their arrested comrades free from the hands of the cops. Retreating from the cop reinforcements, there was a snowball effect, leading to a sit-in of a private school involving about 600 students, whilst several hundred other students went to a couple of other schools creating havoc on the way, eventually leading to the hitting of a headmaster, some arrests and a demo of at least 3000.

Doubtless there have been several other interesting developments in different parts of the country, but, as we said, the media imposed a blackout: just a few seconds on the news if they happened to have a news team where there was a bit of a fight with the authorities outside a school. The only thing that got half-reported was the riot cops kicking out protesting schoolkids at a courtroom where kids arrested during the movement were on trial; what they failed to mention was the fact that the judge ordered the trial to be held in camera and that the students were shouting, « Secret trial – fascist methods » (though it rhymed in French) and that 3 lawyers who also protested about this were also expelled from the building.

Many of the school students involved have vowed to resume the fight in September, though after the April holidays predictably everything has quietened down, with the isolation of exams dominating everything.

In the meantime we’ve heard that there have been schoolkids movements in North Italy, a bit in Spain, in Portugal and in Quebec, though the details are very superficial. We shall try to elaborate on them as soon as we’ve found out.

Footnotes

*
Bizarrely, 2 members of Temps Critique, in a conversation with me, were astonished that I could suggest as a simple possibility, that the banning was an attempt to divide and rule, to intensify inter-racial/religious strife between teenagers. They expressed and defended the whole discourse of the State – laicity, principles, equality, ad nauseam – including the ban on the foulard (hijab), one of them saying he didn’t want teenagers with baseball caps in his class any more than he wanted the foulard, linking the ban on the scarf to attempts to stop Muslim youth raping teenage girls who refuse to wear one (one expects this demagogic ‘feminist’ amalgam technique from the dominant society, but from ‘revolutionaries’…?).
In a previous version of this footnote, I developed some further critiques of Temps Critique, but after a conversation with one of them to verify what they said, I felt it was best to back of from my rather hard-hitting attack at least until I’d received a final version of a criticism of the text “Culture en Danger – Si Seulement” (see our ‘Culture’ or ‘Class Struggle Histories’ section) which is meant to be included in the latest version of their journal. (Footnote altered 6/9/05).
1This NON vote was a significant defeat for the dominant section of the ruling class and for virtually the whole of the media which had pushed for a OUI vote. Though the essential aspects of neo-liberalism are already in place in the current EU, a OUI vote would certainly have discouraged real independent opposition to the development of neo-liberalism in France. Whilst having no illusions in referendums or bourgeois elections, to always pose an anarchist-type opposition to voting ignores the fact that some elections weaken the State a bit, whilst others strengthen it. The NON vote is almost as if Kinnock had won the 1992 election: if he had, it is doubtful that the State would have been able to destroy the mining communities so easily, for instance. Sure, the NON vote is not, as the Left would conveniently have it, a victory in itself: everything depends on proletarian initiative.
2There has been one minor retreat. An old law forbidding very long vehicles from going on motorways began to be applied, for the very first time, to circus and fairground vehicles, who were suddenly forced to take the smaller roads. The fairground/circus workers and bosses organised a demo outside the Ministry of Transport and smashed loads of windows in the building with the barriers supposed to be protecting it. Their representatives were immediately invited in and the Minister immediately withdrew from applying this old law. But then this is France, and smashing the windows of public buildings is virtually a banality.

3: It says much about the growing totalitarian atmosphere that the State might start replacing untrained supervisers with cops, inherently a role involving total identification with their masters. After ’68 pions were often just young students making a bit of extra and hardly enforced discipline, sometimes participating in the revolt of schoolkids.
The recent popular French film Les Choristes depicts a pion from an earlier period – early 50s. The film takes place in a vicious boarding school for ‘difficult’ kids, often in trouble, orphaned or just a burden to their parents, where the ‘pion’ is a middle-aged classic sympathetic authority role. The clichéd, oft repeated, nice authority role in a nasty dictatorial sadistic environment, enforcing a milder form of discipline whilst reluctantly going along with many of the heavier aspects but also ‘revolting’ against it, is the main character. This revolt takes the form of secretly (against the tyrannical headmaster’s wishes) conducting and helping the boys sing as a choir, which of course gives most of these previously ignored and often brutally suppressed kids a way of ‘expressing themselves’, at least two of whom later become world famous musicians themselves.
And they ‘express themselves’ so beautifully too: the record of the film is a top seller. The (unpaid) teenage choir is followed by fans singing the classical-style tunes. The real choirmaster who teaches this choir to perform in the film and now in concert halls is not at all sympathetic – but a typical rude humiliating bossy choirmaster openly displaying his nasty manner to the documentary cameras. But the kids seem to like producing a beautiful product despite the heavy social relations, which aren’t even based on wage slavery – just slavery straight. Perhaps part of this is their parents’ pressure, but undoubtedly the biggest seduction for enduring this is the fact of becoming celebrities, the compensation for miserable social relations. The tautological nature of this society is thus well affirmed by this well-made film: culture, the production of ‘beauty’, appears as the way out, though the hierarchical relations involved in producing culture are just as ugly and bad as the misery for which culture appears to be the way out.
This film comes 80 years after another, far more innovative and – for its time – subversive, film which also portrays a sympathetic pion – Zero de Conduite (“Zero for Conduct”) by the French anarchist Jean Vigo, a silent movie from the 20s which influenced the recuperative movie “If” in the late 60s; Vigo is now accepted within the mainstream of French culture, with media libraries named after him – but that’s down to the enormously recuperative power of French capitalism, in particular its culture (mind you, what, worldwide, isn’t co-opted into the system in some way or another over half a century, and often a lot less, afterwards?)

4
However one shouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the spontaneous critique of the Leftist would-be leaders amongst the lycéens. Feeling defeated, many think it’s a way forward to make connections with the French Communist Party or other Lefty groups. Sure, as individuals the PCF (French CP) inevitably participated in the occupations and it would have been as pointlessly sectarian to keep them out as to not allow such individuals to join a picket line or man a barricade on the basis of their membership of a repressive organisation. But then the same thing applies to individual members of the French National Front, who also participated in some of the occupations. There’s a million miles of difference between speaking to individuals and connecting to their organisation; and it’s sadly rare that any of the content of conversations with members of organisations involves the contradiction between them as individuals, the margin of integrity that brought him/her to join a concrete struggle, and the crap manipulative organisation they are a member of.

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