france: social movements (2003)

 notes on the movements in France, June 2003

posties against Sarkozy copyPostmen chucking postbags at Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s Minister Of the Interior, and President-in-waiting


Listen carefully – I will say this only once.

France is very far from a revolutionary crisis, but it is kind of, though fairly remotely, conceivable that one could develop over the next year.  How of course I don’t know. But it would involve, as always, a recognition of  both the strengths and weaknesses of the beginnings of a significant opposition. Pessimistically, these beginnings could easily and quickly end, and lead to the endless night of the war of each against all. Optimistically, they could, with much difficulty, truly be the beginning of the fire erupting within this endless night.  

I’ve been on five demonstrations in relation to the anti-decentralisation in education movement and the movement against the pensions reform – so my knowledge is limited to that, a few other conversations and to what I can find out from the media. On one demo I asked someone, a CNT anarcho-syndicalist, what was going on in the way of occupations and assemblies and he looked at me as if I was from the moon – “It’s impossible to know what’s going on in France” he said. So, as everywhere else, if you don’t have friends and contacts in specific areas where something is going on, you’re effectively reliant on the dominant media. Superficially, at least, the media do seem to publicise more things than they would in the UK, but maybe it’s because there’s a great deal more going on here. The CNT has 5000 members, though admittedly concentrated in limited areas, but they still don’t know what’s going on.   For example, 18 days after it had begun, the telly mentioned for the first time (and I’d not seen it amongst any of the ‘alternative’ media), a total dustman’s strike causing massive rubbish pile-ups in Brest; they threatened to sack the dustmen – whether they did or not, I don’t know. Bordeaux and other places have had dustmen’s strikes. Mention of this strike in Brest might well have inspired the dustmen in Marseilles to come out for 8 days, the majority going back after the mayor threatened to bring the army in or to hire private companies to do the work. A vote was taken to return to work by the majority union. The rest, in another Union (I forget which) stayed out. Typical Union divisions – but we should put the responsibility for not overcoming these divisions on the workers themselves – one can’t blame a Union for behaving like a Union, any more than one can blame the ruling class for behaving like the ruling class.  The telly reminded me a bit of The Winter Of Discontent with complaints about the rats (not a reference to Union leaders ho ho) – though they must have been camera-shy because there were no clips of them. Though the pile-ups of rubbish weren’t any way as big as those in Leicester Square at the beginning of 1979, they were made more hazardous by the sweltering heat (setting fire to some of them added to it).      To give some idea of what’s been happening, here is a rough, perhaps superficial, account of just one day in the life of this movement, admittedly the day when the media publicised events like they’d never done before or since (also partly because this movement hasn’t had such a good day so far).Thursday June 5th.Early in the morning there’s a picket line confrontation with cops as teachers and bus drivers occupy a bus depot in Paris.

Train drivers block a major railway line from Paris.

Le Havre port is blocked.

The main roads and roundabouts into and around Brest, Toulouse, Rouen, Miramas (Bouches du Rhone) and Figeac (Lot) are blocked by demonstrators.

Marseille metro comes to virtual 24 hour standstill.

The door of the department management of ‘L’Equipement de Druguignan (Var)’ is walled up.

Demonstrators try to occupy the rectorat (administrative offices) of St.Denis on the island of La Reunion, but are kicked out by the cops, with a big confrontation ensuing.

Striking train drivers burn out an empty train carriage (in Paris, I think).

Train drivers block a TGV to Cannes, platforms at the Gare de Lyon in Paris are blocked by demonstrators, 150 block trains in Poitiers station, 200 (including teachers) sit-down on railway track at Montpellier station, and are tear gassed by CRS after 40 minutes (demonstrators then go on to attack a book signing by a right-wing politician in the local FNAC chainstore).

Ferry blocked at Cherbourg after 1000 demonstrate.

Marseille dustmen go on strike.

The Medef (roughly equivalent to the CBI – a bosses organisation with branches in every town) building in La Rochelle is burnt down by a combination of burning tyres put against the wall and an office set alight. It was condemned as ‘terrorist’ by the Medef bosses and Sarkozy – Frances’ Blunkett – might well try to put the new “Security laws” on those nicked for doing it – really heavy. The CGT immediately condemned the strikers who set fire to it, but later Thibault, CGT head (who won his spurs in the train drivers co-ordination of 1995-6) slightly modified his condemnation by saying the attack was ‘understandable’, a subtle recuperator. The Medef building in Lyon is besieged by demonstrators and their offices in Pau are wrecked.

The Town Hall in Biarritz and Perpignan are occupied. In Perpignan the Chamber of Commerce and the Post Office were also occupied. And Post Offices in Bayonne were occupied.

Orly West airport is invaded.

All this, plus big demonstrations, in one day – and probably more that would have only been reported in local papers I couldn’t get.

   Much of the atmosphere has been creatively subversive. For example, a 20 metre piece of railway track was dumped anonymously across the main road of Marseille. On TV, standing in front of it, a man with a deadpan face quipped, “I”ve been waiting ages for the TGV and still it hasn’t arrived”. Another example – in May teachers pelted the cops and the Minister of Education they were protecting with 100s of copies of the Ministers latest book, distributed free to teachers throughout the country. Another example – Raffarin, at a big meeting of his own party, was in the middle of a very theatrical anecdote about Churchill when someone pulled the plug on all the lights apart from a blue background, his speech frozen in an absurdly exaggerated pose looking like a parody of a 30s demagogue. He never finished the story but instead, furious about being made to look so silly, tried to distract from the situation by ranting on in the dark – just a silhouette against this blue background – about how unpatriotic the Socialist Party was and how it didn’t defend the National Interest, which two hourslater erupted into a big irrelevant slanging match in the National Assembly when the Socialists defended their honour. Incidentally, many of the Socialists have openly said they would have done the same reform if they’d been in power – their official policy of opposition, surprise surprise, coincides with the development of this movement.

These kinds of things haven’t happened in the UK since the 70s, and during a period when there was much more of a global movement against capital. But one should be wary of being over-optimistic – things like this have happened before in France without a major crisis for capital. After all, this is a country where even National Front voting small farmers will periodically dump a truck load of manure in the Town Hall.  For the most part these actions have  involved only the public sector. In fact this failure to link to the private sector (the Unions occasionally call out some private sector workers but only for three hours or so) is one of the enormous weaknesses of this movement, a weakness that was already there in ’95(See “French strikes ’95-’96”). Sometimes leaflets have been handed out to private sector workers, but only when they’ve been stuck in their car on their way to work (and this private sector included travelling salesmen and cadres) – as far as I know no attempt has been made to go into private workplaces and distribute leaflets. Moreover, the leaflets distributed at roundabouts etc. don’t deal with the enormous gap between the two sectors – many of the private sector workers bitterly resenting the ‘privileges’ and protection of the public sector, who, unlike private sector workers, are virtually protected against the sack (though this might well change). This resentment is used by right-wing pro-government demonstrators, organised by local sections of the ruling party and by artisans and small traders (though on one demonstration I saw a very very small contingency of artisans and small traders marching in solidarity with the public sector workers) demanding  equality of misery for public sector workers: retirement after 40 years of work  is already a fact for them. Still, their pensions are more  subject to the fluctuations and machinations of the stock exchange and this is something the public sector workers are struggling to avoid. Despite the fact that a defeat for public sector workers would encourage the bosses to intensify attacks on the private sector, there’s no attempt, as far as I can see, to express this commonality of interests. It’s partly due to an etiquette and ideology of professionalism, which tends to prevent any working class identity between the two sectors. Professionalism is the new Stakhanovism. Though everyone wants to find some margin of dignity in their wage labour, the ideology of professionalism is the new individualist form of the old corporatist mentality that made workers identify uncritically with their means of survival. Nowadays in parts of France, usually areas where unemployment is highest, you need to have the ‘bac’ to be hired as a road sweeper, though they haven’t yet got round to re-defining the job as a ‘Thoroughfare Waste Clearance Manager’.

  Moreover, many – possibly a majority – of these actions are not really independent – many are initiated by the Communist Party within the CGT as a strategy to boost its electoral support and Party and Union recruitment. Over the past 9 months the media have been giving unprecedented media coverage to Communist Party rallies and often focus on their presence on the demos. Considering it’s a party that received less than 4% of the vote at the last election (whereas 50 years ago it was the party receiving most votes in elections) one suspects that this image boost to the CP is deliberate, particularly as the Socialist Party, after its consistent (but less wholesale than the present governments’) attacks on the working class when in power, cannot pose as a credible opposition party. CP strategy has been to enter many of the co-ordinations and manipulate them for its own ends (especially Union recruitment) whilst initiating – or allowing others to initiate – radical actions, though, of course, the vast majority go along with these manipulations. In many of the Assemblies attempts by small minorities to discuss the wider issues of this society are deliberately repressed for fear of putting people off.

   For a country such as France, where workers learn to discuss philosophy at the same age as they start drinking wine, there is an incredible lack of discussion (but then the habit of philosophy tends to make people think in abstractions). Everywhere you hear people condemning the government for betraying the general interest to appease the European Union and the stock exchange., as if governments have ever expressed the general interest.  This even from libertarians – a kind of discourse which the National Front would agree with, a symptom of the repression of all revolutionary perspectives in this epoch. Likewise you see the slogan ‘Culture in Danger’, often from the ‘intermittents’ (cultural workers – technicians as well as performers) – but it’s not culture that’s in danger, but, more importantly the security of their work status (there’s going to be a massive cut in subsidies to the more marginal cultural workers – some are given grants for a year to arrange their own performances, and can then get earnings-related unemployment for a further year: this is coming to an end). A critique of culture, so much part of the movement 35 years ago, has been forgotten and ignored. What will happen is the intensified free market in culture – for example, maybe an end to State subsidised free music festivals held throughout the country in the summer. But, contrary to the ideology put out by the ‘intermittents’, intensified commodification of culture does not mean the end of its diversity: as we have experienced in the UK, the more a varied free life is repressed, the more the free market in culture steps in to represent the vast variety of desires for sensation numbed by the totalitarian economy.

  Despite lots of conflicts over exams – many teachers were threatening to boycott the exams (i.e. refuse to supervise them) – the Unions eventually did a deal allowing the exams to go ahead supervised by them (although there were a couple of schools where teachers refused and the kids had to be escorted to their exams by the cops through lines of shouting teachers, a weird reversal of normal teacher-pupil roles). In the run-up to the ‘bac’ (roughly equivalent to ‘A’ levels), which began on June 12th, the government played predictable divide and rule tactics – setting parents and pupils against teachers, with one Union for blocking exams initially, and another against. If exams had been blocked, pupils would have had to wait another year, or, exceptionally (i.e. if the government had specifically ordered it against normal regulations), until September. Given this, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of pupils (though there were some notable exceptions amongst pupils who realised some of the significance of the State’s neo-liberal project) the pupils could hardly see any advantage of supporting the strike. Unlike in the period after May ’68, when there was a fundamental questioning of the whole meaning of exams, of being assessed in that way, teachers and others never posed anything in radical terms. If the system itself is not put into question, or even put into question by teachers openly declaring they would allow the kids to ‘cheat’ in the exams they supervised, then it’s obvious that kids, with their parents, would insist on taking their exams, since delaying them for a year would only add to their misery without offering a vision of an exit from this misery.   From the telly I’ve seen several occupations of ‘Colleges’ (for 12-15 year olds), including parents, schoolkids and teachers, and some lycees (for 16-18 yr olds), where there were  general assemblies There are a few lycees where the kids support the teachers blocking the exams, but most are against (well, if I had to wait another year, I’d be pretty ambivalent). Likewise, in some of the universities, there are attempts to block exams, with some students supporting, others against.

    3 or 4  years ago, when there was a schools strike,  the teachers allowed parents and childminders into some striking schools to organise a rotor of child-minding, whereas now at most, but not all, schools they have refused this, evoking ‘security’ (no non-school personnel on school grounds). This was one reason for much of the opposition by parents to the strike. On the other hand, although the State had insisted that there were no meetings in front of the schools (also for ‘security’ reasons) and that meetings had to be held in the nearest station, which directive the Unions agreed to, this didn’t stop most of the teachers – not a day went by without News clips on TV showing teachers and parents and kids arguing outside the schoolgates – or, in some cases, handing out rolls and orange juice to pupils arriving in the morning.

   Many of the strikes involve Assemblies, but I haven’t been to any, and I think they’re sporadic affairs – an hour or two or three here and there. A few are fairly open, but many are manipulated by the CGT (Communist Party dominated Union). For instance, in Montpellier at an assembly of ‘intermittents’ the CGT expressly forbade the opening up of the assembly to ‘outsiders’ and said that the assembly could not take any practical decisions – it was merely a forum for discussion. The vast majority, out of inexperience, inertia and the general habit of submission, went along with that. Some intermittents wanted to organise an attack on the CGT, though whether they did it or not and what the results were if they did, I haven’t heard yet. Many anarchists uncritically praise the Assembly form as radical in itself – but if most people remain passive and lack initiative and remain uncritical of the Union reps, then assemblies are just an empty form without content.[1]

 For the most part, the cops have played it all very softly softly (unlike in Evian, where they dropped tear gas from helicopters onto one of the tent-villages, where there were kids – this got zilch reporting in the media). On one demo I was on, an anarcho chucked a loud firecracker at the foot of a cop with his back turned. He jumped but made no attempt to even find out who did it. In the UK you’d almost certainly get a prison sentence nowadays.[2]There was also a mini-barricade at a motorway sliproad round Marseilles to stop people going to work but the cops were nowhere to be seen and the demonstrators dismantled it after half an hour or so. Nevertheless, the cops have also been heavy when it came to actions of a less conventional nature. When demonstrators, hoping to do a May ’68, tried to occupy the Opera  in Paris they never got past the foyer because the cops chucked them out and beat them up (a burning mini-barricade followed this conflict – a slightly sad gesture towards May ’68: the expulsion of the poor to outside the peripherique since ’68 has meant that Paris has changed its character just ever so slightly ). Likewise the riot cops were heavy when a small section of demonstrators attacked them with bottles and bricks, though less so than in ’68 partly because this was not a mass movement – and certainly not in mainly bourgeois Paris – and partly because they’ve learnt since then to play the media better. In Montpellier, after a 40 minute sit-down on the railway tracks, the cops attacked with tear gas (the demonstrators then went on to disrupt the book-signing at a nearby shop of a particularly obnoxious right-wing politician, the elected representative of the county, who’d done a deal with the French National Front to get elected). Also in Montpellier, though over a week later, various ‘intermittents’ invaded the main theatre at the end of the opera and did a die-in over the stairway and foyer making it awkward for the opera-goers to leave; at 3.40 in the morning they were kicked out (literally) by the cops, who also truncheoned them (something similar happened in Nice). A week or so later, after 3 evenings of pretty open outside assemblies discussing everything, intermittents closed down another theatre – the Corum, this time stopping the show. The Socialist mayor (been mayor for 24 years) exploded and threatened to sack them all immediately, then took it back a bit a couple of hours later, saying their contracts would not be renewed.

     The mid-week demos have been very big (at least 30,000 in Montpellier), though dropping off after the Unions retreated over the ‘bac’,  and high-spirited affairs: flares and fireworks set off everywhere, people with kalaznikhov-sized water pistols cooling people down in the incredibly high temperatures (some days it’s been 104oF in the shade), with lots of drumming on improvised drums (10 litre plastic water containers, etc.), singing of detourned traditional and/or old radical songs, whistling, gas-powered hooters, siren wailing etc, sometimes people doing a cha cha cha snake dance across the width of the road, looking very strange with their banners moving from side to side – most demonstrators had never seen this improvisation before. And another good thing is that demos never have speeches at the end (or start, for that matter) of them (so there’s none of that fake appearance of speaking on behalf of the demonstrators as there is in the UK). But, to give an example of how meaningless some of these radical sing-songs are, I saw and heard on one recent demo a CGT  van play out a pro-situ detournement from May ’68, the Internationale, lots of sambas and bossa nova music and the Marseillaise (normally associated with the right) all within the space of an hour. The CGT clearly aims to be all things to all (wo)men. And the content of the banners and leaflets are almost without exception the standard conservative ideology (i.e. things mustn’t get worse – keep things as they are), and you get a lot of people with tricolour stripes from their shoulder across their chest to their waist (what some of the Gaullists wore in ’68, and what the right-wing pro-government demos do now) – slogans defending the republic against privatisation, “liberty equality fraternity”, plastic dummies with the curly hats they wore during the French Revolution. The traditions of the past weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

   On all these demos you see and hear ritualistic calls to the Unions for a General Strike, as if it was up to the Unions to call such a momentous event: the only reason they’d call one would be to call it off the next day. In 1968 10 million went on strike without any calls for a General Strike: 35 years later a naïve faith in Unions, and an absence of faith in self-organisation, is once more an illustration of how much has been repressed.

  Saw one guy with a slogan in English “Revolution reveals the truth”. When I spoke to him he hardly spoke English, and said it was from a Bob Marley song. Turns out he’s a secondary school maths teacher. It’s not a bad slogan given the dominant reformist ideology of the demos, though of course loads said it before that recuperator Bob Marley. However, there’s no way a revolutionary atmosphere. Despite the slogan of one anarchist banner, “Resignation is slow daily suicide”, there’s a sense of resignation even amongst the anarchos – everyone says it’s all going to fizzle out, yet few seem to realise what this means in terms of the horror approaching, and even fewer seem to want to subvert the whole purely defensive (not even reformist in the pre-90s sense of the term – i.e. pushing for some reform within capital that could, theoretically, make life better) perspective which could and should extend both the discussions and activity. For instance, most of the anarchists, who, just a few years ago would criticise the function of education as preparation for acceptance of wage labour etc., now come out with classic leftist slogans, such as “Defend centralised education”, and have some notion that existing education is egalitarian (tell that to the 90% or more of working class kids who never rise in the hierarchy). I suspect that much of this is opportunist – they want to recruit people to the CNT, and want to do this on the basis of a classic political mentality – get people in on a simplistic level, and later hierarchically teach them the whole of the truth (as these anarchists see it). Sure, no-one wants inequalities to get worse but to hide contradictions for reasons of recruitment does nothing to contribute to an attack on these contradictions. Undoubtedly  a revolutionary movement could develop from the basis of defending the reforms the working class have won here over the last 35 years or more, reforms which have been largely taken back in most other countries. But it would require a comprehension that only a revolutionary movement could scare the rulers into not maintaining their competitive edge vis-à-vis other capitalist countries by clawing back its concessions to the working class. And that if such a movement is capable of keeping the margin of freedom capital has conceded due to past proletarian intransigence it is also capable of posing a more fundamental threat to the system.

    An anarcho woman I know had a hand-scrawled placard saying “Victor Hugo said  ‘open a school and you can close a prison’. Now they want to do everything the wrong way round, Les Miserables!” But they’re building schools that literally resemble prisons – high double fencing and double gating, with electronic ID slots and video cameras – all in the name of ‘security’. There’ve been loads of nasty attacks on teachers from schoolkids, admittedly, but since these attacks were from kids who had every ‘right’ to be there (the French are obsessed with their ‘rights’) it’s obvious that security is just a pretext for these prison schools. There’s no opposition to this. Likewise, though there’s an anti-privatisation ideology on the demos, creeping privatisation is already here without opposition – adverts placed in the schoolbooks and exercise books (a friend said a teacher he knows who took out the ads had no support from fellow teachers when she was disciplined, and then sent to a really rough school on a run-down estate as covert punishment). And school races sponsored by private research companies (Telethon – which uses kids as guinea pigs for their medical research, sometimes with frightening results) which are completely unopposed by those who claim to be anti-privatisation – mainly because these things started under the old Socialist Party governments[3]. Despite all the very bland republican ideology, however, it appears that most of this has been a movement from the base – the decentralisation and pensions projects were announced in November or December and the top bureaucrats had no interest in it until teachers and others pushed for things, admittedly largely within the union structure. However, I suspect they might retreat a little bit on some things – e.g. temporarily let the long-term employed retire after the currently acceptable 37.5 years, though force, with the backing of the Unions, the shorter-term employed into what the EU want to make it competitive – 40 (which the head of the CGT, Thibaud, has already accepted, though he’s kept quiet about it since the recent movement got off the ground) then 42.5 years…and then maybe 100 years… before you’re eligible for a state pension, which, if you’re employed, is up to 75% of average earnings, a percentage they also want to reduce. In the 1960s, when eligibility for pensions began at the age of 65, the average life expectancy of almost 50% of the active workforce at that time was 60, which obviously made insurance contributions a means of profitable exploitation for capital. Partly as a result of the class struggle from ’68 on, pensionable age has been reduced and workers have the audacity to live longer…

    I suspect that most teachers/workers don’t realise how determined the ruling class is (most times in the past, the government conceded to the various movements, at least partially) and are not prepared for a long fight (though a few were on strike for over 2 months non-stop). In autumn a traditional blockade of the motorways by truck drivers dissolved instantly, without opposition, when the cops confiscated a couple of HGV licences (i.e. took away the drivers’ means of earning a living). The State is not going to backtrack on its get tough policy[4] unless a revolutionary crisis threatens not just France but becomes an inspiration throughout the European Union.

  The ruling class here, as elsewhere, are super-confident[5], and the movement, generally speaking, is super-unconfident, though people waver from pessimism to optimism and back again. There are times like you feel maybe things could erupt here in some major confrontation, but most of the time you feel like it’s doomed before it’s dared to go just a little bit further. There are here, as elsewhere, perhaps tens of millions of people who hate “capitalism” and the future it heralds but remain passive in the face of this terror, believing they’ll get through it somehow, or not seeing a way out.  For many, precariousness is always the lot of someone else, somewhere else, until, of course, it’s you who finds him/herself alone in the monetarist concentration camp of deep anxiety, the jungle of environmental and mental collapse. Still, there is the desire to go further. Whether this manifests itself in acts over the next year – particularly independent acts that by-pass and confront the Unions  –  remains to be seen.


See also a text in French, on the 1995-6 strikes: Grèves Françaises 1995-96(“La Grève et après”) [printemps 1996]Texte en français.

For an excellent text on a strike in Paris during this period see Break Their Haughty Power (“MARX AND MAKHNO MEET MCDONALD’S”).

[1] See ‘You Make Plans – We Make History’ for a brief look at some aspects of the Assembly form.

[2] I remember in the early 60s Peter Sellers producing a track on an LP of his called “Setting fire to a policeman”, a supposed nostalgic monologue by an upper class oldie, about the good ol’ days when kids used to set fire to cops. Imagine a comedian producing such a thing these days – at the very least s/he’d be subjected to outraged scandal by the press.

[3] Incidentally the Socialist Party was forced to leave Evian because of the anger of the protesters there.

[4] This was illustrated by the massive overkill arrest of Jose Bove – cop helicopters overhead, 80 gendarmes, door battered down, neighbours prevented from videoing, the grand intimidating spectacle of a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the message being not just to terrify those who attack GMOs but to all  those who resist this massively destructive commodified world. Outside the prison where he was held the evening of his arrest, a crowd of 600 gathered, shouting for all prisoners to be liberated, though the next day on TV the News made much of the fact that he wanted special status – to be treated as a political prisoner. A guy managed to shin 6 metres up the post holding a CCTV camera and cut the wire. The CRS were so slow to react that he managed to disappear into the cheering crowd without arrest.

[5] The transport strikes were not total and, apart from one or two days, most non-strikers had little difficulty  in getting into work.

cropped-delinquent-book-title-e1355336242477-300x285Hits as of 20/9/17:


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