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Last Updated: 04/27/2006
French Strikers, Then and Now
Ian Birchall

During the recent student strikes in France protesting proposed labor law changes, commentators loved to make comparisons with the strikes of '68. Generally, however, the comparisons missed their mark, and the point of both protests: workers rights.

The recent strikes and demonstrations in France against the proposed new employment laws have caused considerable consternation and bemusement. One question that has cropped up quite frequently is whether this is a rerun of the events of 1968. It’s a good question – but to answer it properly it is necessary to be quite clear about what did and did not happen in 1968, because the real events have got shrouded in mythology.

The popular belief nowadays is that the sixties were all about sex, drugs and rock and roll. The reality of the French events is quite different, and it is worth recalling a few points which have been largely written out of the historical record.

  • Firstly, the events of May-June 1968 were totally unexpected and showed up the lack of understanding of most respectable commentators. In the first week of May 1968 the London Economist, generally a very well-informed journal committed to the interests of the business community, published a special survey of French society. It praised the French economy enthusiastically and gloated at the weakness of the French trade unions. Within a week of its appearance, ten million workers were on strike.
  • The events of 1968 are often dismissed as “student riots”. In fact, what was crucial to the French situation was the fact that the student action in standing firm against police attacks gave confidence to the working class and sparked off a general strike. Ten million workers stopped work and in most cases occupied their factories. On occasion management were locked up. In some towns, notably Nantes, trade-union committees controlled prices, food and petrol supplies and movement in an out of the town.
  • The major organisations of the French working class, in particular the very large (five million votes) and still devotedly pro-Moscow Communist Party, played a thoroughly conservative role. Moscow had no interest in provoking revolutionary disorder, and the Communist Party was anxious to prove it would make a reliable government party (an ambition it eventually achieved in 1981). It did everything it could to contain the movement in legal and parliamentary channels, and to prevent the revolutionary ideas current among students from spreading to the factories.
  • However, the active intervention of revolutionary socialists did play a significant role. The first factory occupation, at Sud-Aviation in Nantes, came when three revolutionaries in the factory, normally marginal individuals, succeeded in seizing the time and winning support for a resolution to occupy.

So how are things different this time round? In the London New Statesman (10 April), Lindsey Hilsum sneered that student slogans were demanding “cradle-to-grave benefits rather than revolution”. One can scarcely imagine that Hilsum would have been more sympathetic had the students been openly campaigning for a social revolution. But the 1968 student struggles did not begin with general revolutionary ideas either. Much of the dynamic of the movement came from struggles over overcrowding in the rapidly expanding universities, repressive regulations in student hostels etc.

This time round there clearly was enormous feeling against the proposed legislation, the CPE (contrat première embauche - first employment contract) which would have left employers free to sack workers under twenty-six without showing any reasonable grounds. Any young workers who tried to organise a trade union, or even to insist on the proper observation of health and safety legislation, would have faced dismissal. Any young woman who had the temerity to become pregnant would have risked losing her job or being intimidated into an abortion.

The excuse for the new legislation was that it would help to tackle youth unemployment. France does have a high level of youth unemployment, though the claimed superiority of the British economy over the French is in part a statistical illusion produced by different methods of counting. The real aim was not so much to create jobs as to produce a more “flexible” and docile labour force.

The Guardian (12 April) laments that France has failed to confront “the challenge of reform”. It is an interesting phenomenon that in recent years the word “reform” seems to have changed meaning radically. Traditionally it meant the introduction of measures that would improve the lives and conditions of working people and other oppressed groups. Now it has come to mean measures that would remove various hard-won rights and protective measures from these selfsame people.

The French revolt was a rejection of a particular proposed “reform”. But the depth of the revolt that this aroused showed a much more deep-lying discontent. Last summer French voters voted “no” in a referendum on the European Constitution as a result of a vigorous campaign led by the left. Then in the autumn there was a wave of rioting in the impoverished suburbs of the large cities, often involving youth of North African origin. (These are not “immigrants”, as they are sometimes referred to. Most of them were born in France – often their parents or grandparents had been inhabitants of Algeria which, until 1962, was an integral part of France.)

There are a number of more long-term currents that can be observed in French politics. Since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999 the anti-capitalist (or “altermondialist”) movement has developed roots in France, in such organisations as ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens). Meanwhile the mainstream French left has largely failed to respond to the grievances of the Muslim population, notably over the state ban on the wearing of the hijab by school pupils (generally in the name of an abstract invocation of secularism and the ideals of the French Revolution).

The crisis of French politics was already visible in the presidential election of 2002, when Chirac was re-elected. Two months before the election, polls showed that 75% of voters could see no difference between the main candidates of “left” and “right”. In the event the racist demagogy of Jean-Marie Le Pen got just under seventeen per cent of the vote – but two candidates from the revolutionary socialist left shared almost another ten per cent. Since then the mainstream parties have continued to see their hegemony undermined. In recent weeks it has been evident to all that the leading figures in the government were more interested in fighting among themselves about who will be the next president than they were in solving France’s very real social and economic problems.

So the movement against the CPE had the potential of drawing together various discontented sectors of the population. In some ways the possibilities are greater than in 1968, above all because now there is no organisation comparable to the Communist Party which is able to impose its discipline on the movement and defuse it. Revolutionary rhetoric may not be so commonplace as it was in 1968; but the other side of the coin is that illusions about socialist paradises in Russia and China have also disappeared.

Of course, there are problems. Different discontented sectors do not necessarily converge smoothly. In particular, many of the recent demonstrations have seen incidents when so-called casseurs (wreckers) have attacked demonstrators and robbed and physically assaulted them. Of course, such incidents have been inflated by the press – one burning car makes a better picture than ten thousand trade unionists marching peacefully beneath their banners. But there is a real problem which cannot simply be swept under the carpet.

Nonetheless, what is indisputable is that the movement won a real victory. Chirac’s withdrawal of the proposed legislation was a public and total climb-down. Such retreats in the face of mass pressure are rare. Comparable in British history would be the events of July 1972, when five London dockers were imprisoned under anti-union laws brought in by the Conservative government of Edward Heath. Under the threat of a general strike the government backed off, opening up two years of industrial unrest and the eventual disappearance of Heath’s government.

In French terms the comparison with 1968 is not with the end of the movement but with its beginning. The strike ended in stalemate – workers won a number of significant economic gains, but the elections brought in a right-wing majority. Only a year later was de Gaulle removed by a referendum.

But the movement began in earnest when the students resisted police batons and tear-gas, and forced the government to reopen the Paris university which had been closed following earlier student action. The fact that the government could be forced to step back by mass action opened up a new range of possibilities. Workers saw that collective action could win, and were encouraged to more militant action.

How things will turn out is as yet quite unclear. The workers seem to have won what Karl Marx long ago called a “victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property”. (Inaugural Address of the IWMA) There will doubtless be more strikes, more demonstrations. If there is a single candidate of the radical left in next year’s presidential elections, she or he could certainly make a very real impact. One of the most memorable slogans of 1968 was “la lutte continue” (the struggle goes on). It is equally valid today.

Certainly the self-styled “reformers” will not accept total defeat – they will be back for more. Their justification is globalisation – it is now commonplace to point to the growth of the Chinese economy and the impact this will have on Western countries.

But globalisation is double-edged. The Chinese economic growth has been at the expense of the working class, which suffers quite appalling conditions of exploitation. But in a globalised world ideas travel at tremendous speed. Last week the London socialist paper Socialist Worker carried a letter from China, saying that while the official media in China was giving little coverage to the French strikes, articles about them were being translated and put on websites in China. Though it is hard to predict the forms, the one certainty is that indeed the struggle goes on.