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French workers’ and students’ struggle at a turning point

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After a month of militant but inconclusive strikes and occupations by railway workers and students, activists are organising to relaunch the mobilisation against the government attacks, with a national day of action in the first week of May.

At the beginning of April, workers on the state rail network, the SNCF, launched a three-month campaign of rolling strikes against a new law proposed by prime minister Edouard Philippe that will put an end to their work contract, transform SNCF into a private company, accelerate the dismantling of the state monopoly and close down unprofitable lines. In short, it will put an end to the railways as a public service.

The first weeks of the strike saw strong participation, with 50,000 rail workers striking for two days every week and with more than 70 per cent of train drivers involved. This has caused major disruption, with only 10 to 30 per cent of trains running during the strikes. Despite the barrage of anti-strike propaganda the action was, and is still is, surprisingly popular, with 50 percent of the population supporting it.

Indeed, since Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to the labour market have largely hit the working class, and he is now widely seen as the “president of the rich”, any opposition to him has a chance of attracting broad sympathy.

However, the strike strategy decided by the main trade union federations (CGT, FO and CFDT) is seriously flawed. This method (a “stop-and-go” strike two days per week, with a timetable fixed in advance by the TU leadership) is totally controlled from above. Normally, the very combative strikes typical in this sector are “renewable” strikes, with a general assembly (AG) in every site convening daily and voting the continuation of the strike. As the calendar of the present strike is fixed, this strips the AGs of their main function – organising control of the dispute.

As a result, in most cases, workers do not participate in the AGs at all, do not discuss either the strike situation daily or what action to be taken. In short, the AGs do not prepare and extend the mobilisation. While AG and mobilisation committees have been set up in the largest and most active sites, in the Paris terminuses for instance, the number and activity of these organs have been dwindling week after week.

Attempts to declare a “renewable strike” have been isolated and abandoned. Today, the mobilisation committees are mostly reduced to the far-left activists (members of the Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party – NPA) or Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle – LO). In the words of a striker: “Some of us, and understandably so, prefer to go to a student AG and be greeted as heroes, rather than trying with many difficulties to build initiatives with railway comrades.”

Students
Indeed, the student movement offered a marvellous opportunity for the railway workers to extend their strike beyond their sector. Since February, university students have been struggling against a new law that would restrict access to university. Reacting to an increase in the number of new students, a consequence of the baby boom around the year 2000, the government has preferred to restrict the access to university rather than increasing the budget and the number of teachers.

In March and April, the mobilisation picked up, with twelve major universities occupied by students. There, sympathising with the teachers and even the local security agents, they organised alternative courses and other activities, sometimes in support of immigrants. The stronghold of the mobilisation was and remains Tolbiac, a campus of the Sorbonne University (Paris-1) in the heart of Paris, where students declared the “Commune libre de Tolbiac”.

Their demands were for the “convergence of the strike” with the railway and hospital workers, against all of Macron’s “casse sociale”, social demolition, reforms. But they also called for the repeal of the new law against migrants and even for a general strike.
Indeed, the topics of the conferences and workshops were quite radical: the Russian revolution, Paris Commune, and even “Is Revolution still possible?”.

A packed amphitheatre listened to Frédéric Lordon, one of the figures of Nuit Debout – the square occupation in 2016 linked to the movement against the El Khomri Law, an attempt by the former Socialist Party government to deregulate the labour market. On March 22 and April 19, the trade unions in the public sector called for two days of action in which hundred of thousands of workers and students marched all over the country.

Repression
However, the government felt the danger of the situation, the very same ingredients as 1968, and quickly sent in the police. Occupied universities at Tolbiac, Nanterre, Lille, Bordeaux, Nancy, and Metz were attacked and forcibly evacuated by police. In Montpellier, the Dean of the law faculty and a professor organised a gang of fascists who, armed with batons, beat the students occupying the place and forced them to leave.

Other confrontations between fascists and students took place in Paris, Lille, Strasbourg, Angers. In several cities, fascists from Action Française, GUD and Bastion Social are organising “anti-blockade committees” aimed at breaking the occupations. Another fascist group, Génération Identitaire, has recently organised a blockade of the French-Italian border in the Alps to stop migrants from entering France.

These new developments clearly show that far right groups feel stronger and more confident after last year’s election and the watershed vote for the Front National, FN. While there have been clashes with fascists in the recent past, these new events show that the fascist threat is today more than a theoretical possibility and that the working class should prepare and organise to defend itself and its struggles in a more concrete and practical way.

Crossroads
The movement today is at a turning point. Undoubtedly, workers and students will attend the May Day marches in large numbers. The unions, having seen that the strike is not gaining any concessions from the government, have called for a railway workers’ protest on May 3, which students will also join. MPs from France Insoumise, the left populist organisation led by Jean Luc Mélénchon, are calling for a national demonstration on 5 May, now also supported by the NPA. All this might reinforce the unity on the streets among workers and students. It might also bring in the lycée students, who so far have failed to mobilise but were crucial for the anti-CPE movement in 2006.

But the movement is also faced with several weaknesses. Students increasingly feel the pressure of approaching exams. In many cities, university sites are administratively closed, a kind of lock-out, to prevent occupations, but exams are taking place in other venues under tight police control. Moreover, the lectures are almost over, so that there will be few occasions to mobilise the mass of students. Similarly, lycée students are also close to the final exam, the baccalaureat. Railway workers feel the pressure of the long strike as well as their isolation. The lack of AGs deprives them of a tool for collectively discussing and organising.

However, the most serious weakness is political. Organised student unions like UNEF are either moribund or completely bureaucratised. The national student coordination is quite weak and many students are heavily influenced by confused autonomous-anarchist ideas. While both the Socialist and Communist parties are now extremely weak, France Insoumise lacks almost any organisation on the ground, and is more willing to occupy the social media with its MPs than to help the self-organisation of the students. The NPA, which ought to be playing an important role, is totally paralysed. Its actions are split between its several left currents, with no overall coordination.

Indeed, despite the fact that “convergence des luttes”, convergence of struggles, is a slogan widely raised both in universities and among workers, the practical implementation of this slogan requires a political struggle and a political organisation, that is, a party, to bring it about. A political struggle is required to free the railway strike from the tight control of the union bureaucrats and to re-empower the rank and file.

Liaison and coordinating actions across several sites require a trade union fraction and a strong intervention by a party. At the same time, this should be aimed at a more active and outward oriented strike, trying to win over a larger sector of the public sector workers also under attack. A reorientation of the strike requires the widest possible discussion in AGs at the rank and file level. It also requires the adoption of wide and mobilising demands:

Repeal the law breaking up the SNCF
Repeal the law restricting the access to University
Repeal the law against immigrants
Coordinated occupation of key railway stations and universities, to enforce the strike against strikebreakers
Coordinated self-defence against police and fascists