The International Situation
Demonstrations and Strikes in March 2006 in France :
The Lessons of the Struggle against the ‘CPE’

The movement of struggles which have just unfolded in France is a new event full of experiences for the class struggle in this country. During several weeks, millions of demonstrators, from February to April, have marched in the streets in various occasions : university students, secondary school students, private sector and public sector employees, pensioners and unemployed. Tens of thousands of students have been on strike and have held massive daily meetings; and hundreds of thousands of public and private sector workers have gone on three one-day strikes. All were in opposition to a new labour contract specific to those under 26, the CPE (Contrat Premier Embauche – First Employment Contract), which constituted an attack, not only against “youth”, not only through the accentuation of their situation of precariousness, against their parents and families, but simply and directly against the whole working class. With the terrible and immediate aggravation of the precariousness of this section of the proletariat, the CPE constituted a new stage of a complete questioning of the classical labour contract (CDI) and an additional factor directed at lowering wages for all.

This episode in the class struggle takes even more importance since it has unrolled itself in a historical and international context of workers’ struggles revival. Since the struggles of 2001 in Argentina until the Subway and bus strike of New York in December 2005 (cf. presentation of this bulletin), the international proletariat is taking back, more and more, and everywhere, the way for the defence of its living and work conditions which are being violently attacked. And the "struggle against the CPE" which developed at the very moment when massive strikes and demonstration were unfolding in Germany, particularly in March, when workers in certain public service sectors were imposed an augmentation of working hours without any increase of wages just like, in Great-Britain, where a new reform of the pensions moves back the age for the retirement in some public services. On the same day as the French demonstration of the 28th of March, a million British workers held strikes and demonstrations.

A struggle of the proletariat

Although university students – who do not participate directly in capitalist production - have been the most advanced and dynamic point of the struggle against the CPE, this struggle is a part of the struggles of the working class. The whole working class quickly felt itself concerned by this attack of the Government, and showed solidarity with the riposte of the "young people". The ability of the students to fight on the class terrain, against the CPE , that is to say, as proletarians, their own willingness, even minoritarian, to call for the participation of all workers to link up with their battle, indicates clearly the class nature of this movement. The political and class line of confrontation, during the movement, was at the level of the necessity for spreading the struggle to salaried sectors and particularly for their entry into massive strikes next to the students.

This dynamic of class has been favoured by the "sociological" fact that the vast majority of students at "public" French universities are today the children of proletarians, of whom a part would have already abandoned the sits of the universities, if they had found a job and that, desspite the diplomas that they are obtaining, won't find work but with difficulty and et lately, only as proletarian and under miserable conditions. The majority of children from bourgeois families do not go to university any more (apart from specific careers), they go, for the most part, to the "grandes écoles" (special schools and universities very "selective" and expansive), where they can look for other careers and jobs.

Since its beginning, the movement, by its deeper nature and its combativeness, held in itself significant potentialities which expressed through a massive and general movement of the working class in so far as this one has immediately understood the meaning and the extent of the attack which was led through the CPE and felt an immediate solidarity with the students just like the need for an overall response.

The bourgeoisie, mainly through the trade unions, precisely had to work, during all this period, for containing the expressions of combativeness and the will of fight which tended to appear in the whole class. All the unions forgot their "quarrels", their "divisions" and linked their forces for that. They used, as they use to do, the weapon of the "Days of action" during which strikes and demonstrations - massive but perfectly controlled (1)individually the parts of the demos where the students marched. These days thus succeeded in depriving the whole working class of any real prospect for extension and unification of the combat.

Despite this general control of the trade unions and of the bourgeoisie, the strength of the combativeness nevertheless led to the abandonment and the withdrawal by the government of the CPE. However the great majority of the workers and a significant part of the students are conscious that the CPE was nothing but a just a moment of an attack which already started and which will be still accentuated. The feeling of "victory", when it exists, remains very limited.

The main weakness of the movement, and the political stake of the class combat, was the fact that the salaried working class, its more determining part, did not join the students in the opened, massive, renewable strike. It thus could not take the head of the fight and give it another dimension even if it took part massively in the street demonstrations behind the trade unions.

Thus, the prospects for this struggle quickly became exhausted despite the existing general combativeness and the trade unions could control it without any real difficulty. The withdrawal of the CPE by the government came to bring credit to the mystification that the unity between the unions is a guarantee of success. And, to be complete, we have seen a recredibilisation of the Left wing parties, in particular of the Socialist Party which couldn't present itself in the street demonstrations just a few weeks ago without being whistled, even straightforwardly expelled ! - and with a sharp revival of the mystifying opposition between the Right and the Left wings, opposition behind which the workers are called to set their combat, with, at the end, the allegedly "saving" perspective of… the 2007 presidential election.

The Union Control of the movement

The weakness of this struggle is clearly expressed in the fact that these significant moments have been the "Days of Action" organised and planned by the unions. The "timing" of these Days of Action has never been really questionned, nor even hustled or weakened

Since February, universities begun to be on strike the ones after the others after the French deputies voted the CPE. Yet, at February 7th Day of action, hundreds of thousands of people, half students, half workers, demonstrated in the streets of all the big cities of the country. If, from that moment, in the midst of various local universities holidays, the movement raised up a great sympathy amongst the workers, it's actually from the begining of March that the student strike imposed itself at the core of the social situation in France and that it directly challenged the whole working class. The important participation of all the sectors of the proletariat, many were on strike, to the March 7th street demonstrations is one of its expression.

Up to the Saturday 18th demonstration, a dynamic, even though very weak, to look for the spreading to the salaried workers existed. It expressed itself concretly very little, as for example with the sending of delegations to work places. This political orientation which didn't impose itself in the massive assemblies of students, was nevertheless the only perspective which was essential in order the struggle didn't remain isolated, limited to the student sector, in order there would be a true developement and a true unification of the struggle which could impose an effective relation of forces against the ruling class ; this unification was then realizable, even though difficult, since the whole French proletariat was "watching" closely the students and their demands. The very important number of the demontrators of any age, workers in activity, unemployed, retired, besides the students at the March 7th demonstration expressed it. At the Paris one, the unions let the students take the lead of the demo - which wasn't planned at the beginning and a good part of their slogans, at least half of them, were calls for the "General Strike" and "Students, workers, unemployed, retired, altogether !". These slogans appeared too at the students demo of March 16th in Paris during which begun to intervene groups of youngs, not numerous but "organised" in gang, who attacked violently isolated demonstrators and robbed them. That day, there were more than 500 000 demonstrators in all France despite the fact the unions didn't call for strike, nor even held assemblies or distributed leaflet. Nevertheless they presented legal previous notice for strike which legally "allowed" to be on strike for participating to the demonstration, but as an individual act.

During the demonstrations of Saturday 18th of March in which participated more than a million people of "all ages", those slogans of spreading and unification had almost fully disappeared from the student parts. On the other hand, the Socialist Party reappeared and was accepted with its own banners, for the first time since a long time ago, in the demonstration. This demo, March 18th, manifested even more the great control of the whole bourgeoisie, of its union and Left forces, which could allow itself not only of accepting, without opposing it, without restraining it, such a big demonstration, but of fully organising it. All the more since the unions succeeded in sabotaging, with no difficulty, any possibility of spreading the strike to workplaces and of braking and isolating any willingness of stopping work and of real unity in an open struggle with the students.

The confining of the movement

The March 18th day of action definitively buried any possibility of real development, of spreading and unification of the struggle. And this not despite the combativity which expressed through the impressive number of demonstrators, at least one million that day, but on the contrary thanks to the utilisation by the unions of this imposing participation by definitively swamping in this mass the more determined and more conscious fractions of the need for a true extension and a a true relay of the strike in the workplaces, amongst the strong sectors, those of the core of the working class. Actually, minorities of students - who didn't succeed to really, concretly and significantly, impose to the students assemblies this orientation - were overwhelmed, overcome, by the number and fall with no doubt for the most part of them in the illusion of the false extension realized during theses huge demonstrations. The March 18th demos are one clear expression of that.

These illusions impose themselves even more to the students and to the high-school pupils [the "lycéens"] since they represent, for their own place in society, a particularly weak fraction of the proletariat, at the level of experience as well as at the level of class consciouness (which doesn't detract anything to their enthusiasm and to their great capacity of mobilisation). They're very sensitive to bourgeois ideology, specially its "democratic" variant, and still full of illusions towards capitalism despite the totally blocked horizon which presents to them.

These weakenesses that the bourgeoisie utilises, weren't sufficient to break up the mobilisation as it has been proved by the 3 millions demonstrators in the streets in March 28th and April 4th. But during these demonstrations no political element of orientation, no initiative - which would have manifested at least a sign of opposition to the unions - appears up to the point that the union FO allows itself the luxury, if not the audacity, to call for the "renewal [i.e. unlimited] general strike". It means that the situation, at that moment, doesn't present anymore risk for the unions, nor for the whole bourgeoisie.

The workers of the private sector as well as the public one haven't been able to take advantage of this situation provoked by the bourgeois attack through the CPE to engage massively in the fight and to take its lead which was their responsability. They let the initiative to the unions which, as usual, sterilized the generalisation of the movement through their Days of action. In regards to the more determined students who were politically isolated and lost in the midst of millions demontrators who followed the unions slogans, they had no choice but between a false radicalisation of the movement, violences against the police at the end of the demonstrations, blockage of roads and of some universities and workplaces, it means actions increasingly minoritarian and politically powerless ; or, at best, "succeeding" in realizing the same degree of mobilisation, in terms of number of demonstrators, which they did in the demos of March 28th and April 4th. It means there were no more real perspective from the point of view of the class and its struggle. And this up to the stopping of the movement even more since the French bourgeoisie, from the Left opposition to the Right majority, from the economical leaders to the great bosses, was ready to give up the CPE since it was thinking this new contract was just one element of a more generalised attack and that its stubborn upholding by the government risked to strongly handicap the whole economical offensive under way against the working class.

For the workers who wanted to join the struggle, the March 18th demo didn't let them any possibility but an individual participation of "solidarity" which they nevertheless express massively up to April 4th. But it didn't represent any more any dynamic of strike and spreading.

Finally this movement ended, indeed with a "retreat" of the French goverment which withdraws the CPE (that this weakens or not the Chirac-Villepin fraction at the end of its presidential mandate has little importance for the working class), but with an important political and ideological advantage for the ruling class and to the detriment of the whole working class at different levels :

- the withdrawal of the CPE is presented as a "victory of the youth" which can't be but a dangerous illusion for the class and above all for its young generations ;

- the union unity is put forwards as the guarantee for success to make retreat the goverment (with, towards the ones for whom the first lesson doesn't work, the presentation of the radical action of blockage, even of minoritarian violence as frightening the bourgeoisie and as being effective) ;

- the Left which opposed the CPE so radically, now "embodies" a true alternative for the 2007 presidential election ; the Socialist Party "has a new virginity" ; the game of the false opposition Right-Left is back.

On this occasion, the French bourgeoisie also took advantage of this movement, in particular of the presentation of the violences at the end of the demonstrations as well as this part of the youths from suburbs who fall into violence and into the racket of the demonstrators, to strongly reinforce the illusion about the so-called democratic and pacifist character of the Republican State. The Minister of the police, the true leader of the Right today, Sarkozy (2), largely supported by the TV, has been able to take advantage at the ideological and political levels of the reserve and the selfcontrol of the riot police, the CRS and the "gendarmes", in front of the minoritarian violences (that the police knows well how to, at least, manipulate). Not only, this fraction of the French bourgeoisie has shown its ability to manage this kind of social situation at the political and repressive levels, but also the illusion about the democratic character of the French Republic has been reinforced with this policemen which have been presented as good fathers who "understood" the demonstrators and who were there to protect them from the "gangs and the hooligans" ! (3)

This is an element, even though secundary but not negligible, of the political advances the French bourgeoisie could realize on this occasion and which strenghtens still more the democratic mystification already so deeply rooted in the brains of the young proletarians.

Balance-sheet and Perspective

The strength and the combativity of this struggle seems having make retreat the governement, at least on the CPE. But the withdrawal of this one can't make illusion. Whether it will be this government or the one which will follow it, whether it will be with Villepin [the present Prime Minister] or with his successor, tomorrow or after the elections, this withdrawal won't prevent the attack to go on. All the working class (included amongst the students) knows it. And the bourgeoisie succeeded in "riding this movement" in such a manner that it reached to reintroduce the bourgeois political set Right-Left instead of the confrontation between the classes. In some way like in the years 1970 with the Left electoral alternatives [such as the "Programme Commun" between the Socialist and the Communist Parties in France]. In this set, the workers are called to rank behind the Left, the Socialist Party and the others (CP, Greens, etc) waiting the elections which could improve their situation. Thus, better vote than struggle.

So, it belongs specially to the communist minorities to be clear about the limits and the weaknesses of this struggle in order to be able to draw the maximum of lessons for the proletariat and for their own intervention. As it's necessary that the communists be able to understand and to present this political reverse as being part of a slow but real and deep revival of the workers fight at the international level.

In particular, it's clear that a new generation of proletarians has lived in France its first experience of struggle. It's only considering itself as one part of the whole proletariat, and as one of its less experienced parts, and by linking up to the historical experience of their class, in particular to its communist political minorities with the groups of the Communist Left, that this new generation will be able to make of this experience of struggle a moment for the overthrow of capitalism anf for the advent of a society with no misery and no war.

April 2006.


1. The repeated actions of the "hooligans", that the bourgeois press abundantly echoed, never called into question this control, on the contrary.

2. Nicolas Sarkozy is the favorite for the next Presidential election and belongs to a fraction of the French Right which opposes the Chirac-Villepin fraction.

3. As we can see in this bulletin (only in its french version), the present ICC participated to this sordid campaign.

Communist Bulletin Nš 35 / 36 - Internal Fraction of ICC