An estimated 1,500,000 people demonstrated across France on Saturday
against the Gaullist government’s “First Job Contract” (CPE)
legislation. The national day of action was the third mass protest held this
month against the destruction of young workers’ conditions.
A total of 160 rallies were held in cities and towns throughout the country.
The biggest protest was in Paris, where organisers reported that 350,000 people
attended. About 500 protesters later marched toward the Sorbonne (University
of Paris), chanting, “Liberate the Sorbonne—police everywhere, justice
nowhere.” The university has been sealed off by riot police since Friday.
Large demonstrations were also held in Marseille (130,000 protestors), Bordeaux
(55,000), Nantes (45,000), Toulouse (40,000) and Rennes (35,000).
The demonstrations saw hundreds of thousands of high school and university students
again marching through the streets. Last Thursday, 500,000 students protested
nationally. The students were joined by a broad range of French society at Saturday’s
rallies. Retirees and older workers joined the youth in their opposition to the
CPE. Workers of all ages—from the public and private sectors, unionised
and non-unionised, immigrants and French-born—also demonstrated. Entire
families, including those with very young children, came out to mark their opposition
to the government.
The Contrat de première embauche allows employers
to sack any worker under the age of 26 without justification during the first
two years of employment. The Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) government of
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin rammed the measure through the parliament
on March 9. Hostility towards the government has steadily mounted in recent
weeks. The CPE is widely recognised by ordinary people in France as the prologue
of a broader offensive against the conditions of the entire working class.
At the demonstration in Paris, supporters of the World Socialist Web Site
distributed thousands of copies of the WSWS statement, “Political
Issues in the fight against the government’s ‘First Job Contract’”,
which was warmly received by the protesters. The statement emphasised the European
and international significance of the anti-CPE struggle, which has pitted workers
and youth against France’s entire ruling class. The WSWS insisted the
need for an independent struggle based on an internationalist and socialist
perspective, opposing not just the entire Chirac-Villepin administration but
also the official “left” bureaucracies of the trade unions and the
“Plural Left”—the Socialist and Communist parties.
Contingents of workers marched under various trade union banners. Groups of Socialist
and Communist Party members marched toward the front of the demonstration in Paris.
François Hollande, Socialist Party leader, and Marie-George Buffet, Communist
Party head, also attended the rally.
Only a small section of the demonstration, however, featured flags and banners
of the old bureaucratic organisations of the French working class. Most people
came independently and many carried their own placards: “No to throw-away
youths,” “Tired of being squeezed lemons,” “No to the
Kleenex contract,” “Slave labour by the back door,” “Throw
away the job contract, don’t throw away the youth!” One sign showed
a guillotine slicing through the popular slogan of the 1789 French Revolution:
Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité. The most popular
banner declared, “Contract for slaves” (Contrat Pour Esclaves).
The demonstrators marched in high spirits and expressed their anger at the
government and their determination not to give in. Young people chanted, “Villepin—if
you’re a real man, we are prepared to fight you” and “It’s
all going to blow up.”
Significant numbers of black and Arab youth from the Parisian suburbs affected
by last year’s disturbances also attended the protest. The government’s
attempt to portray the CPE as a measure assisting these unemployed youth to
find work has fallen flat.
A Financial Times report on March 17, “French poor and students
keen not to be the ‘Kleenex generation,’ ” noted widespread
opposition to the government’s reforms in the impoverished outer suburbs.
Youth unemployment is as high as 50 percent in these areas.
“If those students came up here and saw what it was like, they might
still be protesting, but at least they would have a better idea of why,”
Sema, an unemployed 26-year-old living in Clichy-sous-Bois, told the Financial
Times. “[The CPE] is unfair. Two years is too long. That would be
a big risk for people like me to take, with two babies at home. I could be left
with nothing after two years. The bosses would take advantage of it to sack
people after a few months.”
Small numbers of youth reportedly threw stones and other missiles at police
towards the end of Saturday’s demonstration in Paris. Vehicles were set
alight and shops damaged. Officers fired rounds of tear gas at the youths. At
least 17 people were injured, and authorities reported 167 arrests. Police also
charged and tear gassed protestors in Marseille, Rennes and Lille.
The government and sections of the French media have attempted to use the violence
to discredit the students and their demands, despite evidence that neo-fascist
groups have provoked some of the clashes. Last Friday, Interior Minister Nicolas
Sarkozy met with riot police and held up a damaged police helmet for the press.
“Those who do this are not demonstrators, they are thugs,” he declared.
The growing protest movement has created a serious crisis for the government.
Prime Minister Villepin, supported by President Jacques Chirac, has refused
to withdraw the CPE legislation and has only promised greater “dialogue.”
Last Friday, Villepin met with university chancellors. “He realises we
are on the edge of a clash, a real clash,” Yannick Vallee, vice-president
of the conference of university presidents, declared after the meeting. The
university heads called on the prime minister to suspend the CPE and negotiate
with the student unions.
University student strikes have affected about 60 of France’s 84 universities,
and at least 16 have been shut down by student blockades. Academic staff in
many universities have gone on strike in support of the anti-CPE movement.
The government has also sought to hold discussions with trade union leaders.
Last week, the unions agreed to meet Jean-Louis Borloo, minister for social
cohesion, and Gérard Larcher, junior minister for employment.
The trade unions—including the CGT (General Confederation of Labour)
and FO (Workers’ Power)—have striven to limit the protest movement
to the single issue of the CPE legislation, and to channel popular hostility
towards the government’s right-wing programme behind the Socialist and
Communist parties. The unions are consciously aiming to isolate the anti-CPE
movement, which they recognise has the potential to rapidly develop beyond their
Trade union leaders met with student union heads in Paris last Saturday evening.
The student leaders asked the trade unions to call a one-day national strike
for next Thursday, March 23, when more high school and university student protests
will be held. The trade union leaders refused the request. According to an internal
memo written by Laurent Zappi, delegate of the education workers’ union
FSU (Federation of Unitary Unions), the Stalinist-aligned CGT argued that trade
union unity must be maintained, and since not every union agreed to a strike
on March 23, it could not go ahead.
Last Friday, Bernard Thibault, head of the Stalinist-aligned CGT, told France
3 Television: “If they don’t listen to us we are going to have to
think about moving to a general strike across the whole country. [But] I’m
optimistic...that the government will finally take notice of the situation they’ve
created for themselves.”
The CGT’s refusal to back next Thursday’s student protest underscored
Thibault’s duplicity. As the Villepin government knows full well, the
union leader has no intention of calling a general strike.
Following Saturday’s demonstration, all that the trade unions agreed
on was that another meeting would be held on Monday (today) to debate the possibility
of staging a one-day strike for March 28 or March 30. The delay is intended
to dissipate the anti-CPE movement and give the government time to negotiate
a compromise with them, allowing the unions to avert strike action.
The government insists that it will not rescind the CPE, but has indicated
that it is willing to make some kind of gesture to the unions. Spokesman Jean-François
Copé said after the demonstration that “[the government’s]
hand is outstretched, the door is open” to discuss ways of “improving”