Friday, March 24, 2006

What do the student protests in France mean ?

More than two weeks ago, the Parisian University La Sorbonne was occupied by around 200 students over 24 hours before the police was able to throw them out. The images seen on TV of police forces charging students naturally drew about parallels with the spring of 1968.

The events of that night represented the climax point of a movement which slowly started over a month ago in some French universities (Rennes, Toulouse, Montpellier, Aix-Marseille…) against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE). This new type of labour contract is a specific implementation of a wider policy of the Government that (crudely stated) aims at deregulating labour law so as to offer more flexibility to the employers and therefore encourage them to create more jobs. As a result of the student movement, Universities are paralysed to different degrees: some are closed for security reasons (the administrators fearing violent encounters betweens the students on strike and the others who wish to attend their classes), others have voluntarily shut their doors when a majority of the employees of the University joined the movement, while most Universities are still open but unable to function properly as students on strike bloc access to some buildings.

Presidents of several Universities asked the Prime Minister Villepin to change his bill and open a wide debate on the subjects of access the job-market and its relationship with higher education. Many employers of large and small companies have criticized Villepin’s reform. Progressively, High school students have joined the movements and the different marches, all over the country, which took place on three different days last week have drawn more and more participants. Next week the inter-professional Unions will join forces with the students. In the meantime the Socialist Party finally, but very cautiously, entered the battle by asking the Constitutional Council to strike down the bill. Opinion polls are showing that evryday a greater number of people want the Government to back down.

But Villepin who values holding a position against all odds, has yet to show signs of a real intension to negotiate on the crucial aspects of his policy. Frequently now the marches lead to scenes of violence with the police forces (most of the images seen on TV last week showed radical groups from the left-wing taking on the police or right-wing radicals – amongst which some football Hooligans).

The events of the past weeks, when put in perspective with Lionel Jospin’s failure to make to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002 (leading to Le Pen’s candidacy), with the rejection of the European Constitution last spring and the urban riots of last fall reveal a now salient point of the current French political scenery. While the majority of the population may still be conservative (in the sense that it votes for the right-wing parties and adheres to their ideas) a very large number of citizens (well over 15 %) who, without being radicals, are partisans of an active welfare State, have no longer any institutional means of representation. Neither labour-unions nor left-wing political parties offer a platform of ideas corresponding to the aspirations of this part of the population. Violence is the result of this. The concrete manifestations differ but the violence is always the same: voting against a Socialist government at the risk of sending a far-right candidate to the second round of the presidential elections; rejecting the Constitution at the risk of compromising a the future and the past of European construction; burning the neighbours’ cars or preventing fellow students to attend their classes.

The failure of the Socialist party to express the will of its natural voters is becoming recurrent in ordinary political life, leaving the responsibility of action to members of the social society. For example it is law professors that contested the bill on the State of Urgency, declared last fall during the riots ; associations, professors, and journalists that initiated the movement against the law relative to the “positive aspects of colonisation”.

It would be a big mistake to think that the events in the Universities concern only the students, that the riots concerned only children from the urban ghettoes (or worst only Muslims), that the rejection of the European Constitution concerned only racist anti-Europeans and members of a spoiled middle-class. The people concerned represent a large and plural part of the population. Many of the people who will no longer rely on the left-wing parties to express their ideals voted for Mitterrand, twice, and then voted for the Maastricht Treaty, the majority of this part of the population is therefore surely not composed of typical radicals. It is the current lack of political offer which makes them so. There is a striking contrast between the apathy of the left-wing political class and the ideological engagement of the population.

The type of ideological awareness of the population displayed in the last few weeks is a source of hope for any democrat. It is a great thing to see young students feeling so concerned ; not only those fighting the reform of labour law but also those in favour of this policy. Debates were organized by students and professors alike (for example the ones that took place in my University) engaging in often constructive dialogue (and unfortunately redundant violence). With its positive and its negative aspects, French Universities have become the most political places in the country, like they once were.


Srdjan Cvijic said...

When I first read about the events and I must say I only skimmed through the articles, I saw that police intervened even within the university premisses. Is this possible? If yes do they have the legal right to do so? The principle of the autonomy of the university banns forces of order to enter these premisses? Did the dean invite them to come in? Are there any talks on this?

Raphaël Paour said...

In vertu of the principle of Autonomy of the Universities, you're right the police forces are not alound on the property of the Universities unless they have been asked by the President of the University to intervene or, I suppose, without that in cases of extreme situations. In many Universities fights broke out between students (those on strike vs those who want to go to class) and the police was asked to intervene. But in general, the presidents of the Universities try to manage without that. It makes it difficult. A few days ago some far-left radical groups occupied l'EHESS a large research center in Paris. They came armed (metal bars, baseballl bats etc.), with food for a few days, they wrote all over the walls, broke and stole many things (computers, projectors etc.). They were not students of this facility. In that case the police was asked to take over after the researchers had tried, all night, to reason the members of that group. Of course the reasoning done by the police was little more radical, to match the methods of the group.

---deleted--- said...

I have a blog entry on how the situation was handled in Grenoble, and especially at Sciences Po Grenoble, where 7day long negotiations brought us to a median position concerning "uni blockades so to speak and going on strike against the CPE.