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Unions plan national strike day against attack on young workers
Protests against labor law rock France

March 31, 2006 | Pages 1 and 2

JESSIE KINDIG reports from France as students and workers put new pressure on the conservative government.

AN EXPLOSIVE movement against the French government's attack on the rights of young workers is growing in strength and unity, and refusing to give in to partial concessions.

As Socialist Worker went to press, France's main unions were preparing for a March 28 day of strike action to oppose a government plan to impose a "First Employment Contract" (known by its French initials, CPE).

A day of youth protest last week drew an estimated 450,000 into the streets across the country, and union-backed protests March 15 saw a turnout of some 1.5 million workers and students in 150 cities and towns across France.

Students have been organizing since the conservative government of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin first announced plans for the CPE in January. The law would create a two-year trial period for all workers under 26, during which employers could fire them without cause at any time.

After the proposal was pushed through parliament March 8, schools across France erupted in repeated mass protests. Today, 68 out of the 84 universities in France are on strike, occupied by students or protesting, along with over 200 high schools.

The CPE has become a lightning rod for grievances against the government's entire neoliberal agenda and the social crisis of unemployment. "Our movement no longer demands just the retraction of the CPE," Quentin, a student at the Unversity of Montpellier in southern France, told the French newspaper Libération. "It's a movement against the massive state of job insecurity."

The student struggle has flowered into a creative and dynamic movement. In each university, mass assemblies of 500 to 1,000 are daily occurrences, as students debate the next steps. Committees have been set up to do solidarity work with local high schools and the university staff, to produce bulletins and to organize political debates. Direct action sit-ins have shut down main highways from Paris to Poiters to Perpignan, and students even occupied entire trains to transport protesters to the main demonstrations in Paris for free.

In the occupied and striking universities, inspiring programs have been set up--at Nanterre, film series and debates were held last week on women's working conditions, the history of gay liberation and the struggles of May 1968. In Reims, debates on globalization or on the history of young people's rebellions are being organized.

Meanwhile, the French labor movement has made the struggle their own. Unions, workers and salaried employees turned out en masse for the recent joint day of action with the students, and union leaders predicted that the March 28 day of national strike action would be a new high point for the movement.

Transport workers, including subway workers in Paris, have voted to strike on Tuesday, along with teachers, metal and chemical workers, public-sector workers, and parts of the media.

Despite the massive protests and opinion polls showing that two-thirds of the French public wants the CPE fully withdrawn, the government has refused to retreat. De Villepin is worried that backing down would end his chances in the 2007 presidential election--and doom his government's noeliberal project following the defeat of the business-backed European Union constitution in a 2002 referendum.

He has offered some partial concessions and amendments to the CPE. But in a clear indication of the confidence and power of the movement, students and union leaders have refused to accept them.

Late last week, union leaders met with de Villepin for the "social dialogue" he had been pleading for, but left after it became clear that he had only revisions to propose. Further negotiations are off, according to union leaders.

"Meet to do what?" said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvrière union federation. "If the prime minister accepts a full retraction; we will be ready to receive him to discuss the problem of unemployment among young people. But if he wants to meet to continue last Thursday's conversation and propose simple amendments, we won't surrender."

The heads of student committees and student unions have refused to meet with the government. According to Julie Coudry, president of the Student Confederation, "The prime minister told us: 'Come talk with me, but the preamble to the discussion is that I won't retract the CPE.' It's a joke to propose talks in this way."

The media have focused on the nightly street battles between police, small groups of protesters and right-wing gangs, but that masks the real character of the movement.

The struggle stands an excellent chance of defeating the CPE--and the radicalization sweeping through students and reinvigorating the unions is laying the groundwork for a coalition that can challenge the neoliberal project as a whole. As protesters chant, "Chirac, Villepin et Sarkozy--votre période d'essai, elle est fini! (Chirac, Villepin, and Sarkozy--your trial period is finished!)"

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