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Unions prepare for new strike as government digs in
Showdown in France

April 7, 2006 | Page 5

JESSIE KINDIG reports from Paris on the struggle against a new labor law.

THE FRENCH government raised the stakes last week in its battle with a mass social movement demanding the withdrawal of a new anti-worker law. With the right-wing government refusing to make any but minor concessions on the law, protests this week--including a new general strike day on April 4 and plans for student actions to block railroads and highways on April 6--promised to reach new levels.

Despite a national day of strikes last week and waves of protests that are probalby the largest France has seen since the great upheaval of May 1968, Prime Minister Dominque de Villepin, President Jacques Chirac and the country's Constitutional Council all refused to retreat or block the law.

Students and trade unions have vowed to accept nothing less than full retraction, so the stage is set for the confrontation to escalate. The future of the conservative government and the neoliberal agenda in France are at stake.

For more than two months, students--and, increasingly, workers--have been protesting the Contrat Premiére Embauche (First Employment Contract, or CPE). The CPE creates a two-year trial period for workers under age 26, during which employers could fire them without cause.

For the past month, more than two-thirds of French universities have been on strike or occupied, and the country has seen millions of people in the streets for protests.

On March 28, France's main union federations and the National Student Coordinating Committee called for a national day of actions. Almost 3 million people marched in 135 different cities.

Air traffic controllers, train and subway workers, oil workers, auto plant assembly workers, journalists, postal workers, school teachers and more stayed off the job. Workers at the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opéra struck, closing both tourist attractions, and a giant banner was hung on the Opéra house at the Place de la Bastille, reading "Opéra en grève" (Opera on strike).

Despite this show of strength, de Villepin refused to yield, and both Chirac and the Constitutional Council upheld the law, which was pushed through parliament March 8.

In protest, the National Student Coordinating Committee called a day of action, and students from Marseille to Toulouse to Paris occupied train stations and major roads and highways.

In Paris, some 2,000 students occupied the tracks of the Gare de Lyon station, blocking train traffic for almost two hours. In Montpellier, hundreds of students tied up the central post office by mailing pink slips to President Chirac.

In a show of solidarity, the forces of the French left--from the moderate Socialist Party and Communist Party to the revolutionary Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR)--came together to issue a solemn statement denouncing the Constitutional Council's decision and supporting the new strike call for April 4. "The country will be paralyzed, and we will carry on striking if the government does not give in," said the LCR's Olivier Besancenot.

The media in France, but particularly in the U.S., has been trying to smear the protest movement by focusing on the street fighting, smashed windows and burned cars that follow most major demonstrations and are becoming a near-nightly occurrence in France.

But this masks the size and scope of the movement. The street fighting is confined to hundreds--ranging from fascist thugs and the police to direct-action anarchists to youth gangs with no political agenda--while those marching in protests number in the millions.

The media portrayal also obscures the dynamics of the violence. It is true that since the 1990s, gangs have taken to hanging out near political demonstrations, stealing from participants and beating up isolated protesters.

But by far the greater violence comes from police. So far in the latest confrontations, one unionist, Cyril Ferez, lies in a two-week-old coma after being assaulted by police, and numerous demonstrators have fresh experience with police tear gas and batons used to clear the streets and smash occupations of schools.

The media focus on the threat of the "casseurs" (meaning "smashers" or "fighters") is being used to stir up racist fears of minority youth from the poor suburbs outside Paris and other cities--the same bigotry that was stoked last November when immigrant youth exploded in riots against police violence.

However, the movement in France isn't succumbing to this fear-mongering. For the March 28 strike day, activists organized their own security to protect demonstrators, and they made the rights of "sans-papiers" (undocumented immigrants) prominent in the protest.

What's more, far from being against the demonstrations, the poor suburbs are driving forces in the movement against the CPE. From Clichy-Sous-Bois, where the riots began last November, to Montreuil, students at high schools and technical universities in the mostly Black suburbs of Paris are occupying their campuses and marching alongside students from the elite Grands Ecoles.

Currently, there is a debate among students about whether or not an attempt to retake schools occupied by the police, particularly the Latin Quarter in Paris, is a good tactical step. In May 1968, for example, the students' street barricades helped ignite the movement that developed into a mass general strike.

But the most pressing question is how students can keep up the pressure and workers can spread strike action. High school students have vowed to keep up protests and occupations through the coming Easter break if necessary, and universities in Bordeaux have already voted to extend their strike.

The government's hard line means that a victory for the movement in forcing a withdrawal of the CPE would spell the end of Villepin and Chirac's legitimacy and a giant defeat for the neoliberal project in France. France's rapidly politicized generation of activists could set a new standard and example for the fight against neoliberalism across Europe and beyond.

John Mullen contributed to this report.

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