FRENCH riot police stormed the Sorbonne in the early hours of last Saturday awakening memories of the revolutionary class battles of May June 1968.
However, workers and students are pledging that they will answer the government’s legislation to turn youth into a slave labour force, sackable at a moment’s notice with a general strike to bring down the Gaullist Villepin government.
Police stormed the university early on Saturday, and met resistance as they drove out hundreds of students who had been occupying the university for three days.
They used tear gas and batons, injuring a number of students and making a number of arrests.
About 40 of France’s 84 universities were occupied by students on Friday in protest at the new employment law for youth.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has cut short a visit to France’s Caribbean Antilles Islands because of the student unrest, his entourage said.
France has been hit with a wave of strikes, protests, marches and university occupations in recent days as workers, students and young people fight a new legal state assault on employment rights.
This is a continuation of the national youth revolt of last Autumn, and is taking place at the same time as the mass of the trade unions are taking action against the menace of privatisation.
The ‘first employment contract’ (Contrat première embauche, or CPE) which was adopted by the senate on the 28th of February removes job security from workers under 26.
The French Government has claimed that the only way to reduce chronic youth unemployment is by giving employers the right to sack workers under the age of 26 without notice, compensation or even a reason during the first two years of their employment.
This proposal has been roundly condemned by students’ unions, trade unions and the mass of the population.
Unemployment amongst under-25s is now at 22 per cent and young people feel they have little to lose, even a good degree is no guarantee of finding work, and that the time has come for revolutionary action.
The vote in the Senate on the CPE was brought forward by a week to pre-empt the national day of protest called by students’ unions and supported by the trade unions, for Tuesday the 7th of March.
The day of protest went ahead in spite of this, with over one million people attending 160 demonstrations.
The demonstrations were mixed with trade unionists, students, the unemployed and education workers joining together.
Thousands of students from the Lycées (secondary schools) were were also at the demonstrations.
There have been occupations and strikes country wide, mainly focussed around universities.
Roughly half of France’s universities have been occupied, Rennes II university has been blockaded by anti-CPE protesters and strikers since early February.
In Tours, several hundred students occupied the tracks at the railway station, stopping all trains for three hours on Friday according to the SNCF.
On Tuesday 7th, the Sorbonne in Paris, a key site in May 1968, which has not been the site of an occupation since, was occupied by students. Around 400 students are inside with around 2,000 supporters outside. There have also been reports of clashes with riot police in Toulouse.
The French government faced a major challenge on the streets as students and trade unions staged nationwide protests.
Over one million people took part in demonstrations in all the major cities against the CPE, which is supposed to make it more attractive to employers to take on under 26 year-olds.
With polls showing a clear majority of the public opposed to the contract, union leaders claimed the mobilisation was a major success – with a bigger turnout than on a previous day of action last month.
There has been a call for a day of action by the student’s unions: l’UNSA, la FSU, l’UNEF, Solidaires, la Confédération étudiante, l’UNL et la FIDL, pour les organisations lycéennes et étudiantes.
They will be supported by the trade unions CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC and CFE-CGC, which includes all the main federations.
Saturday 18th of March has been chosen as a focal point, but in many cases occupations and strikes are continuing as people refuse to settle for a symbolic action and continue to demand change.
The anarcho-syndicalist union grouping the CNT has called for strike action and is calling upon workers to begin indefinite strikes until the legislation is repealed.
In Le Havre, the CNT local led a march of 7,000 upon the university and blockaded it. The CNT has called for the repeal of CNE (the sister law of the CPE) which was passed last year and applies to workers in small businesses with fewer than 20 employees.
The CNT has recognised that these are two sides of the same coin. The CPE is simply the latest measure aimed at reducing workers’ rights in France.
These attempts to reduce job security, a process referred to by the CNT as précarisation, are aimed at taming the strongest union culture in Europe and possibly the world.
A key idea of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the CPE is aimed at cutting France’s 23 per cent jobless rate among under 26 year-olds – one of the worst in Europe.
In high-immigration city suburbs, where as many as one in two young people are out of work, joblessness was seen as one of the factors behind last November’s riots.
By enabling companies to sack young staff without explanation during the first two years of service, the contract is meant to provide assurance to employers fearful of being lumbered with long-term commitments if a worker proves unsuitable or economic conditions deteriorate.
But opponents say the CPE will be used by companies as a cheap-rate source of employment, further entrenching job insecurity among the young.
‘We are not going to allow the right of companies to fire at the snap of a finger to become entrenched in French law. We are not going to allow France to operate under the same rules as the socially most backward countries,’ said Bernard Thibault of the CGT trade union.
The day of protests was a major test of resolve for Villepin, who after a long political honeymoon since his appointment in mid-2005 has seen his popularity rating fall sharply in recent weeks.
An opinion poll in Les Echos financial daily on Tuesday showed that 65 per cent of the population believes opposition to the CPE is justified, but the Prime Minister told the newspaper Le Parisien he had no intention of backing down.
‘It is time to make decisions and stick by them. I want to convince people so that the country can pass this milestone with confidence. It takes time and perseverance, but the government has both,’ he said.
A close ally of President Jacques Chirac, Villepin has been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed him at next year’s presidential elections.
However, the developing general strike may well put an end to his career as well as the careers of numerous Gaullist politicians.