Interview with Stephen Bouquin on the movement in France

The In Defence of Marxism website interviewed Stephen Bouquin, professor of sociology at Amiens university and member of the SNES-Sup union (Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second degré) about the recent events in France.

“Sooner or later the chain will break”

The In Defence of Marxism website interviewed Stephen Bouquin, professor of sociology at Amiens university and member of the SNES-Sup union (Syndicat National des Enseignements de Second degré) about the recent events in France.

What is your evaluation of the recent demonstrations in France?

The demonstrations were even bigger than the ones last week on March 28. There were more than 3 million demonstrators as opposed to around 2.5 million last week. All over France, people demonstrated. Even in small towns like Roanne there were 20,000 people in the streets. The city only has about 39,000 inhabitants! Some universities have had assemblies of four to five thousand students before going to the demos. At my university, everything is still completely blocked by the students, even in the departments of science, law and economics. This shows the determination of the movement. President Chirac intervened on March 31 to announce the promulgation of the law while saying it wouldn't be implemented because a second law would have to replace the first one. In this second law, the CPE would be preserved but with only a one year trial period (instead of two) and a token explanation (without having to give reasons) on the part of the employer. Chirac has distanced himself from his Prime Minister but without withdrawing the law.

The stakes were high yesterday because had there been fewer demonstrators the risk of division and tiredness would have been real. Everybody knew this so everybody mobilised even more people! The headlines in the press from now on will be: when will the coup de grâce come, when will the abrogation of the law come? Victory is within reach, however. The power of the government seems weakened while the majority of the right wing is divided: apart from the elected right-wing deputies in the province and those who are afraid to lose their seats, there is the race for the presidency which has led Nicolas Sarkozy to adopt the role of saviour, that of a reasonable statesman who wants to enter into a dialogue with the trade unions. This analysis is shared by the demonstrators, who made their rejection of Chirac, de Villepin and Sarkozy very clear. The idea of early elections is not so far away in the minds of the demonstrators any more...

How does the working class react to these events? Is it fair to say that the issue of the CPE has just become a catalyst to raise wider issues like pensions affecting the whole of the labour movement?

The working class is in total solidarity. The stakes are high: if the CPE gets passed, even when adjusted, that puts youth who are already employed as a reserve force of flexible labour in an even more precarious situation; their jobs are mounted against those who have a definitive or non temporary contract, i.e. the core workers. If this passes, there will be four, five or six different labour contracts, which divide the class along statutes that correspond to nothing but differences in their age or the size of the workplace. The New Employment Contract (CNE) is also the same as the CPE but for workplaces with fewer than 20 workers. The bosses’ want to rip the labour contract into pieces, and after that, they wish to put on the table the unique contract, a sort of CDI of five years but with a two years' trial period, valid for both the private and the public sector. The aim is clear: to create a normative framework that prevents workers from pushing social and wage demands. The law is an instrument for going back to the nineteenth century! Let's also underline that the workers recruited under the CPE or CNE are not counted as part of the workforce. In this way the employer can easily avoid having to install a work committee, for which the threshold is 50 workers. The labour movement is massively opposed to the CPE and this is translated in polls according to which 67% of the population is opposed to the law. The support of the working class is double: parents and relatives don't want the position of their children to deteriorate even more; and the workers, like the youth themselves, reject a labour law that serves to casualize labour.

At the same time there is only active support during national days of action. On those days the stoppages are important but at the same time, the strikes do not really take off except in certain regions where the mobilisation is more advanced. Yesterday [April 4] the post offices were open in many cities, and the strike of the railway workers was not general. Hence we are talking about a movement of the youth, largely supported by working people. The working class will adopt – if not today then tomorrow or the day after tomorrow – this form of mobilisation, with blockages and occupations. What is taking place in the schools and universities today will happen in the workplaces sooner or later.

On the question whether other demands are being put forward, I would say no, not for the moment. Besides, if the platform of action were to include social demands other than the withdrawal of the CPE, the union front would diversify. But if the movement wins, it is certain that on the basis of this balance of forces, it will contribute to an upsurge of struggles in the workplaces while demanding more from the left-wing parties. They are preparing to come to power again, which is almost a certainty today. The question of what policies will be pursued is not a small one. The victory of the social movement against the right wing would also be a good base to impose a socialist program on the PS and the PCF.

How would you compare the present movement with previous movements?

I am always a bit hesitant to compare. Journalists do it too often… a new May 68… bigger than 1986, bigger than 1995. Each social movement is different, and expresses an echo of the previous one, whether it was a defeat or a victory. Why compare? The only reason is to understand better what is happening now, to be able to intervene better in the present situation. What is more, the current struggle is not over. As the French say, don't give up your prey to go chasing after its shadow. Comparisons made with the benefit of hindsight will be forthcoming when the movement finishes.

As militants we must determine the nature of the movement, the level of consciousness that it reflects, and then see which elements favour the raising of consciousness, politicisation, and radicalisation. From this point of view we must say that the motor of the movement is being driven by two forces: a social one and a democratic one.

The youth is an organic part of the workforce and are mobilised against a law that will lock them into job insecurity. The youth know the reality of the labour market – unemployment and the competition in the labour market. They have no confidence in the employers and they know that the bosses’ are abusing their position of strength. Secondly, the youth is conscious that the power of the government is used to defend the interests of MEDEF and of the bourgeoisie and that the government institutions are not democratic. Thus the general assemblies, revealing their democratic nature, are deciding the continuation of the occupations, leaving the decision on the opening of the schools to the occupants.

This is at the same time a question of the legitimacy for the actions and a question of principle. One cannot oppose a law that de Villepin pushed through with force, without dialogue, using article 49-3 of the constitution, and function in the same way in the mobilisations.

With regard to such a latent consciousness, the task of Marxists is to politicise it to the maximum, to make clear the link between the attacks of the right wing and the capitalist system, a system which cannot exist without deepening social inequalities and injustice. Getting rid of the right wing from power and changing the system is an idea that could find a mass audience. That this implies a revolution, new institutions, that we must transform the social relations of production, attack private property, all of this will be discovered as this generation continues to learn the lessons of the class struggle. But already the slogan “everything is ours, nothing is theirs, everything they have they have stolen from us” has found an echo. The wealth of a country such as France must not only be redistributed equitably, it must in fact also belong to the community.

What is the position of the left? Have the PCF and the PS come up with any alternatives?

The problem, as much for the PS as for the PCF, is that they avoid linking a political change with a social change of a qualitative order. They definitely would like to get rid of the right wing, but only in order to implement policies which in the end would not get to the root of the problem. The best evidence is found in the fact that with regards to unemployment and job insecurity, the leadership of these two parties defend a sort of “flexicurity”, a type of professional social security which transforms unemployment into a period of training and which considers flexibility as an invariant fact of our epoch. Following this approach, all we have to do is simply “secure” professional transition periods. This leaves aside the question of low wages and poverty, and unemployment benefits that do not allow people to live properly. It also relieves the government of any responsibility in reducing unemployment through a plan of massive job creation in social services, or in educational or public services in general. Of course, these genuine reformist objectives would mean going beyond the framework of budget austerity, they would require a raising of taxes on capital and increasing wages. But this is not on the schedule for the Socialist Party leaders and the Communist Party is still ready to make cheap alliances on the back of the working class. In fact, the leadership of the PS and the PCF do not even go as far as Keynes, who at least defended euthanasia of speculative capitalists and of the rentier…

To the youth and the workers we have to say that the overthrow of this system is necessary and possible. This idea also has to be defended in the trade union movement, in the political parties of the left as they exist now and in the future. We have to say that if in 1981, when the united left won with Mitterand, such a break was not accomplished. When you get half the job done it won’t work. The left hesitated, stepped back, even if Mitterand implemented a few nationalisations. Very quickly, in 1983, he also implemented an austerity program. In order to avoid capital flight, they would have had to take over material and immaterial assets. Today, after more than two decades of offensive on the part of the bourgeoisie, after one decade of intense social struggles in every country in Europe, one can be sure that a left government that really attacks the interests of capital would be received with great enthusiasm and hope across the whole continent. It would not be isolated, on the contrary! Such a breakthrough may happen in France, Italy, Germany or any other country. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. With every confrontation of the class, the chain that locks the social majority in conditions of exploitation and oppression becomes weaker. And sooner or later it will break.

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