‘On the March’ toward a new May ‘68? / May 1968 in France: The struggle continues

By Rémy Herrera
April 21, 2018

Paris, April 13 — President Emmanuel Macron is right: “France is back!” But not postcard France — angry France! Its anger broods at the foundation of French society and has its reasons, plenty of them. There is no need to review them all; one article would not be enough.

But one factor dominates all others: for decades, the continued, stubborn pursuit of neoliberal policies has torn apart the social fabric, impoverished the working class, made jobs more precarious, compressed wages, thrown masses of people out of work, shredded ties of solidarity, sharpened selfishness, glorified the despicable values of capitalism, promoted the crude reflexes of consumerism and promoted an attitude of submission.

And we would expect the people not to react?

Appointed by Macron, the current government, led by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, supposedly “neither right nor left” (but then what? “extreme-center”?) has eliminated the tax on extreme wealth and increased fees paid by employees and retirees. He has offered astronomical grants to transnational corporations that lay people off, but compressed public service budgets. Day-by-day, drop-by-drop, he pushes the country toward a Europe that is anti-social, authoritarian and subordinate to U.S. hegemony.

Although Macron has a parliamentary majority under his total control, he is pushing through his employer-dictated program by a parliamentary maneuver that enacts a bill without a vote. Such ordinances bypass the deputies even of his own new party, La République en Marche (On the March). Macron also has announced new privatizations, as if neoliberalism had not long proven its universal failure.

This is why a revolt is growing in France.

The backdrop to the rising conflicts lies in defeats suffered by workers in recent years. One was the fight against pension “reform,” which the disunited unions lost in 2010. Then came the fight against labor law “reform,” which started out as the “Macron law” and then was renamed the “El Khomri law,” which likewise lost last year. [El Khomri was minister of labor in the last Hollande government.] This battle to defend the rights and interests of workers was led by the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) until late 2017.

Because it fought alone, or almost alone, the CGT could not prevail, especially since some of its leaders are less than combative. The unions had to resist the repression directed at these struggles. This repression extended to the “criminalization” of such trade union actions as the “sequestration of executives” at Goodyear, the “tearing of executives’ shirts” at Air France, and resistance at Peugeot and in other companies where activists have been discriminated against and even condemned to suspended prison sentences.

This is why struggle is intensifying.

For the moment, these struggles are scattered: railway workers’ strikes (currently two days out of five, until June), Carrefour retail store staff (April 13), Air France (March 30), education and research (March 10), territorial medical and social services (Feb. 14), hospitals (Jan. 31), institutions serving the elderly (Jan. 30) and postal workers (Jan. 9). In addition, workers in social service organizations, the gas and electricity company, the chemical and oil sectors, the civil service. …

Even temporary workers were able to lead strikes — which is unprecedented — including those in fast food outlets and Afro hairdressing salons. In no particular order, the unemployed, homeless, undocumented, retirees, pacifists, anti-fascists, ecologists and other activists have also protested.

All over France on March 22, nearly half a million protesters were in the streets for a big day of action against the “Macron reforms.”

For weeks, students have been mobilizing. Many of them oppose the government’s education “plan” to make university entrance more selective. They have totally blocked several university centers, including those at Paris 1 (Tolbiac), Paris 8 (Saint-Denis), Montpellier and Toulouse. The authorities responded to the student uprising by sending in the CRS national police brigades on April 9 to club young rebels on the Nanterre campus!

The university at Nanterre is where the May 1968 revolt began. At the entrance to one of the occupied universities, one can read this banner: “May ‘68, were they afraid? 2018, we will make them more so!”

Herrera is a Marxist economist, a researcher at the Centre National Recherche Scientifique, who works at the Centre d’Économie de la Sorbonne, Paris. Staff translation.

May 1968 in France: The struggle continues

By Christian Noakes
April 21, 2018

The year 1968 was one of great turmoil and unrest. It was a time when revolution seemed to be bubbling up in countries all around the world. Giving thorough attention to all the events of that explosive year and what lessons they might offer us today would take a great deal of time and ink. As such, the following takes just a brief look back at a single event to consider some of the lessons it may offer us today.

The May ‘68 movement in France, although short-lived, was a radical reimagining of the potentially revolutionary role of students, and their relation to the working class and capitalist society as a whole. By effectively bringing France to a halt, students and workers showed a new, more humanistic world is possible. Fundamentally anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, the actions of the masses temporarily neutralized the paternalistic state power of the regime led by President Charles de Gaulle and suggested what a truly democratic and anti-imperialist France might look like.

The movement began at Nanterre — a U.S.-style university that was characterized by increased competition and decreased leisure and intellectual exploration, features that had long characterized the country’s intellectual culture. Being iin an industrial, working-class neighborhood, students attended classes amid factories and rubbed shoulders with workers on the streets. The combination of business or factory-oriented education and the bleak surroundings of capitalist exploitation sparked widespread discontent among the students. It was not just the university’s atmosphere and practices, but also capitalist society and culture — which they saw as the root problem — that the students sought to overthrow.

On May 2, after months of unrest and organizing, students seized control of the university’s loudspeaker and occupied a lecture hall as they played the “Internationale” overhead. In response to the disruption, the dean closed the university. This was followed the next day by a mass meeting at another Parisian university — the Sorbonne — which was attacked by the police. As the students and police clashed, it was decided to shut the Sorbonne down as well.

Police occupied the campus, which galvanized large numbers of students to take direct action. Barricades were erected using overturned cars, newspaper stands, cobblestones and anything else with which they could improvise. In the struggles of the following days, students would take control of the Sorbonne and the Latin Quarter of the city.

Residents provided support for the insurrection in the form of food, blankets and enthusiasm. When the Sorbonne was reopened, students claimed it for the people, and worker-student action committees were set up to coordinate the daily operations of the revolution.

The General Confederation of Workers (CGT) called for a one-day general strike and demonstration with the students on May 13. To many, this did not go far enough. Moved by the militancy of the students, over 100,000 workers went on strike and occupied 13 different factories throughout the country within a matter of days. First to be occupied was Sud Aviation — the manufacturer of the Caravelle jetliner.

The scale of the strike continued to grow as more workers from across the country stopped operations and took control of their places of work. This nationwide wildcat strike remains one of the largest in world history. At its height, more than 50 factories were occupied and 10 million workers from virtually all industries were on strike in both urban and rural areas. This action included many of the 2 million immigrant workers in France at the time, whose lot was even worse than that of the workers born in France. Belgian and German train conductors also participated by stopping their trains at the border with France. It stands as a modern testament to the power of worker militancy and solidarity.

As the recent revolt on the part of both students and workers in France attests, the revolutionary movement of 1968 failed to overthrow the capitalist order. Through time and concessions, the masses slowly filed back to work, and police took back control of the Sorbonne on June 16. The issue of time highlights the need for political power to be seized in order to maintain a general strike. With reformist Communist Party and union leaders who were not only ill-prepared but fearful of the consequences should the workers attempt to seize power, their hesitations gave opportunity for the bourgeoisie to reassert power.

De Gaulle called for elections, which, as Workers World Party founder Sam Marcy pointed out at the time, was “merely a maneuver calculated to divert the attention of the masses and make them oblivious to the fact that they already [had] power in their hands and [to] oblige them to transfer it back to the bourgeoisie.” (Workers World, June 6, 1968)

While De Gaulle managed to divert power away from direct democracy and back to bourgeois representative or illusory democracy, the masses succeeded in showing working people all around the world a glimpse of their true collective power. The events of May ‘68 stand as a historical testament to the revolutionary potential of people when they stand together to reject the divisions on which capitalism relies — be they racial, national, intellectual-physical or urban-rural.

Neoliberalization of the university

It shouldn’t be hard for students in the U.S. to identify with the students at Nanterre. Within the belly of the beast from which they revolted, our universities have become laboratories for neoliberalism and austerity. Intellectual rigor and exploration have, in many places, been overrun by the business model of education. The increasing cost of tuition and the lack of funding are insults when one considers the lucrative business operations in which many universities take part. Our schools have become effective partners in gentrification — weapons of displacement. Students are not immune from the consumer-based urban development. They feel acutely the strain of affordability and the pains of homelessness. (NPR, April 3)

All of this is, of course, exacerbated by the student debt industry. A college education is no longer a one-way ticket to upward mobility. In many cases, students are lucky if they can maintain the class standings of their parents.

The necessity of taking out loans for working-class and middle-class students has created a generation with little to their name other than debt. Where many gain in status through their degrees, the predominant pattern is that cultural capital is not easily converted into economic mobility — or stability, for that matter. The condition of students in the U.S. today mirrors the condition of students in Paris in 1968 and the precarious condition of the working class more generally.

As one student committee proclaimed shortly after the occupation of the Sorbonne: “We are no longer assured of our future role as exploiters. This is the origin of our revolutionary force. We must not let it slip away. … The student has become the ‘proletarian’ of the bourgeoisie, and the worker, the ‘bourgeois’ of the underdeveloped world.” (Quoted in “When Poetry Ruled the Streets” by Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman.)

We must utilize the instability and exploitation foisted on us by the system as a basis for solidarity and revolutionary action. The conditions of existence under capitalism must be made a unifying force to undermine bourgeois culture and society. In the spirit of ’68, the struggle continues. Long live the revolution!