Special report from Frances Grahl, a student in Tours, on the general strike and growing student unrest in France
France came together for a day on Thursday 29th January as public and private sector unions came out in a general strike. Between 11 and 2.52 million people marched to protest against a series of government reforms due to hit public sector workers, pensioners and a large section of French industry. A massive cross-section of children, students, workers and pensioners came out to protest the creeping anglo-saxonisation of French society that has marked the Sarkozy government.
Different industrial sectors made varying demands, but ‘Nous payons pas votre crise!‘3 returned again and again as the chant that summed up the mood of the day. The crowds were united in their determination to prove that, whatever Sarko may say to the contrary4, strikes in France still do make a difference. Most were back to work by Friday morning, but not everybody. For students and staff in French universities, the general strike sparked the amplification of a struggle that started back in November, and is now affecting most universities in France. Resistance to the Pécresse Reforms had been ongoing and marked by peaceful protests, a series of one day strikes and the choice by many lecturers to withhold grades. On the Thursday afternoon, general assemblies in universities across the country led to a vote for indefinitely prolonged strike action by 50 of France’s 85-odd universities. By Thursday 5th February this figure had risen to 74 universities presenting a united demand that the controversial Pécresse Laws be scrapped in their entirety.
What Valérie Pécresse, minister for Higher Education, is working toward is all too familiar to British students. Since Sarkozy’s election in May 2007, she has been pushing to compromise the long-prized independence of French universities, aided and abetted by his minister for education Xavier Darcos. The LRU reforms were rushed through in the summer holidays straight after Sarko came to power -to minimise protest- yet still fired up students across the country, causing several weeks of strike action last autumn. The Instituts Universitaires de Technologie (IUTs), technical and professional universities not unlike what we called polytechnics, have found their funding under threat. The plan is to redirect their money to the ‘real’ universities; obviously a cash-saving measure. Sarko is taking his inspiration, as usual, from the American and British models, trying to make education into a free market like it is in the UK. But this -the Pécresse reform battle- is the big one. As one psychology student put it: ‘If they pass this- it’s the déluge. 5‘
To understand why the Pécresse reforms have mobilised such huge numbers, it’s necessary to explain a few things about the French education system. After their degree students with a strong pass can apply to take the CAPES6 teacher-training ‘Concours’. Although most applicants are accepted it is notoriously difficult to get through- ‘Concours’, meaning competition, denotes that only the top students will pass. Every year, the system passes the number of new teachers needed, and as a teacher, you have job security. Collège and Lycée7 teachers, like university lecturers and researchers, work for an education system that is free from political interference to a much larger degree than in the UK. The CAPES course is prestigious, it has specific classes dedicated to it, and the two-year course includes a year’s supervised -and paid- work experience. The government have chosen CAPES students as their first victim, possibly in the mistaken hope that few undergraduate students will rally to defend such an exclusive course.
The new law demands a ‘masterisation’ of the teacher-training programme, meaning two years study will be cut to one, work experience reduced to a few weeks, and students will find themselves sharing classes with masters research students from their discipline. Meanwhile, more students will pass the course, meaning the previously highly controlled teaching sector will turn into an open market, with graduates competing for jobs with a far lower status than secondary teachers usually enjoy. ‘Ca sera le bordel,’ said Alex, a literature student hoping to teacher-train: ‘It’ll be a bloody shambles.’ These changes also bring an estimated 900 job losses in the higher education sector with them. Lecturer-researchers who keep their jobs are being forced to account for the time they spend on research, and many will face increased teaching time of up to double their usual contact hours- another attack that illustrates the government’s view of education as a commodity.
Students here are used to strikes, and there’s a sort of resigned disappointment about the classes they will miss while action continues. However in the general assemblies held two or three times a week the halls are packed out. Everyone wants to hear the issues and be there to vote on future action. In Université François Rabelais, Tours, lecture halls that take a thousand people are bursting at the seams with students, teachers and administrative staff. In Lettres et Langues8, always the first faculty to get involved, the building has been in 24-hour occupation for a week and votes for strike action are near-unanimous. Teachers in Humanities and Social Sciences have voted for strikes for the first time in 25 years. The IUT in Tours Nord is moving rapidly towards joining the strike, probably by Tuesday 10th, in what would be an unprecedented unification of the University and the Polytechnic. Secondary school teachers are coming to meetings to voice their anger. Regular marches around town and pickets across the city’s 6 or 7 campuses are well-attended.
Student union support (several unions exist, mostly student branches of major trade unions) is evident, but non-unionised students make up most of marchers. It’s something new in Tours, and across the national movement, to have staff and students working so hard together for victory. There’s a sense that people have learnt from last year that they will only win if they work together, and that means the students listening to their teachers and each other, and keeping the strike peaceful to support those who are losing wages in the struggle. Last year the only way to enforce a universal strike across the city was to barricade the doors of college buildings, keeping everyone out. This year the emphasis is on gaining support by a much wider leafleting and poster campaign. Instead of a lock-out, the strikers have decided to take over the buildings from the inside, inviting people in for alternative education and discussion groups. This means many staff and students who might otherwise be wary of industrial action have come around to supporting their comrades.
Workers have voted to strike on until the 11th February, when the position will be reviewed following a day’s action in Paris on the 10th. Rennes university is hosting a weekend of debate on the 14th and 15th to facilitate the national organisation of the movement. It looks likely the government will not back down quickly, and the universities are settling in for a long struggle. An estimated 80% of teachers in France are not giving classes, and feeble efforts at compromise by the almost powerless university presidents are scorned by the strikers. The President of Université François Rabelais, Tours, offered a half-day of non-penalised strike action for Tuesday 10th February, a concession mocked by those who have been out in the street for over a week. ‘We don’t care what the presidential meetings tell us,’ a young man in the general assembly declared. ‘It’s us who decide, and it’s here that we do it.’
This movement marks a critical moment for the independence of the French university system, and the aim now is to show Sarkozy that strikes in France still do make a difference. Everyone is aware the government will not stop at cheapening the teacher-training system. The long-term aim is to install a value-for-money structure that views students as commodities, in an educational marketplace geared at serving the demands of business. Students know this campaign must succeed or it could be their course on the line next. The French protesters are spurred on by the radicalisation of universities across Europe; student protests in Greece and Italy last autumn provided an example for and encouragement to this movement. Students in Britain need to aim for the same kind of international unity being attempted here, if they want to build a force capable of stopping the galloping capitalist influx in universities across Europe.
Voices from the strike
S. M. (Lecturer, department of literature, Université François Rabelais)
This struggle started back in the beginning of November, even in October. We’ve been holding general meetings once, even twice a week. But now the mobilisation has stepped up, become general. As long as the government maintains its present position, which is to cede on nothing, we will only carry on growing.
We voted through an administrative strike before Christmas- we chose to withhold grades but not to strike against exams as we didn’t want to penalise students for the government’s actions.
It started [as usual- F.] in the faculty of Literature and Languages but since January Law came out on strike, and now most of the other faculties in Tours have voted for indefinite industrial action. The mobilisation just doesn’t stop getting bigger. I think people were woken up last year by the strikes against the LRU laws9, and this movement has been prepared for by that one.
Clarisse, 19, first-year psychology student, Université François Rabelais
I’ve been involved in this movement since November, but it links back to the movements that have been going on for more than a year now. They’ve forgotten that we don’t just go to university to train for a career. We don’t want to just specialise, we want to explore new ways of learning and teach each other. The government sees education as a hole in their budget rather than the wealth it could be.
Yes, I think that the strikes will continue. We’re not just fighting a reform but a whole system. A huge accumulation of frustration has contributed to a universal rallying of students right across the country. We’re fighting a type of politics that tries to conquer by dividing people, but last week was the beginning of a inter-union movement right across the job spectrum.
I think we can reanimate the educational system in France, and that the movement will spread across Europe. We’ve seen what’s been happening in Italy and Greece. This is our chance to contribute something to progress in education everywhere.
I’m not a student and I’m not a teacher. I pay my taxes, some of my taxes come here, and so I feel the university belongs to me. It’s up to everyone to come down to meetings and help defend the system we pay for.
Frederic, 26, second-year music student, Université François Rabelais
I come from Quebec, where we don’t have this culture of protest, but I wanted to be here today because it’s very important to support my colleagues, even if it doesn’t seem to be my problem. We don’t organise like this in Quebec, but I think in France it really does make a difference. In general, we’re seeing European countries becoming more and more right-wing, and we need to show our dissent. Sarkozy’s wrong about no one noticing demonstrations- there are loads in this country but they still carry weight.
Louis, 20, third-year music student, Université François Rabelais
I’ve never really been an activist, even though last year the strikes led to my university being blockaded and disrupted weeks of class. But I’m here today because we have to draw a line somewhere. As long as Darcos and Pécresse carry on this fight we can carry it on too. The important thing now is to spread the word, let people in France and elsewhere know, not just that we’re here, but why we’re here. Strike is part of our culture and the universities have this kind of fight to face nearly every year, but after the strike finishes there’s a real danger that everyone will forget what happened and why.
L.R. Professor of Sociology of Reading, Aix en Provence
No doubt you know that the lecturer/researchers of our university, i.e. pretty much all the teaching staff, have been on strike since the beginning of the week to demand the withdrawal of these decrees, made without consulting us, and against which we are firmly united.
In brief, they’re not just threatening our positions as researchers, but the capacity of the university to give all students an education backed up by up-to-date, fresh research. In the name of independence they’re cutting our funding and making our jobs much less secure. And in the name of efficiency, they’re pushing for a standardised educational structure that could really endanger any transmission of original thought or critical reflexion.
1 Police Nationale
2 CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail), France’s largest trade union confederation
3 ‘We won’t pay for your crisis’
4 ‘These days, when there’s a strike, no one notices.’ quoted in L’Actu, July 2008
5 Roughly- the flood-gates will open
6 Le certificat d’aptitude au professorat de l’enseignement du second degré
7 First four and last three years of secondary education respectively
8 Literature and Languages
9 Reforms rushed in by Sarkozy during the summer holidays after he was elected, severely compromising the independence of higher education establishments, which led to several weeks of strikes in many universities.