France: school students strike against education ‘reforms’

Thousands take to the streets against right wing Raffarin government

The French Establishment is scared; scared of the mass protests by thousands of school students against its proposed counter-reforms in education. The Raffarin government and ruling class are terrified of the growing appetite for joint action between school students, teachers, and public service and private sector workers. As one high placed civil servant put it, "school students are like toothpaste. Once they are out of the tube you’ll never get them in again".

For just over three weeks, school students in Paris have protested against ‘reforms’ in primary, secondary and higher education,. The first big demonstrations took place on Saturday 5 February, and brought more than 1,000 youth on the street in Paris and 2,000 in Rodez. Since then, the movement has taken if not a qualitative then certainly a quantitative, leap forward. The call for a ‘day of action’, last Tuesday, was answered by 40,000 youth in Paris and 20,000 in Bordeaux. Taking into account that in an important number of regions in France school students have not t been able to join the protest because of half-term holidays, the scope for enlarging the movement becomes immediately clear. In fact, it will not be until the 8 March that all school students will return from holidays.

Raffarin and Fillon are panicking

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, and François Fillon, the Minister for Education, are panicking in the face of the resistance put up by the school students and the school student unions. They snapped at the movement with the customary arrogance that has become a trade mark of this ‘centre-right’ government. Fillon claimed that the students were being manipulated by the teachers. Raffarin complained about the "negative attitude" of the trade unions.

Since then, both of these politicians have changed tack. The proposed law on the reform of education, the so-called ‘project Fillon’, will now be rushed through parliament using special powers that allow for only a single reading to be held in parliament, and in the senate, before a vote takes place.

The social democratic opposition (Parti Socialiste- PS) can hardly oppose this trickery. In 1989, Jospin, who went on to become the social democratic prime minister, proposed a reform on education that was pushed through parliament using the same emergency measures. Apart from voicing some support for the teachers and school students, the social democrats have not made any comments on the substance of the reform. Their biggest criticism is that the proposed law is a slapdash attempt at reforming education. The PS openly refused to filibuster the law, something which would have been a great advantage to the school students and teachers, as it would have given them time to get the protest going again after the half-term holidays.

The Raffarin government is hoping that the protest will die out once they get the proposed reform voted through parliament. Fillon is trying to repeat his tour de force when he pushed through pension reforms, during Spring 2003, when he was minister of social affairs. But Fillon does not fully realise that he, and the government as a whole, only succeeded in overcoming working class opposition in 2003 because of the failure of the trade union leadership to call for and to organise a general strike.

The Fillon reform

As hinted at above, the Fillon reform is not an orphan. It has a ‘daddy’, and the daddy is the Parti Socialiste. The last ‘orientation law’ on education, which is a package of laws which determines the direction in which public education will evolve over a number of years, was proposed by Lionel Jospin, in 1989. Under the guise of putting the pupils at the centre of the education project, the reforms in 1989 singled out ‘less performing’ pupils and forced them into a professional education, and a fast track to exploitation and low wage employment. It is no surprise that the same principle is central to the Fillon law.

Students who at the end of the third year of secondary education fail to have learned what is described as ‘basic common knowledge’ (first language, maths, culture permitting to function as a citizens, a second living language, Information Technology and communication) will be forced to repeat the year or accept an ‘orientation’ to an exclusively technical education. These students will be delivered as no-wage, slave labour (a.k.a. apprentices) to factories and small bussinesses. The goal of the reform is to double the number of apprentices in five years time.

The Fillon reform will also force teachers and teaching staff into more flexible working arrangements. The working week of teachers will be extended by two hours. Other proposals, include the plan that replacements for teachers on sick-leave will have to be found in the same school, and that each teacher will have to be capable of teaching at least two different subjects, instead of one.

School students get organised

The school students’ demonstrations and strikes are organised under the official umbrella of the UNL (the national union of school students), and the FIDL (the Independent and Democratic Federation of school students). These two school student unions do not represent the bulk of school students and they are not viewed by a majority of school students as their organisations. This was illustrated when the president of the FIDL, Coralie Caron, was interviewed by ‘Le Monde’ at a meeting of the ‘national c-oordination of school students’, in Paris: "If we come here in the name of the FIDL, we get booed".

The UNL and FIDL are both at the top politically controlled by the Parti Socialiste. Their demands are too vague to take the struggle on a level capable of defeating the law. It is not enough to just demand the withdrawal of the Fillon law. Any set of demands would have to spell out what kind of education school students need, how to finance it, and, more generallyl, what type of society we need. For socialists, this means demanding free eduction, fighting against the subordination of education to the interests of big business, and raising the need to fight for a socialist society.

We demand genuinely democratic and representative school students’ organisations. Too many times the school student trade unions have misled the movement by concocting shady compromises in secret negotiations. We say: No more secret negotiations! All negotiations should be approved, overseen, and evaluated by the school students in their general assemblies. Representatives from school students should be elected, and subject to recall, if they do not represent the views of the bodies that elected them.

Apart from the school student unions, on a more local level, some action committees are organise and co-ordinate the different demonstrations and protests. The French media reports cynically suggest that school students are manipulated by shady revolutionaries. The media point out that a lot of the action committees are influenced by the JCR (the youth organisation of the LCR). Of course, it is positive that the radical left campaigns amongst school students and tries to develop the movement. However, this needs to be done in the most open, honest, and clearest way possible. We need to have a dialogue with school students about our proposed demands, programme, and methods, as a way to develop the movement. Unfortunately, it seems that this is not the way the JCR is going about things. In the French daily newpaper, ‘Liberation’, an (anonymous) militant of the JCR is quoted: "We need to know how to be present without being too visible; otherwise we will be accused of infiltrating the movement".

The struggle continues…

The magnitude of the opposition to the government’s educational reforms, coinciding with the ongoing trade union mass protests, shows the genuine and deep opposition to the neo-liberal reforms the French ruling class has demanded from every government over the last 20 years. The French working class, even if it has not won all-out victories in this period, has succesfully obstructed the full implementation of the European neo-liberal agenda. Furthermore, developmentments in France show that struggle pays, as it raises general consciousness and prepares the ground for more decisive battles. In fact, were it not for the obstruction and the unwilligness of the French union leaders to lead the struggle to its logical conclusion, on the one hand, and the lack of a genuine mass party defending the working class in struggle, on the other hand, working people, the unemployed and the youth of France would be able to break the neo-liberal siege on their living and working conditions.

The school student unions are calling for days of action every Tuesday, and a national day of strike on the 10 March. The mass protests by school students are watched by many thousands of workers and the unemployed. The school students and their succesful protests have cemented the massive opposition amongst the working class against the Raffarin government and its neo-liberal policies. This is one of the reasons why the trade union federations – the CFTC, CGT and CGT-FO – have been obliged to call work stoppages; in effect, a general 24hr strike of public and private sector workers, on 10 March.

A new phase in the struggle against the Raffarin government is opening up. This needs to be developed into a struggle to overthrow the government and to fight for a workers’ government. Too many chances have been lost to build a genuine new party representing working class people and youth with a fighting socialist programme. To defeat the neo-liberal attacks permanently we need to build a strong revolutionary mass movement capable of overthrowing this system of greed and profit and which can build a democratic socialist society.

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February 2005