French Students Strike, “Fascist” Dean Jailed; Labor Unrest Echoes 1968

by Richard Greeman
Montpellier, France
April 1, 2018

On March 29, the ultra-conservative Dean of the Montpellier University Law School, Philippe Pétel was summoned to police headquarters, interrogated, hauled into court, and held over in jail for arraignment by the Chief Prosecutor. Pétel was summoned following a complaint by nine student strikers that he was actively complicit in a brutal assault on them while they were ‘occupying’ a school auditorium. The student strikers are protesting President Macron’s proposed educational ‘reform’.

Video evidence shows students, who were occupying the law school auditorium as part of the University-wide student strike, being brutally beaten by masked thugs. After the assault, the thugs returned to the antechamber, where a counter-demonstration of conservative anti-strike law students, including Pétel and several other faculty, was waiting. The Dean was videoed congratulating the bulked-out masked aggressors. The door the thugs entered the auditorium through had been locked. The students suspect that Pétel, who had a key to the room, helped the attackers gain access. The complicity of other faculty members present is also under police examination, and one has been arrested.

Within hours, the law school attacks were all over social media, and student strikers, human rights groups, and civil rights lawyers were organizing demonstrations and protests for the next day. These demonstrations characterized the assault on the students as a ‘fascist aggression.’ This epithet is less of an exaggeration than it may seem, as the tradition of law students supplying the thuggish muscle for extreme-right groups here in France goes back over a century (as I recall from my student days in Paris opposing the Algerian War). As we all know, student striker complaints of police brutality normally go unheeded, and protests against them may bring down even more police punishment. Deans who ‘stand firm’ against occupiers often get promoted. How then to explain this “man bites dog” reversal at Montpellier University?

Today in France, twelve universities are already on strike, and the social and labor situation is heating up rapidly. Here in Montpellier, Université Paul Valéry, the Liberal Arts University, just voted an open-ended strike and blockade of classes at an outdoor General Assembly attended by over 2,000 students. So far, the mood has been temperate. Support for the strike is near unanimous, but there is deep division over the tactic of blocking classes, especially among first-year students who are worried about their exams (which will probably now be put off). Some professors are offering their courses on line and a radical ‘free university’ has been set up, called “Vincennes2.0” in memory of Paris in May 1968. The local high schools are also full of agitation, with two or three on strike, and riot cops hanging around and making arrests. The situation is tense.

What’s at Stake for the Macron Government?

The paradox in this story is not Dean Pétel’s more-or-less traditional role in the attack,* but the Prosecutor’s outlandish decision to hold a venerable law dean in the clink. To be sure, Pétel, a youngish cocksure neo-conservative, was ‘asking for it.’ He at first openly bragged of his role, oblivious to circumstances and the consequences, and made the national TV news and the front page of the big Paris papers. But my guess is that the order to lock him up came from Paris. In centralized, hierarchical France the Prosecutor answers to the Prefect, who answers to the Minister of Justice, who answers to the President. The recently elected President Macron, who has laid down a major long-term challenge to both the students and public service workers, wants to push through his reforms as quickly and as smoothly as possible. The social situation is heating up, and Macron is too smart to polarize the situation further and waste political capital on a far-right loser. He also wants to be seen as impartial and as willing to strike his enemies on the right as on the left (as he no doubt will do when the student and worker struggles really heat up).

The immediate issue for the university students is President Macron’s educational ‘reform’. Like all of his ‘reforms’, these will be imposed by administrative decree, rather than through the legislative process, thus avoiding lengthy scrutiny, discussion and amendments. Macron has a solid majority of followers in the National Assembly. In the 2016 elections, Macron’s recently formed La République En Marche! (REM) party, in coalition with the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), gained 350 of the 577 seats. This rapid ascent to power was gained through the collapse of the Socialist Party and Les Républicains, the traditional parties of, respectively, the centre left and centre right.  Despite his overwhelming majority in the legislature, Macron seems to prefer ruling by decree. All his moves seem carefully timed, and perhaps he fears delay. He prefers the ‘fast track’ method, and his authoritarian, technocratic style definitely pisses off many French people, but especially ‘the people,’ who have long been fed up and are suffering cutbacks while the super-rich get subsidies (sound familiar?)

Macron has already annoyed French schoolteachers, on whom he is imposing–without discussion–yet another new K-12 national curriculum. This new curriculum is so confusing, nobody can figure out how to implement it. Meanwhile, classes are huge (35 students), young people are getting harder and harder to teach, and support for teaching, supplies, classroom assistants, etc., is being cut way back. At the university level, the goal of Macron’s reform is to introduce ‘selection’ in university admissions, against the tradition of open access to all who have earned the classical Baccalaureat diploma and the end of secondary school (just like the New York City colleges a generation ago).

France now has five million students, and thanks to constant cutbacks, there aren’t enough places for about 20% of the incoming class. Hence the creation of ‘competition’ and U.S.-style admissions offices at each school. Moreover, although all French universities are under the administration of the national Ministry of Education, Macron wants to make them ‘competitive’ with each other, like in the U.S. So some schools will be easier to get into, but their degrees will be ‘worth’ less. Both of these ‘reforms’ are obviously unfavorable to underprivileged students, and favorable to the privileged. They are, by definition, unpopular.

Macron has also laid down the gauntlet to public service workers, including to the venerable Confédération générale du travail (CGT) railway workers union whose militancy is legendary. Last spring, despite militant protests, Macron succeeded in pushing through, by decree, his reformed Labor Code, taking away seniority rights and legal protections enjoyed by private sector workers. These reforms make it easier and cheaper for bosses to fire workers. This spring, instead of relying on the traditional divide-and-rule precept, Macron proposes to take on both the five million students and the five million public sector workers (about 20% of the total labor force) together. He may have bit off more than he can chew, especially with the general population in a hostile anti-government mood and ready to support these popular struggles.

By attacking the public sector workers’ alleged privileges, and proposing to dismiss them in large numbers, Macron is effectively attacking precious, popular public services which are used by large numbers among the popular classes. Trains, subways, hospitals, social services, public offices, roads, etc., have all been subject to cutbacks, which make life harder and lines longer for regular folk. It now appears obvious to all that Macron is downgrading them in preparation for privatizing them, so that corporations can buy them on the cheap. This has already happened to the French Electric Company, the French Gas Company and to most of the French Post Office.  The public fear that Macron will privatize the SNCF French railroad, as Margaret Thatcher, his spiritual guide, did to British Rail (which is now expensive, dangerous and mostly late).

March 22: the First Skirmish

The social struggle got off to a militant start on March 22 (also the date of the attack on the Montpellier Law School occupiers) with 180 demonstrations by students and public workers across France. Air flights were down by 30%. Over 5,000 railway workers from all over France converged on Paris. These workers held a march during which they set off loud industrial firecrackers, and then conducted a spontaneous mass General Assembly where they pledged to go beyond the announced schedule of staggered strikes planned by officials of the three railroad unions, beginning April 3. The day began with a huge morning demonstration of students converging from all over the Paris region. The students then joined up with thousands of various public service workers demonstrating under their union banners, and this demonstration ultimately merged with the railroad workers. Hundreds of thousands are said to have been in the streets.

Remarkable, too, were the spontaneous actions of autonomous groups known as ‘March-Headers’ (Tête de cortège). These groups have formed with the aim of breaking the mass movement out of the routines established by the trade union leadership. In France, traditional union demonstrations are legal, planned, well-organized and effectively policed. The iron grip of the union leadership results in demonstrators being led around like sheep by union organizers, subjected to prescribed slogans on signs and loudspeakers, and then sent home with being about to express themselves. The ‘March-Headers’ come together at the very front of the demonstrations with the goal of bringing together students and workers, younger and older people, and workers from different sectors to encourage discussion and self-organization.

Many of these activists, young and old, are veterans of the struggles of 2016 and 2017. They recognize each other today. They are forming networks. And they have experience in self-organization. Some on the left have characterized the ‘March-Headers’ as ‘black-bloc-ers,’ whose role has often been divisive and provocative. I think that the ‘March-Headers’ movement is a promising development. Their push to open up political space for anti-government and anti-system demonstrators to come together, exchange ideas, build relationships and learn self-organization through direct action opens up opportunities for the self-development of grassroots resistance.

Heretofore, big official protest movements in France have been kept separate, divided into interest groups, and regimented by union officials. The basic tactic of these officials has been to dissipate protest by spacing out symbolic one-day national mass mobilization until people got tired, summer vacation arrived, and the government won. To be sure, spontaneous (and sometimes violent) wildcat movements have often broken out of this straightjacket. But today’s students, union members and others are much more open to coming together spontaneously and to linking through social media.

Will We Have Another May 1968?

Fifty years ago, in 1968, the highpoint of the French May Revolt was the conjuncture of the student movements occupying the universities and the organized working class occupying the factories under the discipline of the Communist CGT and other unions. This highpoint of protest became known as the “student-worker uprising”. But, to those who lived it, the conjuncture never quite jelled. The union leaderships mostly kept the workers barricaded inside the occupied factories and kept their student supports outside, minimizing contact and exchange. A number of the 1968 activists questioned by Mitchell Abidor, in his lively just-published book of interviews, May Made Me (PM Press, US; Pluto, GB) recall their disappointment at this failure to connect the two struggles. Perhaps today’s student and worker activists are ahead of the game and will not let themselves be divided-and-ruled, in the way that previous generations were. Also, today they have the advantage of social media, which allows them to bypass the establishment media, get out their information and organize themselves in real time.

Here in Montpellier, the movement augers well. The student strikers at Paul Valéry have invited workers, homeless, and elders into their assemblies. In return they have received workers’ support and interest. The action committees include not just students, but also professors and campus workers. This is a good start. Moreover, they have harnessed social media to the extent of being well informed about what is happening locally and in touch with other universities. The record number of people that attended the last General Assembly (up to 2,500) is, in part, attributable to organization through social media (which are sometimes blamed for keeping people at home behind a screen).

Ironically, both this first mass demonstration and the Montpellier Law School incident took place on March 22. That date marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student occupation of the Administration building of Nanterre University, which eventually set off a national general strike that shook President de Gaulle’s authoritarian regime and send the General scurrying to Germany for Army support. Might something similar be in store for Macron’s France today? The public mood is somber.

The echoes of the May 1968 uprising reverberate in the air. A website calling itself lespaves (cobblestones) has issued an international ‘call to converge in Paris on May 1st’ with the slogan: ‘They are commemorating May ’68. We are re-starting it!’


* Personal recollection: In Hamilton Hall during the first night of the April 1968 Columbia University occupation, we were informed that Dean David Truman was making the rounds of the fraternities and dorms, organizing gangs of jocks to drive out the occupiers.


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