Fifty years on from May ‘68, France is again in the midst of a wave of intense social action, with universities disrupted for months, mass arrests in Mayday protests and regular disruption to rail services. Students have been at the heart of these protests, but what are they angry about and why?
The left across France is putting aside its differences to fight a common enemy. Whether supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (the far-left anti-EU leader of La France Insoumise, a party as young as En Marche), anarchists, rail workers, lawyers, migrant rights groups or members of UNEF or Solidaires (the left-wing French students’ unions), all have mobilised to oppose the reforms put forward by the president, Emmanuel Macron. Despite Macron’s status as the alleged paragon of liberal virtue, his programme of reforms attempting to open the public sector up to privatisation and to intensify the persecution of migrants in France represents a neoliberal and neo-colonial project. In response to a concerted assault across several fronts, students and workers have come together in a convergence des luttes – a coming together of struggles – and many mobilisations have that spirit at their heart, rather than being in the name of a specific cause. Students are often seen at railway worker pickets; anarchist groups at migrant rights rallies.
However, specific laws have been flashpoints for protest. The Loi ORE (Loi d’Orientation et Réussite des Etudiants; the Law for Student Orientation and Success) has been a huge factor in student mobilisation, both in universities and sixth form colleges (lycées). Currently, passing the Baccalaureate ensures every student a place at a university, meaning selection for oversubscribed and underfunded universities is done randomly and lots of students are failed after first year exams. Whilst the system has its drawbacks, the proposed “solution” is to put a system of grade-based selection in place, restricting the access of those with lower grades to higher education. Given the correlation between economic background and academic attainment, this system is set to penalise those from the least well-off backgrounds and perpetuate elitism within the French system. Even though the tough first year exams currently mean some form of selection does exist in practice, another year of education is likely to allow more room for equality between social classes. Besides, not only are these exams continuing under the Loi ORE, but the possibility of re-sitting them is also under threat. The same movement towards a marketisation of education has of course been seen in the UK, with students increasingly treated as consumers in competition with one another. As in other public sector areas, privatisation is a main concern – university funding structures are being opened up to private investors, which protesters worry will lead to a loss of independence from corporations looking to improve their brand image.
Another key law which has caused controversy across the political spectrum is the Loi d’Asile et de Migration (Asylum and Migration Law), which has been widely critiqued by human rights groups internationally. The main impacts of this law are the attempts to “clear” the large numbers of migrants in France who have no legal status, which Macron and his Interior Minister Gérard Collomb are attempting to tackle by reducing asylum application times from 120 days to just 90, cutting appeal periods to two weeks, and doubling the amount of time someone can be held in detention to 90 days (they had hoped originally to triple it). In practice, this will mean increased deportations and a quicker turnover of those on the streets, risking sending even more migrants, many of whom come from former French colonies, back to life-threatening situations. The so-called “migrant crisis” is not a short-term problem which can be dealt with in such a reactionary manner, and groups of migrants within Paris are organising against the government’s new policies, such as the group who are co-occupying the university of Paris 8 alongside students. Whilst the law does include some positive changes to asylum once it is granted, allowing people with leave to remain a longer stay, the barriers to accessing this will be even higher.
Reforms across the public sector are another key element of the current fight. Rail services have been the most visibly affected, due to historical organisation within the unions. Strikes have been happening for several months now and picket lines attract support from various left-wing groups. It is not just the treatment of workers that is being contested, but steps towards privatisation which, protesters argue, would bring the French rail system closer to the British one (not something they are keen on…). Legal aid is being cut, so lawyers have been protesting. Healthcare is on the path to privatisation, so hospital staff are on strike. Civil service workers are also protesting changes to their working conditions. Macron’s programme may be ambitious, but it is being met with resistance at every turn.
Occupations, demonstrations, picket lines; it’s certainly been a radical few months, particularly May which kicked off with an intense Mayday march. And with it being May, and 50 years since May ‘68, comparisons have echoed throughout the images and discussions of the current movement. It certainly feels as if the memory of this series of revolutionary events in protest at Charles de Gaulles’ presidency is inspiring and emboldening today’s protesters. But there simply haven’t been the same levels of disruption, and it’s hard to envisage how the movement can progress in this respect. One similarity though has been the heavy police repression – one of the more unusual 1968 commemoration events is at the Prefecture de Police, an exhibition on how the events impacted police tactics. Occupations have been cleared by the most hardcore of French police divisions, and tear gas is regularly employed to disperse protesters – even on crowds containing children. During the eviction of the student occupation of the Tolbiac university, police hospitalised three students. In these conditions it is hard to keep resisting, yet thousands of French people will continue to fight for their public services and for a better society, one which strives to eradicate elitism and throw its arms open to anyone who arrives in search of safety.