Since 2008 social welfare institutions have been attacked on a global scale because capitalism in crisis is unable to afford them. In this context the French ruling class has tasked President Macron with smashing every gain the working class has made since the beginning of the post-war period: from the Labour Code to National Insurance.

State universities, renowned in France for their affordable tuition fees and few eligibility criteria, were inevitably on Macron’s list of institutions to target. In February and March 2018, he began his attack on the students. We asked Charles Royer, student at the Mirail University in Toulouse and member of the French section of the International Marxist Tendency, Révolution, to tell us more about the state the universities are in and what these attacks consisted of.

“In France we have a system of state universities that are practically free – the maximum fee is about 400 euros. The ruling class has essentially tried to impose ‘selection’ in universities since 1968. That means choosing whether-or-not students can enter universities based on their academic record. At present, even if social selection happens before higher education depending on students’ access to good high schools, basically anyone can go to university.

“In a period like today’s – of political, social and economic crisis – we are faced with a ruling class that cannot pay for public education accessible to all. The last 30 years have seen the establishment attempt to ensure that only the best are let into higher education. Naturally “the best” means those most useful to the ruling class.

“These plans have been pushed back for a long time. Of course at the height of revolutionary events in May 1968 they were swept away with all the rest of De Gaulle’s reactionary agenda. Others have tried to apply selection in universities under the radar: they called it “university fusion”. Under cover of ‘producing more research articles by fusing universities and thus raising them in world rankings’, what really went on was a process of university privatisation. They were fused under different legal definitions which meant they no longer answered to the code of education and gained the right to impose selection, increase tuition fees, etc.

“In the Mirail University in Toulouse, this is where the student mobilisations started. The President of our university called a referendum to consult students on whether they wanted to fuse with another and 95% of students refused. 65% of staff also refused but university management tried to force it through in December 2017.

“Macron has felt particularly powerful after his election and took far fewer precautions than previous leaders. Up until his election the fusion tactic had not worked as well as the ruling class had hoped. The new President, who felt the wind behind him, put through an open reform of selection laws. He still officially avoided the term “selection”, but the veil was very thin Two months after the mobilisations started at the Mirail, the question of these reforms arose across the country when they gained Parliamentary approval.  Massive student assemblies began to form.

“The reforms are clearly for the benefit of employers and bankers. The new platform for higher education applications, Parcours Sup’, immediately advertised for student loans coming from the banks. Macron knows that these will soon be a necessity, as in Britain and other countries. His reforms are the same as have been implemented elsewhere with gangsters such as Tony Blair. They start with a rise in tuition fees, which in France this year was only of 90 euros, but this gives an idea of what is to come. The point is to create universities where only the best will be paid for and the rest dumped at the start: the natural law of austerity strikes again, stating that we cannot pay for everyone.”

Student-worker solidarity

In April, a strike in the national rail service (SNCF) started in protest against the creeping marketisation of the railways. This presented a real opportunity, as experience shows that student movements are most successful when they link up with movements of the working class. 1968, for example, saw the struggle in French universities spark the greatest general strike in history. “The entire model of French universities is in fact inherited from May 68”, particularly their class composition as they train “large parts of the working class”. A degree of democratic control over universities was also gained by electing administrative councils including students and academics.

But fifty years later today’s movement immediately came under fire from the right-wing media, which claimed that no sympathy existed for the students among workers. This is a gross exaggeration. “There are examples of rail workers (cheminots) coming to free students harassed by riot police. In cheminot general assemblies, many students came to speak and in student general assemblies many cheminots came to speak. This mainly happened through invitations within the rank-and-file between activists who knew each other.”

To say that solidarity between workers and students was poor is therefore misleading; but we cannot ignore the fact that no revolutionary movement or mass general strike, on the scale of 1968, occurred in May 2018. The lack of working-class mobilisation was largely due to a thwarting of unity by the bureaucratic leadership of both the student and workers’ movements. “The trade union (TU) leadership in France has strong anti-student traditions. In May 1968 they shut factories off from students for fear of their revolutionary fever. Today, they failed to openly advocate solidarity with the students and in fact didn’t even seek solidarity between different sections of the working class. The SNCF was not the only organisation planning to strike: civil servants, who have been hit hard by Macron’s reforms also sought to mobilise massively; but the leadership in the TUs set their strike to begin in June, by which time the cheminots would have lost.”

This is shocking for a country where the most powerful TU, the CGT, is a confederation supposed to unite many different sectors. The smug TU bureaucrats who are used to negotiating with the “Medef”, the employers’ union, have no interest in exercising the real power of the working class through general strikes and workers’ councils. They have, as per tradition, been organising isolated “days of action” which serve one purpose only, to let off steam and let it dissipate during long and passive intervals. These tactics play a demoralising and demobilising role.

By contrast, the situation in French universities is causing students to look for radical solutions for change. This is shown in the massive shift of the youth to Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, which after its creation in 2016 won 30% of the 18-24 year-old vote share in 2017. A workers’ general strike against Macron could easily find mass support among the students.

Charles tells us that “for years university funding has been cut under the radar, even despite the millennial surge in the birth rate.” There are now too few universities for all the potential students. Students face increased pressure as overflowing universities apply their own internal selection procedures to root out those least “appropriate”. Reports from ex-university students reveal that they often give early assignments to freshers without guidance or support (support that they can’t afford anyway), in order to rapidly demoralise and root out those who don’t succeed. This is why about 60% of first years actually drop out of their institution. For those who do finish their degree, only a third do so in the normal three year course. Things are particularly bad for medical students who now must sit a competitive exam to move on to second year, after which only the top 24% are taken on.

Cynically, the ruling class who put these cuts into effect then used the high drop-out rate in universities as an excuse to introduce selection and privatisation and thus reduce expenses further. The students naturally grew angry about this and so in the mobilisations, “although the main slogans were against selection, they went further in advancing demands against the government and austerity.”

Failure of the movement: organisational problems

As Charles pointed out, “the movement could not have succeeded without the workers, whatever happened” and the TU leadership should have used the mood of both students and workers to call for a general strike. But there were also mistakes in the student leadership, influenced by anarchist ideas, that often took sectarian stances which alienated many ordinary students who could otherwise have participated in the struggle.

“The attacks by fascist gangs in Montpellier against a peaceful occupation on 22 March provoked a peak in the movement, as the videos taken showed the complicity of security staff in letting the gangs through. This peak rapidly fell away though, largely because of sectarianism.

“Those who were involved at the beginning had very quickly shut down the universities, thereby keeping them blocked off from the rest of the students who stayed at home. Then the sectarian student leaders  clashed with the students who weren’t mobilised. Instead of creating a united front of as many students as possible against Macron’s reform, they created a front of the students who mobilised quickly against the students who took longer to be won over to the struggle. As a result, many who were against selection consciously chose not to mobilise because the movement was perceived as too violent and sectarian.

“In the France Insoumise – the primary political force backed by the students – many anarchist biases exist and this means few elected leaders, random designation of tasks, and complete independence of branches from the main political line. These biases infiltrated the student movement which had no elected leaders and no committees. The justification for this is that the creation of a leadership would create inequality between activists.

“Certain committees existed but were not elected. Either the anarchists imposed themselves or there was a rotation in which people ended up in leading positions without quite knowing why. At the Mirail, anybody could go to the mobilisation committees which meant 60 people would gather in one room, unable to take any decisions.

“The Montpellier attacks became the main focus of a lot of the leadership. We should treat such attacks seriously, but many of these sectarians  – who falsely believe that fascism as a mass force is on the rise internationally – chose to display the videos over and over again at the beginning of each student assembly and this prevented discussion on the actual reforms against which we were fighting. Over a prolonged period of time, students who aren’t used to mobilising and taking to the streets became worried by this and put off, which is inevitable when something like this is blown out of proportion and no serious strategy to combat it is discussed. The anarchists forgot to talk about the violence of the state and how to deal with  confrontations between the state and protesters, which was a far more pressing problem.

“The two opposing tendencies of the leadership finally joined together to guarantee the defeat of the movement: on one hand the national student union was suffocated by inert bureaucracy (just like the trade unions), on the other you found anarchy. Without clear perspectives, there was nothing to keep the enthusiasm of the students focussed on fighting the reforms, the government and austerity, and so the energy dissipated. Nothing was accomplished as a movement because each person was encouraged to do as they pleased. Leadership, with clear political ideas and a good organisational strategy, was sorely lacking”

The lessons must be learned from these failures. And for many students and workers who participated, the lessons will likely be learned from experience. The TU leaders think they let off steam by organising isolated days of strike, but in the long run the accumulation of such situations where nothing happens will produce a breaking point in which a much more radical mood will surface amongst the working class.

For students, we should learn from this that occupations will only succeed if they are opened up on the broadest possible basis, and organised to elect committees that actively seek unity with the working class. Only by putting forward strong political demands can we maintain the necessary enthusiasm and support to strengthen the movement. In the words of the French version of the Communist anthem, the Internationale, “we are nothing yet; let us be everything!”

by Nick Oung (UCL Marxists) and John Russell (Norwich Marxists) with thanks to Charles Royer

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