Revolutionary youths: why French students protest like no other

Martin Bureau, AFP | French students vote on renewing their strike during a general assembly, at the Paris X University near Paris, in November 2007.

The French government’s clumsy attempts to reform the labour market have revived the spectre of unwieldy student protests and prompted comparisons with past debacles.


In the early months of 2003, as Britain and the US lurched irresistibly towards their catastrophic invasion of Iraq, students in the UK played a prominent part in the biggest protest movement the country had seen in decades. Among those who took part in a million-strong march in London on February 15, there was a palpable feeling that history was in the making. Tony Blair, the UK’s leader at the time, thought otherwise.

If British students had wanted to know what else they might have done to try to stop the war, they need only have looked at what was going on across the Channel. Anti-war protests in French cities had been almost as big, and far more vociferous – despite the fact that France had never even contemplated joining the invasion.

Three years later, a much vaster protest movement against an obscure labour reform, known as the CPE, saw French students and teenage pupils block schools, universities, roads, railways and motorways. Clashes with riot police turned emblematic sites like the Sorbonne University into war zones, thick with tear gas. As the crisis worsened, the government eventually backed down. By the end of the tussle, Jacques Chirac had been reduced to a lame-duck president, while the career of his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, never recovered.

With students back in the streets this month, again spurred into action by controversial reforms aimed at introducing greater flexibility in the labour market, France’s current Socialist government is desperate not to suffer a similar fate. This week it announced it was diluting the legislation. It also promised greater financial aid for youths, without detailing how it plans to fund the measure. One student union welcomed the changes, but the bigger ones called for more protests. On Thursday, they were back in the streets, though it was not clear whether the movement would run out of steam following the government's partial climbdown.

Protesting for fun?

Ever since the May 1968 protests that paralysed France and precipitated the fall of President Charles de Gaulle, French governments have been terrified by the prospect of facing a united front of workers and student protests. “Far more than workers in the streets and students in the streets, it is the convergence of the two that haunts governments,” says Ludivine Bantigny, a historian of student movements at the University of Rouen.

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Bantigny noted that it was much easier to discredit youth movements when they acted without the support of workers. “Politicians and the media are awash with clichés about youths who ‘understand nothing’, are ‘manipulated’, or simply ‘protest for fun’,” she said. “But one need only attend a student assembly to realise the quality of debates and awareness of what is at stake.”

Contrary to common assumptions, the historian argued, “students are very knowledgeable about the labour market”. She pointed out that a quarter of all French students are wage workers. A look at debates on social media also suggests that they are well-read about the subject of labour reforms – often more so than “grown-ups” in a country where few people read newspapers and where mainstream television offers mostly summary news coverage.

Not always left

Bantigny says it is important to qualify the notion of a uniformly politicised student body structured by unions. “There is a plurality of students, only a fraction of which – albeit a sizeable one – actually takes part in protests,” she said, noting that students from the humanities (though not law students) tend to provide the bulk of protesters, and that unions are no longer the sole medium of mobilisation.

She dismissed the assumption that all students are necessarily left-wing, though most still lean to the left. “In fact it is less and less the case,” she argued, pointing to the prominence of youths in the massive anti-gay-marriage movement that swept France in 2013, and the fact that the 18-24 age group now vote for the far-right National Front in larger percentages than other categories.

There are also exceptions to the rule of thumb according to which French students are more prone than others to protesting, Bantigny added. While the “Indignados” and “Occupy” movements drew large crowds on both sides of the Atlantic, they had little impact in France, despite a climate of hostility towards austerity policies and the banking institutions that caused the recent financial meltdown.

Well-drilled repertoire

Robi Morder, who heads the GERME centre for the study of student movements at Sciences-Po Paris, says the greater success of the CPE protests in 2006 and of the current mobilisation reflects the concrete issues at stake. “The proposed legislation touches on contracts, wages, work hours – all of which have a direct impact on youths,” he told FRANCE 24.

Morder also disputes the notion that students might be easy preys to manipulation. “There are plenty of movements that peter out; but if youths come out in droves, it is precisely because the issues are important to them,” he said. “If anything, the manipulation can work the other way, when politicians and unions are spurred into action by the sheer strength of the student mobilisation.”

Despite the rapid turnover of students, most of whom spend between four and seven years in the university system, the basic form of mobilisation tends to follow a similar pattern over the years, suggesting successive generations of students are familiar with a given repertoire. The three-step organisational process generally begins with assemblies of students, who elect representative committees, which in turn appoint delegates to coordinate their activities at the national level.

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According to Morder – who spoke to FRANCE 24 from Rennes train station even as a protest by local students was causing significant delays to trains – the more recent practice of “occupying” and “blocking” universities was inspired by the methods of some high-school pupils back in 2005.

Still dreaming

Bantigny described the students’ repertoire of action as both “highly creative and political”. She said the so-called “student coordination”, involving the election of delegates to coordinate actions nationwide, articulating local and national imperatives, constituted a form of direct democracy. While unionists take part in the process, it has a life of its own, independent of union structures.

The historian disputes the notion of a narrowing down of student aspirations. Some analysts have argued that today’s youths no longer dream of changing society as they did in May ’68. The CPE movement has been likened to a rearguard action aimed at clinging to a handful of symbolic labour rights, but devoid of greater vision. According to Bantigny, attempts to discredit today’s protesters as “conservative” and “out of touch with the global economy” follow a similar logic.

“Words have lost their meaning, reforms are no longer synonymous with social progress,” she said, arguing that France’s politicised youths had realised what is at stake: “They don’t want insecure jobs, longer hours and lower wages; they don’t want to be blackmailed by talk of ‘competitiveness’; they don’t want jobs to be the only criteria of social value”. In other words, Bantigny added, “they are still thinking society”.

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