French Unions’ Protests How The Movement Was Built From Below

A teacher-activist speaks to the socialist

French Unions’ Protests How The Movement Was Built From Below

EARLIER THIS year a mass movement involving millions of French workers took place against pension reform. Teachers were to the fore of this struggle, as well as striking against specific attacks on education.
GENEVIÈVE FAVRE, (left) a French teacher from Cléon (a small industrial town near Rouen) and member of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI, France) spoke to the socialist about the movement amongst the teachers.
Q., How did the movement begin?

The first thing that made the teachers angry was the ‘decentralisation’ of education. This is a government project that aims to transfer education financing, management and recruitment from the state to the regions.

But there are big inequalities between the different regions, some are rich, some are poor, so there wouldn’t be the same quality of education.

Even within the same region some schools could be favoured at the expense of others, particularly in what are often referred to as ‘difficult’ areas, for example where there is a high immigrant population.

Decentralisation would reinforce existing inequalities.

‘Regionalisation’ would also mean that businesses would be more involved in schools. Education would be geared towards the needs of local companies who could impose their agenda, given that much of the regions’ money comes from them.

The government also wanted school support staff to no longer be state employees, but transferred from the state to the regions and local councils. This would mean losing rights, having their conditions and wages worsened – the first step towards privatisation.

So the movement was about saving a national framework for schools and education.

Q., How did teachers organise in your area?

We started by holding meetings of teachers in each school to explain what was involved with these proposals, because not everybody understood the implications.

Thankfully, we had access to material in the government’s own words which stated clearly what they were going to do. So is was relatively easy to convince the teachers to go on strike.

Britain was held up as an example of how bad things could be if these attacks went ahead and that helped convince teachers to take action.

As well as meetings in the local schools there were sector meetings involving teachers from all the schools and colleges in the same town.

This movement definitely came from below not from the tops of the unions. In my school I was the only union member.

Rank and file teachers were involved in taking the movement forward. It was so strong that the union leaders had no choice but to follow.

We saw the importance of involving parents in our struggle. We put out a leaflet explaining what decentralisation would mean for their children.

Parents were involved in operation “college mort” (dead college) when parents didn’t send their children to school in support of the teachers. This was our first victory against government propaganda which tried to divide parents from strikers.

We also saw the need to link up the public and private sector ‘tous ensemble’ (everyone together). We met delegates from the CGT union in Renault and Sud Aventis, explaining that this strike was also their strike.

This public/private liaison was one of the most positive aspects of the strike.

Q., What do you think will happen next?

The government has given some crumbs to some education support staff but it doesn’t amount to a great deal. They’ve also deferred the implementation of decentralisation until 2004.

I don’t know what will happen in September when the new term starts. The movement might not be as strong.

Teachers were on strike for several weeks and were suffering financially.

However, students were really frustrated that they couldn’t join in the movement because they were doing their exams. And there are attacks against the universities, which would mean more involvement of private companies.

So we could see a big student movement developing.

Whatever happens, we intend to continue the work of linking up the public and private sectors. We need to maintain a strong movement from below to keep the pressure on the trade union leaders.

But we also need a political alternative. Workers went on strike to defeat government attacks, on education and on pensions, but many realise that what was needed was a change in society.

Replacing this government with a ‘plural left’ government won’t make any fundamental difference. There is a political vacuum on the left which needs to be filled.