A personal report from the visit to France made by some AWLers and others on 11-13 April.
Tuesday 11 April, early afternoon. We arrive in Lille in time for the demonstration called by the students and the trade unions.
We know that president Jacques Chirac has backed down, the day before, 10 April, on the first demand of the movement. He has withdrawn the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE), a measure to allow bosses to sack young workers without having to justify it.
We also know that in its two months of development the movement has taken up many other demands. Will it have enough momentum to continue beyond this first victory?
The odds seem against it. The big union confederations - just as bureaucratised in France as in Britain, and maybe more so - have never committed themselves beyond the CPE. They met on 10 April and did not call further strikes. And the university and high-school students are being dispersed by the Easter holidays.
So it turns out. What we get, then, is not a glimpse of the movement in full flow, but a view of a more turbulent and difficult time, when the movement is winding down and the more active minority are discussing how to carry on.
The Lille demonstration is about two thousand strong. Mostly young people. A big hospital workers' banner at the front. Lots of handmade banners opposing the CPE, the CNE (a similar easy-sacking law for workers of all ages in businesses with fewer than 20 workers), the Loi sur l'Egalité des Chances (the law of which the CPE is part), and the CESEDA, a new proposed immigration law. Many flags from the CNT (an anarchist union federation, of which more later: the flags say "The bosses sack us. Let's sack the bosses"); SUD (a cluster of leftist unions); and the CGT (France's biggest union confederation, traditionally led by the Communist Party). We even see one from the CFDT (the most right-wing of the big union confederations).
There is some shouting and chanting. One chant we can't catch all the words of, but it ends with a resounding chorus: Partage des richesses! Egalité sociale! Redistribution of wealth! Social equality!
For a demonstration in a British city, it would be pretty good. But Nico Dessaux, an activist in Lille, who describes himself as a "worker-communist" and is one of the main movers in Solidarité Irak, tells us that this is a very poor turnout. Previous demonstrations in the course of the movement have had 50,000. (Lille's population is about 180,000).
At the end of the demonstration we gather in the main square. The big banners are taken up to a balcony, and from that the local SUD union leader - grey-haired, heavy-set, with a huge moustache - makes a loud but difficult-to-hear speech about solidarity with immigrant workers. Yes, Nico is right: there is a desultory air about the gathering.
A few demonstrators are interested in our papers and pamphlets. One, a school teacher, says he thinks that the movement can and should continue through smaller actions - roadblocks, lightning demonstrations and occupations, and so on. The others seem more doubtful.
One little group - a sympathiser of Lutte Ouvrière and two others more oriented to the reformist left - are worried that the political outcome will be to boost Nicolas Sarkozy, the proto-Thatcherite Interior Minister, who has chosen to present himself as the man of compromise on this issue, and thus pave the way for Sarkozy to be the victorious right-wing candidate in next year's presidential election.
At the start of the demonstration (so we discover later: we arrived in Lille only in time to join the march after it had already set off) activists were distributing leaflets and broadsheets: Lutte Ouvrière, LCR/ JCR (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire/ Jeunesses Communistes Révolutionnaires), CNT. But they are all fairly general. The LCR/ JCR broadsheet is from 27 March; the CNT leaflet is evidently the one they have used to mobilise for 11 April, rather than one about next steps after that; the LO broadsheet is dated 10 April, but must have been written before Chirac's backing-down on the CPE.
As the demonstration disperses, we go off to a café to fire questions at Nico and - when she arrives, a little later - Sévérine Duval, a local member of the LCR (and of its left-wing tendency, Débat Militant/Démocratie Révolutionnaire) and a junior high school teacher.
Lille, so Nico tells us, has had a worker-student "Interpro" committee meeting weekly - about half worker delegates, about half students (mostly university rather than high-school students). The worker representatives have been mostly trade-union or political activists, notably from the engineering section of the CGT. The big hospital workers' mobilisation for today's demonstration is because the workers at a psychiatric hospital are on strike in their own dispute, over cuts in jobs.
At the regular meeting this week, there were the usual numbers present - maybe a hundred. The meeting started routinely, by discussing the forthcoming actions. Then someone asked: yes, but after this week? Is the movement really going to continue? There was a sadness in the room - despite the victory they had won against the CPE - because, really, everyone knew it wouldn't.
Continuing with small, lightning actions? Nico is dubious. That was tried after the dwindling of a previous big movement of strikes and demonstrations, in 2003. It meant only that an active minority was exposed to police repression without the support of a big movement around them. There have already been 5000 arrests in the course of the current movement. Later, in Paris, another activist, Yves Coleman, will tell us that, considering the size of the movement and the variety of the actions involved, 5000 is a remarkably small number. It is, after all, the majority in the posh high schools as well as in the poorer ones who have been protesting, and so the police have been more restrained than they would otherwise be. Of course, if it is a matter of actions by small groups of die-hards without the broad mobilisation around them, the police are unlikely to remain so restrained.
Sévérine too thinks the movement is winding down whether we like it or not. "We have to recognise that the movement is finished, though of course we should not be the first to say so". She had gone with 70 activists at five o'clock that morning to an industrial estate to try to mount a blockade. The CGT engineering activists had encouraged them and promised support; but in the event not many of them turned up.
Also that morning, the Montebello lycée (senior high school) in Lille, the only one where the students had been sleeping inside the school as well as blockading the gates, had been invaded by police. 300 high school students, university students, and teachers gathered outside the school, but the cops marched in and dragged the occupiers out. It's the first time they can remember that the police have gone into a lycée.
What about the political perspectives of the movement? Nico comments that the students' national coordination three weeks before voted to demand the resignation of the Government, but it never voted for it.
Sévérine sees it as significant that this movement started after Parliament had voted through the law including the CPE. In 2003 the movement against pension cuts ended when the measure went through Parliament. This means that this current movement is one "against the institutions". However, the youth "are not conscious of it".
Really, says Sévérine, the political answer is not what team should be in government, but who can carry through the social programme the workers and students need?
You mean a workers' government? asks one of us. Ah yes, says Sévérine, that's exactly the debate we've been having in the LCR - do we aim for a workers' government or a "good left government"?
Some in the LCR want the far left to unite with a chunk of the mainstream left in an "anti-neo-liberal" party. As a start they want a united candidate of the "anti-neo-liberal" left for the 2007 presidential election.
Others, like Sévérine, say that the far left should aim to build a revolutionary party, anti-capitalist rather than just anti-neo-liberal, and above all a classparty, a working-class party. The LCR should look for alliances with Lutte Ouvrière, and for a revolutionary candidate in the 2007 presidential election. (Olivier Besancenot of LCR, she thinks, rather than Arlette Laguiller of LO).
In France we still have a long way to go to transform the social majority represented in this movement into a political majority. But many students have learned a lot in the course of the movement, learning how to organise general assemblies (AG), for example.
Instinctively, and more or less unanimously, they look to the workers as the decisive force for change. Indeed, many students feel themselves to be workers, because they're working to finance their studies, often they came from working-class families, and after their studies they'll still be in jobs which are part of the broadly defined working class. The student-worker links are much closer than in 1968.
On the two Tuesday strikes, 28 March and 4 April, in the region of which Lille is part, Nord Pas de Calais, there were 37,000 and then 45,000 strikers out of the 140,000 workers in the engineering industry. That is a very high turnout for France, with its tradition of many minority-supported political strikes.
There was a rank-and-file movement towards a general strike, says Sévérine, but it was not able to go the whole way.
The Communist Party decided not to have a policy on which way the movement should go - to confine itself to offering "logistical" help.
There's some feeling of not wanting political organisations of any sort - left-wing or otherwise - in the movement, despite its clear general left-wing tone (singing of the Internationale, slogans like "Partage des richesses, égalité sociale"). There has been in all the movements of university and high school students since 1986. But Sévérine says that aversion, or reluctance, is less now than in, say, 2003. (Later, in Paris, we will meet another activist who says the contrary: there is more aversion. Whether one or another of the contradictory assessments is wrong, or simply things are different in Lille and in Paris, we don't know).
Of the three universities in Lille, one has ended its occupation, but two are still occupied. We go to one of the occupied universities, Lille 3.
We arrive near the end of what seems to be a philosophical seminar, rather than an action-plan debate, about violence. When is violence justified? Isn't state violence also violence, and don't we have a right to respond? If we agree with occupying and blockading the universities, stopping normal classes, isn't that a form of violence? It's the sort of thing you might expect to get in an educational discussion within a revolutionary-left political group, except that here it's just whoever's around in the occupation, and there's no visible presence of left-wing papers and leaflets.
Maybe 50 students, almost all young (apparently French universities have many fewer "mature students" than British), about half-and-half women and men. Three women form the "presidium", but while we're there most of the speakers are men. (It's common in French meetings to have a "presidium", maybe three people, rather than just a single chair).
As they end, one of the women on the "presidium" asks the participants to write brief notes on their contributions and put them up on a website.
The occupation has been running for seven weeks. Each day the students stay to 8.30pm, then go home to sleep before returning to the university in the morning.
Outside it's windy and cold on the bleak plaza of the steel-concrete-and-glass-boxes university. Jess and Vérine, two young women from the occupation, look exhausted. But they stop to talk to us.
The library, they say, remains open, and the student occupation has allowed teacher training exams to go ahead. The cleaning and canteen workers are working normally; so are the campus security guards, some of whom we're already seen inside the occupation. Since the president of the university supports the student movement, there have been no clashes.
All classes are shut down. At first the students voted each morning in a general assembly (AG) on continuing the action. After a while, they held a big general assembly to vote on continuing indefinitely. Two thousand students out of 3000 at the meeting voted for that. We've already seen, however, one of the posters in the occupied university: "2000 vote for occupation. 200 occupy. Voting isn't enough. You must involve yourself".
The hundreds of students actively occupying have mounted roadblocks on all the main roads into Lille. They have gone out to the lycées (the senior high schools) to help the students blockading them. They have organised a big variety of lightning mobile demonstrations. One day they occupied the rail station, and stopped trains for three hours.
They have gone to Job Centres (ANPE) and occupied them, with the support of the workers. They have frequently been out to the factories.
They have set up various "commissions" within the occupation: a "struggle" commission, a "justice" commission (helping those arrested by the police), a "culture" commission (organising film shows, music, and so on), and others. The occupation has no defined "leaders", they stress.
At the start it was just the students. Then the administration and the teachers went on strike.
We ask about relations with the working-class, often unemployed, youth of the poverty-blighted suburbs ("banlieue"), the sort of people who rioted and burned cars and public buildings last November. The students have tried to build links, say Jess and Vérine, and relations are good. No, there's been nothing like the incidents in Paris when some youth from the "banlieue" attacked student and worker demonstrations.
(Whether Lille has the same scale of poverty-blighted "banlieue" as Paris, however, I doubt).
Jess and Vérine are worried that students are likely to vote soon to end the movement. Chirac's decision to withdraw the CPE has definitely slowed the movement down.
The CPE, in their view, was just the straw that broke the camel's back. The students know the issues are much bigger, but the media has focused on the CPE as if it were all about that.
What are their demands? The withdrawal of the CNE and the whole of the Loi sur l'Egalité des Chances. And, indeed, they say, "tous les revendications" - all the demands - in support of immigrant workers and the "sans-papiers" (immigrants without legal status). The movement, says Vérine, has acted as a force to pull together several demands.
The next morning, some of us attend a general assembly (AG) at Lille 3. Plainly Jess and Vérine were right about the movement winding down. There are about 80 there, not the 200 they've usually had. Someone suggests an overnight occupation of all three universities to revive the movement - but there are no volunteers to organise it. Even when leafleting is proposed, there are no volunteers. One student makes a speech saying that the key will be to mobilise the lycées, but it's not clear what he means, and generally there is little political tension in the meeting.
The evening before, we've talked further, some of us with Nico, some of us with Sévérine.
I recall Rosa Luxemburg's discussion of the mass strikes in Russia in 1905. The Marxists were "at the first glance put out of countenance for a time by the apparently fruitless ebb of the storm-flood of the general strike" in January 1905. But, just as a general strike cannot be ordered into being by flicking a switch, so also it cannot be continued indefinitely by flicking a switch.
The "lightning" of the general strike was followed by the "thunder" of many scattered wage struggles and by a flowering of trade-union organisation. And both the lightning and the thunder, argues Luxemburg, played indispensable parts in the clarification of class relations - in the essential preparation of revolution.
After the general strike in France of May-June 1968, too, a great rumble of organisation followed, with huge proportional increases in strength for the revolutionary-left organisations, and even bigger increases, in absolute numbers, for the trade-union and reformist organisations.
Could some similar thunder follow the lightning of March-April 2006? Sévérine is doubtful. "We haven't seen a general strike in France, or something on the scale of 1905". True, but could there be something similar on a smaller scale? Possibly.
Nico argued that the revolutionary left in France, especially the LCR, "fears the question of power". They weren't willing to take up the question of revolutionary violence. I wasn't, and am not, clear what he meant.
Perhaps more can and should be done to organise in the movement for its self-defence against the cops. But from that to revolutionary violence to overthrow the capitalist state is an enormous distance; and surely, to raise the question of revolutionary violence against the state now would be either to talk at cross-purposes, or to lead some small minority into futile adventures. No, said Nico, self-defence and revolutionary violence are just two aspects of the same question. It was getting late...
Wednesday morning, we drove to Paris. First we went to La Défense, the huge conglomeration of skyscraper-offices on the north-west of Paris, to meet Wanda, an activist from L'Etincelle, the minority faction of Lutte Ouvrière. We meet her in her lunch-break from the big insurance office she works in.
There, the response has been less than in the engineering factories round Lille. Only fifteen of her co-workers joined the biggest strike day, despite a call from all the trade unions. But all fifteen also went on the demonstrations; and that sort of turnout is not unusual, nor bad, for political strikes in France. Other workers, even if unwilling to lose a day's pay, or mark themselves out as leftists for the management, sympathised with the movement.
L'Etincelle, more than the other tendencies of the revolutionary left in France, agitated strongly for the 4 April strike day to be made the start of continuing, indefinite strike action. (A call for that was in the appeal from the national student coordination meeting in Lille on 1-2 April; and, so Nico and Sévérine say, L'Etincelle had a strong presence in that meeting). In the end, Wanda thinks, the movement never got near that breakthrough into indefinite mass strike action. Does she think the agitation for it was wrong? No, not at all.
Wanda gives us a copy of one of L'Etincelle's workplace bulletins from 10 April, the first literature from the revolutionary left we've seen written after Chirac's announcement of the withdrawal of the CPE. "The youth have won a first victory: the breach is open... [It] is already an enormous victory. But the government is far from having conceded on the basics. The national student coordination meeting on [8-9 April] has called for new days of united mobilisation with the workers on 11, 14 and 18 April... So now to the workers, to respond directly to the initiatives of the youth, starting by demonstrating with them as from Tuesday 11 April".
Again, Wanda thinks that was the right note to strike: but in fact the movement is ebbing. On 11 April there were only 2000 on the demonstration in Paris, no more than in Lille.
As I reflect later, I think maybe I've been asking the wrong question: "What next?". Or asking it with the wrong assumptions. I think of "what next?" in terms of the British labour movement, where a decision to end or continue a strike, for example, generally has to be pretty clear-cut. It doesn't work like that in France.
After Chirac's announcement, the CGT, for example, has not called on workers to stop action or abandon further demands. It has just let its calls for action become more vague. "The CGT calls on the workers to continue the mobilisation at all levels, in diverse forms, in the broadest unity, to win the opening of social negotiations on all the demands posed..."
On the other hand, the revolutionary left - Lutte Ouvrière, LCR, anarchists, whoever - are (prudently) not making insistent demands for further action. In LO's 10 April broadsheet, for example, the "call to action" is simply: "on Tuesday 11 April and after, participate in all the demonstrations and initiatives!" All the revolutionary left says pretty much the same.
It was a French Stalinist who once said, notoriously: "Il faut savoir terminer une grève" - "You have to know how to end a strike". Actually, though, in France, where minority strikes are not so risky as in Britain (the right to strike is a right of individual workers, safeguarded in the constitution), ending a strike movement can be much less a matter of brutal decisions about "how to end it", and more a matter simply of recognising that it is petering out.
The revolutionaries are saying: we want to continue the movement, and we will be there so long as there is any momentum still in it. The union leaders are saying: if you want to continue, we won't stop you, but... It is a big difference. But it's not posed as a yes-or-no decision about rival precise propositions on what to do next.
Over to a café in Belleville to talk with Jean-Pierre, editor of the newspaper of CNT-education, an anarchist union for teachers and students, and with Ahmad, a university student at Jussieu (Paris 6), and a member of Mouvement Communiste, a small "left-communist" group.
CNT-education, says Jean-Pierre, has about 500 to 600 teachers in membership, mostly primary school teachers, "though we look like more". It has a similar number of university students, in a group called FAU (Formation d'Action Universitaire). Overall, CNT has "a few thousand" members. Its two strongest sectors are education and cleaning. It is the strongest union among the cleaners on the Paris metro, but has strength among cleaners elsewhere, too.
Among primary school teachers, there has been strong support for the movement, but action only in the one-day strikes. Generally, says Jean-Pierre, in defiance of French revolutionary folklore, Paris has lagged behind some other cities, such as Lille, Marseilles, and Lyon, in this movement. FAU, he thinks, has had special influence at Rennes 2, the university which first went into occupation.
They work to strengthen the democratic character of the movement and to extend the movement to workers. The CNT was not certain at first that it was possible to spread the movement to the workers, and it was a slow process, but it happened. The CNT called for the movement to be extended into a general strike, but in the end it proved impossible to go beyond general sympathy to general strike.
What does the CNT say now? "Everything could begin". At the very least, there is now more self-confidence among workers. The Government said repeatedly that it wouldn't budge, and then it budged.
The CNT, like other leftist groups, talked about the other laws which should be tackled. "Concretely, we tried to work towards the insecure workers".
Cleaners and other ancillary workers in schools are hard to organise, said Jean-Pierre, but in "93" especially (Seine-Saint-Denis, département no.93 in France's administrative structure, a heavily working-class area to the north-east of Paris, once a bastion of the French Communist Party) the CNT has worked with teachers on insecure contracts, many of them former industrial workers who now work in the "lycées professionels" (technical senior high schools).
The CNT says now: it's the time to go forward and "insist on the balance of forces". The CNT's choice is to emphasise refusal more than proposals - no to the CNE, no to the CESEDA.
The CNT, says Jean-Pierre, is not strong enough to give the movement a more detailed direction. It sees its job as encouraging the development of a stronger movement; and, when that's done, the workers' movement itself will develop new political directions.
In Jean-Pierre's view, the CNT has sometimes been a bit too "shouty". "This time we tried to be more effective - to be useful to people in the movement".
The CNT favoured the development of "Interpro" worker-student committees, as in Lille. But there really wasn't anything comparable in Paris. Lille, says Jean-Pierre, was probably the best example across the whole of France, though there was also a good committee in Marseilles. In Paris? The CNT organisation in the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) had contact with some factories in the 13th arrondissement, but that's about all. "In Lille it's different, because you have CPers who think they're still living in the 1960s, who act like old CPers, not like the very social-democratic CP of today".
In Rennes there was an exceptionally strong student movement, but only a little "Interpro", and only at the end of the movement.
After the end of the movement in 2003, the CNT tried to keep it going, but it was impossible. Now? The CNT doesn't say: stop the movement. It says: "You want to go further? We'll go with you. We'll discuss how"..
The CNT does not have any fixed next step to propose. "That's perhaps a weakness - or perhaps wisdom".
In workplaces the CNT has good relations with other unions - for example, says Jean-Pierre, in his own school, where he is the only CNT activist, and there are two activists of the FSU (the biggest teachers' union federation) and ten FSU cardholders, out of 30 teachers. (When we talked with Sévérine in Lille, she had said that she, as an FSU activist, was able to work together well with a CNT activist in her school; but a previous CNT activist there had been a pain, constantly accusing her of "selling out").
In Lille, in Lyon, and in "93", says Jean-Pierre, the CNT is accepted by the other unions as an established force - but, at national level, the other unions caricature it as an affair of stereotype bomb-throwing anarchists.
In Jean-Pierre's school, he was able to lead a strike which got all the teachers out, against a student's parent being deported to China, and won.
Has the CNT recruited from the current movement? Yes, says Jean-Pierre. Particularly social workers - he has no idea why.
Among students, "we do not try to be the most radical, but to attract the radical students who do not want to involved in the sectarian quarrels, the battles between the LCR and the Socialist Party or between the LCR and the PT" (the "Lambertists", a large but strange French revolutionary-left group, very "shouty" indeed, but with some the traits we see in Britain in the semi-clandestine string-pulling grouplet Socialist Action).
The CNT tries to leave those aside - "to say that we have made a choice for the workers' movement, and to attract students from the point of view that they are future workers". In addition to that, Jean-Pierre says wryly, the CNT probably attracts some students because of its "romantic anarchist image".
(Jean-Pierre, so we will learn later, has been many other things than an anarchist in his political life. He was long a "cadre" of the Communist Party, and later for many years a "cadre" of Lutte Ouvrière).
Jean-Pierre sees a risk that "the traditional left organisations will come out of this with increased numbers and credibility". There has been no clear divide between the CP and SP, on the one hand, and the more radical, on the other, within the movement. The CP and SP youth were happy to take a strong line against a right-wing government.
The media say that the big winner is the SP. UNEF, the biggest of France's (all microscopic) student unions, is controlled by the SP, but Jean-Pierre thinks it is impossible to say whether UNEF will come out strengthened.
Who will come out stronger? "Un peu tout le monde", says Jean-Pierre - "everybody, a bit". Certainly CNT and SUD (the most leftist of the main trade-union groupings).
The student movement has been more democratic than previous movements. Journalists laughed about the extreme length of the meetings and debates, but it has been "a real apprenticeship in democracy". Lutte Ouvrière, remarks Jean-Pierre, says that this is only a minority movement. "Well, yes - like every other movement here, since the French Revolution!"
A lot of people have participated actively. But a lot of students (though leftist in general terms) don't want to hear from political parties or even unions. (Even anarchist unions, apparently!)
Ahmad has a different view on this from Sévérine in Lille: he thinks there is more hostility to the organised left and unions than in previous movements like 2003, not less. It doesn't affect him personally much, because he is the only member of the Mouvement Communiste at Jussieu.
(Also, the MC is not exactly pushy. When I ask Ahmad later what the MC's hopes are for recruiting from the movement, he replies "On s'en fout" - "we don't care about that". If people want to join the MC, they will, but they don't make any special effort to recruit. Their main concern is to provide ideas that the movement can take up. Yves Coleman, an ex-member of Lutte Ouvrière who now publishes his own periodical aiming to explore the political space between Trotskyism and anarchism, Ni patrie ni frontières, and who chose to distribute some MC leaflets during the movement because he thought they were the best around, will later tell us a bit more about the MC. It's a small group, including some activists of very long and diverse political experiences, whose characteristic activity is to publish, from time to time, texts which they've worked and discussed and reworked for months on one or another question, full of statistics, facts, and research.)
Jussieu is one of the strongholds of the LCR and its youth organisation, the JCR. The first student assembly there was held in late February, and had only 200 there. But then things started moving, with campus workers playing a big role in pushing them along.
It built up to 400 students at the assemblies, and then 1000 at the maximum. (There are, says Ahmad, nominally 40,000 students at Jussieu - but he reckons a lot of them, though on the books, aren't really there. French universities have a much higher drop-out rate than British). Ahmad has read that across France about 45% of university students also have part-time jobs, but he has heard that the percentage at Jussieu is much lower, only 10 or 20%. He's not sure why - maybe because the universities within Paris attract better-off students.
The Jussieu assembly voted every day on whether to maintain their "blockade", and usually got a 60 to 80% majority for continuing. It was, apparently, more a "blockade" than an occupation - they built barricades to stop anything going into or out of the campus, and staffed the barricades every day from 6am to 5pm. There would usually be about 120 at the blockade.
From the café where we have met Jean-Pierre and Ahmad, we go to a meeting of the student coordinating committee for the Ile de France (the region around and including Paris) at Censier (Paris 3).
This has none of the languour of the Lille AG that morning. A woman on the door checks our identity, issues us with special non-voting cards, and tells us we must sit on the sides but not in the middle of the lecture theatre where the meeting is going on.
Inside, uproar. About 100 students in the lecture theatre - all young, about half and half women and men, a sizeable minority of apparent North African background (though whether as big a minority as overall in the universities of the Ile de France, I don't know). Despite what people like the SWP might hope for, none of the young women are wearing Islamic head coverings (those are not uncommon among women students in the Paris suburbs, but evidently the veil-wearers are mostly not social militants).
And usually three or four talking at once. Those of us who speak French find it hard to understand what's going on, and it's not just the shortcomings of our language skills or our hearing, because Ahmad, who's come with us, often replies to our questions "what was that about?" by shrugging: "I don't know".
The underlying political battles, so he tells us, are between three main groupings: the Socialist Party, the LCR, and the anarchistic "ultra-lefts". (For the latter, although his own group, the MC, is itself what a Trotskyist would consider "ultra-left" of sorts, Ahmad has not much time. "They talk a lot about actions, but then don't do them. It gives me the shits").
Despite the uproar, the blackboard has a list of propositions, neatly written, with A (for "adopté") written against some to show that they have already been voted through. Whatever the anarchising tendencies of some of the students, and whatever the uproar, there is nothing here of the ideology that would consider voting to be "authoritarian" and insist on "consensus" instead.
The meeting has voted to call a worker-student-high-school assembly at Nanterre (east of Paris) on Friday 14th, and another one on Friday 21st. As we come in, they are voting on electing a spokesperson for the coordination.
But here's the twist. The proposal is that the spokesperson must be "non-syndiqué" - not a member of any student union - not UNEF, nor any of the other student union groupings - not even, presumably, of the anarchist CNT union.
And evidently the SPers and LCRers consider this issue one best ducked for the moment, because they are not making a fight on it.
There are four candidates for spokesperson. As far as I can make out they are not making any elaborate political speeches to explain their candidacies. One withdraws, and another, Gaelle, wins the election by a large majority. (She's one of the "ultras", so we're told outside).
Next row is about re-electing the "presidium" (three co-chairs, as in the Lille occupation seminar). Exactly why, neither we nor Ahmad can make out. However, a vote is carried to remove the existing "presidium" and elect a new one. Then the meeting goes on to discuss "actions", and all non-delegates are asked to leave.
Outside, some of us talk to a young woman, of Asian background, who thinks that the basic political tension there is between "the reformists" and "those who think they can make the revolution immediately". Something in between those two poles is needed, she reckons.
She thinks "the republic is a great thing", with its slogan "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality". But the "liberty" is being transmuted into free-marketism, and the "equality" forgotten. "Fraternity" is vital, because it is the element that can keep "liberty" and "equality" together.
So the actual French republic isn't so good? No. She thinks a new constitution is needed, and sympathises with the talk she has heard in the student movement about a Constituent Assembly and a Sixth Republic. (France's current constitution, the Fifth Republic, dates from a military coup in 1958, and is notoriously top-heavy with presidential powers).
And economic democracy is necessary, too? Democratic control over productive wealth, workers' control of production? She agrees.
Then we are off to another "assemblée générale". This one is apparently a coordinating committee of politically-selected activists (anarchists), rather than an all-in meeting based on a university or a city.
People drift in to the meeting over a long time. Eventually, about a hundred. These are older people, and mostly men. Almost all white, too. As they wait for others to arrive, they are reading a text written by a sub-committee from the previous assembly.
This text starts off by seeming to address, more directly than anything else we've seen so far, the question of what next. And it presents itself as a practical proposal, to be adopted, amended, or rejected by the meeting.
It seems to propose that the group become more structured. There should be continuity - follow-up in each meeting from the decisions of the previous one - rather than each assembly starting each discussion again from zero.
But then the text talks about the group constituting a "collective subject" which can overcome the atomisation, and the alienation of individuals one from the other, characteristic of capitalist society. Whether it is a proposal to create a group more effective in outward-directed activities - related, maybe, to class struggle - or an idea that the group, in and of itself, just by constituting itself as a collective, can create a bit of what some call "liberated space" is not clear, and doesn't become clear in what we can get of the discussion.
One of us goes off early to meet Olivier, an organiser of a little group which produces a regular e-letter, Liaisons, a recent ex-member of the LCR, and a CGT trade-union activist in his workplace, the IGN (National Geographic Institute, a very large office).
Liaisons has made a special effort during the movement, publishing frequently, and producing joint leaflets with some other groups. Olivier starts by telling me that they had some argument on how to headline their latest e-letter, sent out on Monday evening after Chirac's announcement that he would withdraw the CPE.
Eventually they agreed: "Victory!" In the second half of 2005, the right was gaining ground. The current movement started slowly, in early February, and the first real national day of action was not until 7 March. Then it started escalating.
At Olivier's workplace, out of 1800 workers, they had 90 on strike on 7 March, between 220 and 230 on 28 March, and about the same (he doesn't yet know exactly) on 4 April.
The big demonstrations were important to centralise the movement. But the union leaderships applied brakes in many subtle ways. They continued to emphasise the CPE alone, when the students and workers were making wider demands.
The CGT is a signatory to a campaign against the new immigration legislation, CESEDA, but does not campaign on the issue.
Force Ouvrière, a generally right-wing union federation mostly strong among white-collar workers, agitated generally and demagogically for a general strike, but did nothing to bring it nearer. The CGT, the strongest of the union federations, held the key to the situation. In effect, the unions' line has been: "OK, strike if you want".
CGT's general push is towards the abandonment of the definite collective rights held by French workers, many of them by law, in favour of "flexible security" (on the model of Denmark, apparently). And that's a theme which Sarkozy, on the right, is happy to take up.
The CGT leadership is also working for a revision of the trade-union dues system. In France, a "syndicat" (trade-union) is strictly speaking a local organisation, maybe in one workplace. "Syndicats" are then grouped into federations (for particular industries) and into "unions départementales" (UD) and "unions locales" (UL). The federations, the UD and the UL, then make up a confederation - a sort of equivalent of the TUC, except that there are at least eight big ones in France, as well as smaller ones and "syndicats" that are not part of a "confederation".
This structure dates back to the late 19th century, when the CGT (then the dominant confederation, to a much bigger extent than today) first emerged from two parallel efforts of trade-union organising, one focused on industrial federations and one on local union-council organisation.
"Syndicats" in the CGT pay dues both to their industrial federation and to their UD or UL, the central apparatus of the confederation receiving a portion only indirectly, via those channels. Now the CGT wants to introduce a system which already exists in the more right-wing CFDT - all dues going to the central office, which will then redistribute some.
This is not just obscure detail, because it is part of a general and (by historical precedents) somewhat surprising process in the French labour movement. Although France has seen three very large worker-student movements in the last eleven years - 1995, 2003, 2006 - which you'd think would bring new blood into the trade unions and make them more open and left-wing, in fact, on the whole, the unions have stagnated in numbers of members and activists - and moved, politically, to the right.
The CGT renounced its equivalent of the British Labour Party's Clause Four, and without a big fight, at a congress in the middle of the huge 1995 movement. Now the CGT has another congress this month, April, and it too may see a move to the right.
Olivier described how Liaisons had built on the immediate demands of the movement to raise the call that the president, Chirac; the government; and the National Assembly (parliament) should all be thrown out. Better that, he said, that the demand "the Government should concede", which leaves the Government in place to come back with more of the same. The Government is very discredited.
Liaisons had had trouble with one of the other groups it co-produced leaflets with, because that other group, a splinter from the "Lambertist" PT, was obsessive about taking up the old "Lambertist" catch-cry of "a central demonstration which goes to the National Assembly".
If you're calling for bringing down the government, is it possible to raise the question of a workers' government? "It's a question of organisation", Olivier thought. "You have to transform the movement. But the bureaucracies are very strong".
What will come out of the movement in terms of ongoing organisation? There are lots of people joining the Socialist Party, says Olivier. The revolutionary left? "All the groups are doing all right, but no-one is making a breakthrough".
About the LCR, he is highly critical. "The LCR is integrated into the future Union of the Left" - the prospective SP-CP-oddments reformist alliance, as in 1981 and 1997, being prepared for 2007.
The students' feeling, not just that they don't want to vote for UNEF (SP) people as spokespeople, but that it should be a rule that representatives are non-unionised, surely poses a problem? If such feeling prevents the creation of new ongoing, structured organisations, or the renovation of existing ones, and limits the young activists to more or less ad-hoc organising, then the initiative will continue to be held by those who do have ongoing, structured organisations - the rightward-moving union bureaucrats.
The problem is not as surprising or as stark as it might seem, says Olivier. The student unions, UNEF and others, are microscopic in size (only about one or two per cent of students between them), and function as little more than apparatuses for young careerists. You don't need to be an anarcho-dogmatist to be furious at the way that the media have proclaimed UNEF leader Bruno Juillard (an SPer) as the leader of the student movement, and to want someone independent of UNEF.
Later that evening, Yves, of Ni patrie ni frontières, tells us we should learn to see these issues from the point of view of the young radicals. You (he tells some of us) see these things as Trotskyists do: there are two big armies in conflict, and it's a question of the organisation and leadership on our side.
But a lot of young radicals think that it's already a defeat if the issue has become one of conflict between two "armies". For them, the aim - what it's all about - is doing everything by consensus or by voluntary means.
Yes, but... the students in their assemblies took decisions by majority vote (lots of votes!). They blockaded their universities and lycées against the numerous right-wing students who want to continue normal studies, with no concession at all to the idea of finding a "consensus" with them or letting them decide "voluntarily" to keep the university or the lycée going normally or not.
They set up a national coordination - structured, taking decisions by votes. They made it clear that they wanted the unions to call their members out on strike, rather than leaving worker action to "consensus" or individual "voluntary" choices. And, as lots of people emphasised to us, the students saw the whole business as a class struggle - workers and students on one side, against the bosses on the other.
Rosa Luxemburg is sometimes presented as a Marxist who thought that systematic, long-term organisation was relatively unimportant, and "spontaneous" mass action could do everything. In fact, à propos of 1905, she wrote: "In order to be able to overthrow [the established order], the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class consciousness and organisation".
"The most important desideratum", she thought, for big struggles to come in the Germany in which she was writing, was "the utmost capacity for action, and therefore the utmost possible unity of the leading social-democratic (i.e. in the terminology of the time, Marxist) part of the proletarian masses". Only, against the socialist right-wingers of her day who thought that such organisation could be achieved only by keeping life quiet and avoiding anything daring, she noted that in Russia, "the apparently 'chaotic' strikes and the 'disorganised' revolutionary action after the January general strike are becoming the starting point of a feverish work of organisation".
Can something similar, on a smaller scale to be sure, happen in France? We will see.