David from L'Etincelle, a grouping within the NPA (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, New Anticapitalist Party), talked with Michael Elms from Solidarity.
In 2018 there was a movement about selection. In 2019 they increased fees for students outside the EU by like 1,000%. There was a small movement concerning that: but it was at the same time as the Yellow Vests movement, and it didn’t really get going.
The Yellow Vests movement had an effect among some poor students, it was very strong among students for a couple of weeks, but things didn’t go much further than that.
What’s the story with students and the 2019-2020 pensions strike?
When everyone already knew that 5 December was coming, in mid-November, there was a student in Lyon who was also an activist in the Solidaires student union: he set fire to himself, because he came from a poor family, and he was relying on a scholarship and housing subsidies.
He didn’t graduate his year, so he needed to repeat a year and he lost his financial support and had no income apart from one low-paid job. He left a note and he wrote that the government had killed him. It was a very political letter.
In Lyon and 40-50 other towns, everywhere there was a small university, there were meetings and demonstrations and everything. It was a movement against student precarity.
A large percentage of students live below the poverty line. Many students have to go to soup kitchens, or have to get jobs alongside their studies.
It was two weeks before 5 December, and a lot of the participants said, we have to look to the workers’ movement starting on 5 December, we have to be able to go on the streets together. Over those two weeks it grew quite quickly, with massive general assemblies in universities but the movement stalled in the days immediately leading up to 5 December.
The 2018 movement against selection saw a lot of occupations. There were a lot of occupied universities. Last year and at the end of 2018, a lot of universities, especially Tolbiac, one of the central, most symbolic universities, the administrations started to use lockouts.
For example at the Sorbonne we wanted to have a general assembly, half an hour before they closed the doors, so no-one could get inside and everyone was escorted out. In Tolbiac, two days before 5 December, the University sent everyone an email saying that for security reasons they were simply closing down.
In Paris, universities were closed either because management wanted to avoid general assemblies, or with the story that they wouldn’t penalise students who didn’t turn up because of transport difficulties, so all the universities were empty.
In the first weeks of December was we started a general assembly for all universities, which took place regularly. The small cores of activists would meet up – there weren’t big general assemblies everywhere, but in different universities you’d find mobilisation committees of say 30 or 40 people, and they’d always include new people who’d come into the movement for the first time. Our inter-university meetings would always draw in about 100 or 130 people.
One day 300 people came. That was when one university was occupied for like a day and a half. That was Cassonne, a small annexe of Paris I, which is mostly a law school.
These inter-university general assemblies organised blocs on demonstrations. The NPA was central to that and a lot of people getting involved in organising these blocs quickly became close to us.
This activity formed the core of the movement, drawing in people from lots of universities, including ones that aren’t very political. On the student blocs on the marches on 5, 10 and 17 December, the first big demonstrations, there were big and animated student blocs.
When most people went home for the holidays, these inter-university meetings organised the small core of people who would go on the picket lines, participate in SNCF (national rail) or RATP (local transport) strike assemblies… It was not a lot of people and the blocs became quite small, as people were away – and there were still no trains!
When courses started again, teachers started getting into the battle. There is a law that says that lots of teachers will be moved from civil servant status to temporary worker status. So the new model will be money flowing to a small number of prestigious institutions and less money for everyone else.
All the activists who had left in late December have returned to action: they organise discussions, picket lines, leafleting. The teachers are currently in the lead.
A lot of students spent one and a half months seeing the movement – some were on the picket lines at 4:30 every morning – but most students were just watching the movement on TV. Now people have come back and they’re anxious and curious about what’s going on.
Teachers have started permitting general assemblies. For example at Nanterre, strikers and students went from class to class to build the general assembly. Teachers refused to continue teaching and told their class to follow the strikers, and it became a demonstration through the campus of about 400 people. There were 500 or 600 people in the general assembly.
So sometimes you don’t need much to go from just wanting to do something but because of the long pause being rather vague about what’s happening, to having something that looks really plausible you can get involved in. Now the student blocs on demonstrations have been growing again, helped by the fact that university teachers are going on strike.
Mobilisation committees exist now, but we are not going towards occupations in most places. In the big movement in 2018 there were general assemblies and occupations but mobilisation committees often didn’t exist, and demonstrations were small.
So you’d have 1,000 people in a general assembly, and then you’d go to a demonstration and there’d be like 10 people behind a banner. So now there’s a lot of mobilising people to general assemblies and demonstrations.
There’s a problem with occupying or blockading universities. At some universities, if a leftist is giving out flyers within three miles of the campus, management shut down the university for maybe two weeks, so I think people are hesitant about going for an occupation right now.
If you just blockade, then you cut the dialogue. And occupations are always difficult. In 2018, in a lot of places the occupations ended chaotically, and the central core of activists completely cut themselves off from the greater body of students.
The result of that experience is that a lot of activists are fed up with occupying. They had bad experiences last time. It didn’t have to go that way, but it’s difficult with student occupations not to close down on yourself and cut yourself off from the rest of the student body.
Also, students aren’t always very organised, so if you don’t have people who can do security and observe rules, then your occupation can quickly just become a squat where people get drunk and mess up.
So, what is a general assembly and what is a mobilising committee?
Just on a theoretical level, a general assembly is where you invite all the students who want to get involved, who want to get informed – especially early in a mobilisation, a lot of people come because they’re curious – and all the people who want to discuss.
In 2018 you’d sometimes get like 2,000 people in some universities. These days it’s more like 150-600 people. There will be some time allocated to talk about the political situation, and then everyone discusses and votes on proposals on what could be done.
And then, for the people who are most involved and want to be active every day, who want to go and do lecture announcements, make banners, whatever – those people meet in the mobilising committee. In the mobilising committee, the decisions of the general assembly are applied.
It’s like the executive committee of the general assembly. No-one is elected to the mobilising committee as such. It is kind of the case that it’s responsible before the general assembly – everyone knows who is on it, as it’s the most active people. And if something is done that wasn’t decided in the general assembly, you can always find someone to get up at the next meeting and complain about it.
What’s the current state of the French student movement?
It’s the same dynamic as elsewhere – there’s less of a sense of urgency about joining a student union. The major student union in France (UNEF) has always been quite close to the Parti Socialiste (PS). But of course in France the PS has pretty much committed suicide.
Traditionally UNEF had a big apparatus and mainly worked to prepare some people’s careers in the PS apparatus. UNEF still exists but it is much smaller.
For example, on a recent demonstration, the student bloc was made up of people with handmade banners from their respective campuses. A small number of UNEF people tried to get out in front of the student bloc and place their banner at its head. We told them not to do that, and they didn’t – but five years ago such an encounter would have ended up with our lot getting some broken noses.
Now, in smaller universities they still have a base, but in bigger universities, student unions are less of a factor. Solidaires, the more left-wing student union, places a lot of store by the local autonomy of its branches. They won a lot of members in 2018, but then lost many of them five minutes later because things were very chaotic.
So, student unions are down, they don’t play a role. The man who committed suicide in Lyon was a prominent member of Solidaires. Solidaires prepared some of the mobilisations at the start of the movement but then disappeared from view.
Ever since 2016 there has been a student movement every year. But they’ve been minority movements – sometimes a bigger or smaller minority, but always a minority. In Tolbiac in 2018 there were general assemblies of 2,000 people, but there are 14,000 students at Tolbiac. So you’d have 12,000 people not participating, not really knowing what’s going on, not going to university for a month.
Leftwing groups like ours, or feminist collectives, or groups concerned with ecology, have grown. These tend to be local collectives. Nationally, groups like the tendencies of the NPA, Lutte Ouvriere, libertarian communists and autonomists have grown (although the influence of the autonomists has shrunk). Their growth is a result of many students having been through two or three big movements, an experience which really turned them into activists.
At the same time, the rest of the student body, the big majority, didn’t always share in those experiences. Between the movement of 2018 and 2019, if you were outside a campus with a political newspaper or leafleting, it was a depressing experience: the general atmosphere was not political.
Part of the reason for that is that there had been 18 months or two years where a majority just saw a minority of leftists blocking the university – like 15 people getting up at 6 in the morning and trying to blockade a university even though nobody had voted for it… There’s a gap. Less now than last year, but still a gap.
That’s one of the reasons that the general political atmosphere on universities is hesitant right now. More conscious students are worried about isolating themselves. Sometimes over the last two or three years they have isolated themselves.
Rightwing student organisations don’t win people by saying “there are too many immigrants” or “look at all those gay people kissing on our campus” – their posters say things like “we’re going to stop those leftists from blocking your university, the radical left is destroying universities.” I’m talking about the Front National, Royalists like Action Française. There was a gap and the right is trying to exploit it.
But today, the gap is slowly closing - this distance between people who had become politicised over the course of several big movements and were very experienced, and everyone else. And each time a new movements blows up, it takes time to close the gap by discussing with people. There are a lot of universities where radical left activists are called “blockaders”.
It depends on the political atmosphere as well. If there is action by a significant minority among students and it enjoys the passive support of the majority, as is broadly the case now, that’s one thing. But if you have only 15 people trying to blockade a university, that means that people will be throwing chairs, behaving like that.
What kind of gap-bridging activities are you in the NPA proposing?
We always tend to be the people kind of with a foot on the brake, saying, look, just because we’ve got 300-400 people in a general assembly, that doesn’t mean people will understand why we’re blockading the university. And if we do, we can’t just be blockading the university using chairs and stuff, but we need a maximum of people out there with leaflets, explaining what we’re about and talking to all the people standing around looking, wondering what’s happening – you have to talk to people about the political situation, why the blockade is happening, and so on.
The autonomist movement which in 2016-2018 was very strong and probably the best example of the rapid politicisation of a minorityh tended to look upon the majority as sheep who would never understand, so you had to be as radical as possible. But that autonomist movement is less important right now.
We in the NPA say we should make the mobilisation visible, try to have picket lines in the morning, not to blockade, but so that everyone arriving hears chants, gets a leaflet, hears about the general assembly – and then afterwards, activists should go and hang out in the places around the university where students hang out and talk to people, even if that means spending half an hour just talking to one person.
Then, you go from class to class, and make announcements. Most teachers support us, so these announcements tend not to get shut down. And we’ll be doing that all day, trying to talk to people.
What we haven’t done as much of, and what we want to do next week, is departmental general assemblies. We’re seeing people turn up on demonstrations who we had never seen before in meetings, but they’d been observing things going on and said among themselves, “yeah, we’ll come along and make a banner too”.
So you mustn’t be formulaic and imagine that there’s a progression from handing out leaflets to getting a general assembly to having a super mobilisation committee: people find different ways in.
So, when I do sports at the university, there are people I don’t know, and so that sports event is the first opportunity that a lot of people have to discuss about what the strike means, and what people want and so on. Having that discussion bridges the gap.
And then, of course, the political atmosphere in the country does things for us. So, everyone hates Macron. And if an autonomist guy starts screaming "fuck the police” – now, that’s not something that people will run away from, because for two or three years, especially with the Yellow Vests movement, a lot of people have seen police violence. Even people who aren’t in this active minority, they have a lot of reasons to ask themselves questions.
What’s student participation in the climate change movement?
In universities, not a lot. When Fridays for Future started in Germany, there were demonstrations every Friday, a real movement. That never happened in France. But everyone was talking about it.
Early in the year, we’d run stalls at FE colleges and talk to people about ecology. Probably the first climate strike in France was the biggest youth demonstration since 2006. But it was all young people, teenagers, even 12-year-olds. You’d get autonomists at the front, doing graffiti like “don’t be vegan – eat the rich”, and at the same time you’d have groups of students from schools from posh areas, and former government ministers turning up… It was really bizarre.
But it was huge – 40,000 or so people and probably only a handful of people older than 25. The second and third demonstrations were also quite big and pretty political. Everyone was discussing ecology back in September.
But the political atmosphere changed in November. People were still talking about ecology but in terms of getting active it seemed that there were some more pressing, immediate things going on. But this is still a theme that all young people are talking about.
After the last climate strike, there was a brief phase for Extinction Rebellion, with XR tags everywhere, some spectacular actions. But the most spectacular events were when the Yellow Vests got involved with the XR stuff and people were running around supermarkets and stuff.
Lots of people got involved with those demonstrations but it doesn’t follow that people were reading the stuff on XR’s website and being influenced by it.
The ecological movement in France I think is a bit like the feminist movement – there are big marches a few times a year, lots of people are thinking and talking about it, but it’s not like in Ireland or Argentina where there is a genuinely big mass mobilisation that’s changing society.
So if you go to a college and talk to politically-minded people, everyone is interested in feminist questions and ecological questions but there isn’t a movement.
How do students fund themselves? Is there state support for day-to-day living?
There are grants and bursaries that you can apply for, if you don’t live with your parents. But that comes with problems, because if you fall behind with your studies you can lose your rights.
At the moment I think the most you can get is EUR 450/month. In Paris, that might pay the rent on a 9 square-metre hole in the ground. Also it’s a complicated administrative procedure to get the money.
Lots of things in France are getting more expensive, and in Paris in particular. Paris has 13 universities with tens of thousands of students. So look at living costs in Paris and that tells you how things stand for a lot of students.
If you don’t come from a family which is rich and has the cultural capital to guide you through these administrative routes to getting grants and so on.
Getting into university isn’t hard – I do a Master’s in History and I’m stupid as shit – it’s not selective at an academic level, but it is difficult in other ways, which results in a very high percentage of dropouts. People don’t have the support that guides them through getting by financially and in terms of the bureaucracy.