1980s >> 1987 >> no-990-february-1987

Students in revolt

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year that made a deep impression on the French capitalist class. For them, its “second repetition” in 1986 must have come as a tragi-comedy (though for the Chirac government, it was decidedly a farce). Students, in the 70s and ’80s, had been tagged (with relief?) as so many recycled zombies from the ’50s: cynical. apolitical, self-centred, concerned solely with making it. Flattened out into a manageable crisis, in short. That the media (who either invented or borrowed the notion) were only busy making another of their identity-myths has since become all too evident.

But it was not clear on December 4 1986 (and much less so on November 27. when the first big student-organised demonstration took place in Paris). Considering how much hype was circulating about the apoliticism of the young, it comes as no surprise that the students themselves believed they were doing something apolitical. They wanted nothing to do with any of the official parties, yet they sought to affect the policy of a government.

This renunciation of theory can be explained as a resistance action (not at all distant in character from a trade-union struggle) that grew up around ruling-class efforts to cut corners on the cost of maintaining the country’s educational institutions. Students were actually lampooned (Nouvel Observateur, 5 November and 12-18 December 1986) for revolting in favour of the status quo. And it is quite true that in 1986 most of the reformist assumptions of the soixante-huitards were simply taken for granted by the lycéens and university students. They were, in effect, rising up in defence of a specific ideological configuration of capitalism, what we might call post-Gaullism. There is thus less irony than there may seem in the fact that an old Gaullist like Chirac should have spearheaded a Reagan-style. toothless-ideologue assault on the students’ position.

The issue was twofold: the Devaquet bill (which was moving toward the final stages of enactment) set out to reorganise (privatise) the university administration; the controversy centred around questions of degrees, admissions policy, tuition fees and school autonomy. The minister of national education, René Monory, sought to heighten the government’s general de-nationalisation euphoria by introducing a parallel set of reform proposals (not a bill at that point) for the lycées. The most important effect of these proposals would have been to block future access to the universities for a significant percentage of lycéens. Hence, the impulse to contradict the government was a powerful and immediate one. Although the initiative was sparked by UNEF-ID. which was PS and trotskyist in its leanings, the student movement at both levels defined itself, on the whole, solely with reference to with drawing the reforms. (UNEF-ID was the coordinating committee among the university students).

And so it happened that a large body of “apolitical” opinion suddenly coalesced in opposition to the government, became transformed overnight into the Spectre of 1968. to the panic of an entire government; forced a delegate minister’s resignation (Devaquet’s); caused the Prime Minister (Chirac) to announce the withdrawal of the whole reform package; knocked the wind out of the sails of the liberal-conservative coalition’s pointless efforts to turn back the clock and thus ingloriously aborted its nine-month état de grâce. And now everyone is talking about “politicisation” again.

How a paradox like this could have come about can best be explained by looking at the context in which the movement arose, which involves decisions about capital accumulation reaching all the way back to the Marshall Plan. Postwar investments in economic recovery and a policy of stimulating expansion in the “poor countries” at length bore their predictable fruit in the form of increased competition from the new accumulators in the developing countries. This generated a tendency towards capital flight into those same areas (where working-class organisations either did not yet exist, were liquidated or severely repressed so as to achieve a systematically under-valued labour-power). This was accompanied by the steady decline of reinvestment in basic heavy industry in the developed countries (with a few exceptions) throughout the 1970s, and it gave rise to an ever-increasing pressure on the developed countries’ respective balances of trade.

This in turn ignited fears among the capitalist class in each of the developed countries for its own competitive standing in the world’s markets, which has led to a period of relentless budget-chopping. As a result the capitalists currently raise the issue of whether the educational system they have been paying for is really serving its purpose to provide inexpensive (if not cheap) labour-power to keep their profits respectable. If not, then they must shake loose enough free capital from the educational budget (without of course having to retool industry, rethink their growth strategies or — horrors! — axe their precious military investments) to (supposedly) raise profits back up to an acceptable level — given that austerity (for everyone else) must be the order of the day. Throughout the developed world, the 1980s thus began to resound with public-spirited attacks on “outdated” educational systems.

Things were of course no different in France, even though it was a party of the left (the PS) that was commissioned to carry out the hatchet-job. Touted as the reincarnation of May 1968. the new regime of May 1981 fairly gushed with optimism and succeeded in blinding just about everybody, for a short while, to its patent inability to dictate terms to the international crisis. But the real mandate of the Mitterrand-Mauroy/Fabius team was identical (mutatis mutandis) to that of the Reagan administration, the Thatcher government and the Kohl regime. More importantly, however, nobody really seemed to care that a “socialist” party like the PS should be proposing to make a go of bringing back profits and jobs to French capitalism in the first place. The PS/PCF’s état de grâce took only a year to hit the reefs, after which it rapidly disintegrated, as the realities of international competition took their remorseless revenge.

The Savary law reforming education thus came on the books in 1984; aspects of it affecting the private schools, however, caused as much of an uproar as Devaquet-Monory which presaged the PS’s subsequent defeat at the polls. But the Savary law was itself only a symptom of the PS’s underlying shift to the right (its abject caving in to the realities of capitalism), the premise being that the French educational system had become ‘uncompetitive’. And so, après le déluge, the earlier Savary legislation still continues to apply by default.

What the “apolitical” students were therefore colliding with was none other than that dehumanising old fogey, the capitalist class itself, bent on extracting candlestick economies out of the school system merely to salvage its profits — even at the cost of flushing a large proportion of the high-school students out of the university system altogether. The students came very close indeed to realising that what were scraps for the workers are scraps for them too. They are all future workers in the end. or most of them are, and the fact that the lycéens had the support and encouragement of their parents indicates another burst of class struggle was in the making. Worry over the prospect of this was one of the principal factors which ultimately triggered the whole chain of events leading Chirac to the microphone to announce the withdrawal of the reforms.

On the other hand, any inkling that life is actually possible — and good — outside the wages system was conspicuously absent from this revolt of the students: for all their rejection of the system’s catalogue of evils, their ideas nevertheless remained imprisoned within it. They may hopefully take the opportunity they have created for themselves to do some deeper and more independent thinking on the system’s structural tendency to generate emergencies: they at least got off to a good start.

Failing this. 1986 will not turn out to have been so different from 1968 as they thought it was.

Ron Elbert (Paris)