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A Brief Explanation of the CPE, the November riots, and French politics in general

by gaga Thursday, Jun. 01, 2006 at 5:34 AM

The riots in French suburbs have always been detonated by police violence. The first of these riots happened in Lyon's suburbs, in Vaulx-en-Velin, a working class hub with Renault factories. Monstrous urbanisation, tens of thousands of workers who became jobless after corporate downsizing in the 1970s, inexistent public infrastructures, stigmatisation against people of foreign origin, schools that only proposed dead ends, heroin for the young and alcohol for their parents; voila the situation of this peripheral city forgotten by all until police violence led to the death of a young man. Police violence triggered this riot in 1990, and those that followed, all the way up to those of November 2005...

A Brief Explanation of the CPE, the November riots, and French politics in general




Since the victory of the left in France in 1981, two political parties share the power, either successively or simultaneously (which in the latter case is called cohabitation(1)) : the Socialist Party (PS) and the Union for the Republic (RPR). The RPR changed its name officially to the UMP in 2002.


In France, deputies who are elected in each department by universal suffrage represent the legislative power.


The executive branch, the Republic's President, is elected every five years (previously every seven years) by universal suffrage.


As in the United States, the president has tremendous power. He names the premier minister, can veto the laws presented by the national assembly, can dissolve the assembly and call for new legislative elections, and controls the army...


In 2002, the UMP won the majority of the legislative seats, putting an end to the cohabitation of the Socialist Prime Minister with the UMP executive, Chirac the African. Chirac earned this nickname because his political mentors included African dictators who were friends of De Gaulle. As a result, he is a professional of political scandals, the swindling of public funds, and other con jobs. France prides itself on its uniqueness; does it pride itself on the fact that it is one of the few representative democracies in which the President has judicial immunity? Moreover, his secretary of justice appoints the judges and thus controls their careers.


The riots in French suburbs have always been detonated by police violence. The first of these riots happened in Lyon's suburbs, in Vaulx-en-Velin, a working class hub with Renault factories. Monstrous urbanisation, tens of thousands of workers who became jobless after corporate downsizing in the 1970s, inexistent public infrastructures, stigmatisation against people of foreign origin, schools that only proposed dead ends, heroin for the young and alcohol for their parents; voila the situation of this peripheral city forgotten by all until police violence led to the death of a young man. Police violence triggered this riot in 1990, and those that followed, all the way up to those of November 2005...


To explain this last event, we need to look back at the general political climate. In 1995, the RPR was divided into 2 camps and presented 2 candidates to the presidential election: the Pasqua gang which held the super-bourgeois 92 department (Neuilly, La Defense) and the Chirac gang, which held Paris. Chirac won the party struggle and the elections. Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist mayor of Neuilly, the city synonymous with bourgeoisie, was in the Pasqua gang at the time. From that moment he maintained a spiteful hatred of Chirac.


Sarkozy is now the leader of the UMP and counts on becoming the next president. This populist calculates his politics based on opinion polls. His objective is to steal votes from the far right, which we see reflected in his obnoxious speeches and declarations to the media. Since he became Secretary of State, he has made countless xenophobic and reactionary speeches with offensive language.


In November 2005, two more men died from police zealousness. Sarkozy excused the police violence and this justification of murder in uniform provoked popular revolts. What was unique about this event, compared with earlier suburban riots, was that previously each time the riots against police violence remained confined to the neighbourhood where the murder occurred. This time the deaths in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Parisian suburb, provoked riots throughout the entire French nation.

The struggle against the CPE


From the moment it took power in 2002, the right demonstrated a Thatcherian outlook on social issues, meaning an intention to destroy all social protections without concession. The CPE*, as a symbol of the precariousness suffered by today's youth, triggered a social movement in which students were the principle participants.


In 2005, the government did not reply to the demands of the high school student movement * except with repression. The ex-high school students who had obtained nothing out of their social movement in 2005 and who were not ready to get disappointed twice made up a large party of the social movement.


The technique used was first of all the blocking of the universities, then the high schools, and then finally the entire economy through the blocking of roads and railway tracks. The fact that a large majority of the population (68%) was against the CPE and that the hebdomadal union demonstrations brought millions of people to the streets prevented the government from passively waiting for the fire to die out, as they had done during the November riots.


In 1968 the strikers had succeeded in blocking the economy with 10 million strikers. The precariousness of employment today, the fact that centres of production are splintered off into little units, and the prevailing sentiment that the unions have betrayed the people for snippets of power are all reasons for the inefficiency of union action. Only 8% of all employees are currently syndicated in France, which is the lowest rate in the OCDE.


The people involved in the social movement, inspired by the efficiency of the counter-summit in Seattle and actions against the Gulf War (like the blocking of San Francisco in 2003) thus adopted new fighting tactics.


The more the government refused to dialog, the more the social movement became radicalised and the more the union leaders lost credibility as partners in the pacification process... The government finally gave in for 2 reasons: the partial blocking of the economy and the corporate pressure which it provoked, and the radicalisation of the youth which could have led to the organisation of the participants into revolutionary forms and practices...


Presently, people are tired after 3 months of social struggle. The exam period is coming up, the political organisations which have implicated themselves are now combating each other recuperate new members, and increase their mediatic aura and political leverage should the left hypothetically win power in the 2007 elections.


Sarkozy the populist Secretary of State profited from this crisis in order to eliminate his rival for the presidential election, the technocrat premier Minister Villepin, who is a friend of Chirac's.


The evacuation of the Sorbonne is a flagrant example of Sarkozy's opportunistic use of the CPE movement. The evacuation had brought new life and conviction to the social movement when it was starting to die out. Sarkozy ordered it without even notifying Villepin...

(1) Cohabitation is when the government is left and the president is right (or the opposite), thus they are obliged to govern together. Example 86-88, the French president was Mitterand of the P.S. and the prime minister was Chirac. To avoid this situation the government changed the dates of the election. Previously a lapse of 2 years separated the legislative and executive elections. Now the elections of both are only separated by one month.

(2) The CPE is just one decree out of the many that Villepin forced through as part of his plan to eradicate unemployment by annulling all the protections provided by the labour code. The unionists wanted (and succeeded) to concentrate the movement's demands on the CPE, although the latter is just a minuscule part of the so-called "equal chance" law.

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