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Politics

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Lutte de générations ou lutte des classes ?

by Jean Lojkine, sociologist (1)

France: The Fight Against “First Job Contracts” (CPEs): A Generational Struggle or a Class Struggle?

Translated Saturday 1 April 2006, by Patrick Bolland

The rising tide of rejection against the CPEs - the so-called “first job contracts”, offering absolutely no job security - has brought to the surface an old myth, promoted by some sociologists, which seems somehow to refuse to go away ...

There is a widespread myth that French society is divided between the “outsiders” (the “people of the suburbs” and students aspiring to enter the job-market) and the “insiders” (all those who already have a job and can plan their futures: rent or buy an apartment or a car, obtain a loan from the bank, etc.). Already with the referendum on the European Constitution, these same sociologists tried interpreting the “No” vote as a vote that was just a protest by “the excluded”, and all the “losers” in the process of “globalization”, that unavoidable “modernization” which our society needs so urgently.

The reality is quite different from this. The majority rejection of the CPEs reflects the rejection of policies of creating jobs without any job security and a positive step towards seeking an alternative to neo-liberalism. Contrary to the hypocritical claims that the protesters are “rejecting any kind of reform”, there are many constructive proposals afoot for generating real career-security life-projects, but any debate of this in the public arena has been rejected or side-stepped by the tenants of a “one-way thinking”.

More than two-thirds of the French population are now against the CPEs -far more than the “the excluded” and “the youth”; the polls already showed in May 2005 that the neo-liberalism that was to be enshrined in the European Constitution was rejected massively not just by “the populace” (workers and employees) but also by an increasing segment of intellectuals and of managers - far more so than the Maastricht agreement (2). Yet today, the real reason for this wide-spread mobilization against the CPEs is the rejection of the whole concept of eliminating job security and consequently of making people’s whole lives insecure, from the unskilled to management-level employees.

Of course there are linkages to be drawn between the youth “excluded” from the school system and the young people with their diplomas who are facing unemployment and down-grading of their qualification, but the marginality is not just limited to the youth. The whole labour-force faces today the threat of torn-up collective agreements, of loss of workers’ rights and of the loss of social securities. This is in no way the “French exception” - something specific to France: insecure, part-time jobs, with unemployment disguised by the “inadaptability” of workers, down-grading of academic diplomas ... this is happening throughout Europe, including Northern Europe (Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands), often held up in the mass media as the New Eldorado.

If the Dutch voted a clear “No” to the referendum on Europe, if the German electors have shown their rejection destroying policies based on social benefits, as advocated by the social democrats, if the unified voice of European trade unions has rejected the Bolkestein directive (3), this is clearly because there is today an increasing rejection of the neo-liberal policies adopted since the early 1980s.
Any talk of the “generation conflict” is therefore only a trap, a firewall masking the rising class struggle. Massive unemployment and increasing lack of job security, the failure to increase new jobs for the great majority of workers today invalidates the myth of a large “middle class” incorporating all those workers with “protected” job-status. Today, there is no longer any “protection”, as witnessed by the systematic assaults against the public sector and the most recently nationalized public services; in all parts of the planet we are seeing not just the unskilled workers being impoverished and marginalized, but also the more highly qualified workers in the public and private sectors.

The political opposition which is emerging in France, despite all the problems of articulation when there is both a multi-polar social movement and political discourse in the public area, is beginning to define the contours of a convergence between the younger generations and the different categories of workers already in the labour-market. The ties uniting these different groups are much stronger than they were in 1968, partly because of the increased maturity of student organizations and the linkages between the precise demands they are making and the demands of labour organizations representing workers. This is doubtless why, particularly in Europe, all eyes are now on France, less isolated than it has ever been. Didn’t Marx say that France was the nation in which the class struggle would ultimately be victorious?

[Translator’s notes]

(1) Jean Lojkine, emeritus research-director with the CNRS. His recent publications include : Le tabou de la gestion [The Management Taboo] (l’Atelier, 1996); Entreprise et Société [Corporations and Society] (PUF, 1998); and La guerre du temps: Le travail en quête de mesure [Fighting over time: the search to measure work] (L’Harmattan, in the collection "Logiques sociales", 2002), co-authored by J.L. Malétras.

(2) At the Maastricht summit in December 1991, the heads of state government of the European Community agreed on far-reaching proposals for the transition to a single currency, the European currency unit (ECU), and the establishment of European System of Central Banks. In addition to the agreement on economic and monetary union (EMU), the summit also agreed on a treaty that formally establishes a European Union, commits the Community’s member states to strive for closer cooperation on foreign and security policy, and slightly expands the powers of the European Parliament.

(3) The former European Commissioner Frits Bolkenstein (a Dutch liberal) proposed a policy on the free circulation of services within the European Union, meaning all essential sectors such as culture, education, health care and all services relating to national social welfare systems could be exposed to the same forms of economic competition as commercial goods. This merchandisation would inevitably lead to the deterioration of pension systems, social welfare and health care cover in favour of private insurance. It would also entail the deregulation of education systems and the end of any kind of cultural exception. Furthermore, the application of this directive would call into question workers’ rights as established by the national laws of the countries in the Union.

Published in L’Humanité on 25 March 2006


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