In the shadow of the Fifth Republic

The French student protests might be lively, but they have failed to break free of the politics of the past.

Chris Bickerton

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During the riots in the French banlieues last year, some voices called for a Sixth Republic. The rapper Axiom wrote a ‘letter to the president’, stating that in the French street the Sixth Republic had been born (1). Today, in heat of the protests around the new employment contract, the CPE, some have claimed that the Fifth Republic is on its last legs (2). For all the talk of a new republic, what extends over today’s student demonstrations is the shadow of the past.

The students seem unable to break free from the existing forces and institutions of French society. This was most evident in the move made by France’s Unions, who have transformed a student movement into a broader debate about labour market reform. Unions have pointed to the CPE as a Trojan horse, ushering in a widespread transformation in French labour laws (3). This has drawn the students into a pattern of social protest that continues today in France, but without any real roots in society.

Unions exercise a preponderant influence only because, in the Eighties, France abandoned socialist political programmes under a socialist president, Francois Mitterand (4). The Unions were never decisively defeated, as they were in Britain under Thatcher. Yet socially, France is the least unionised country in Europe: only 11 per cent of workers belong to unions. For all the talk of France’s revolutionary traditions, social movements today in France are being led by relics of the past (5).

At the same time, the student movement, though it appears determined, expresses the malaise gripping French society. Demonstrations in Paris are routinely trashed by small groups from the suburbs intent on clashing with the police and robbing the white middle-class students who have taken to the streets. French society, at war with itself and steadily imploding, cannot fight the government without fighting itself. Those spoiling the demonstrations mirror French society at large. And the causes once again lie deep within the history of the Fifth Republic: of its immigration policies of the past, and the failure of the integration model today. The student protests cannot escape the smoke of Jean Baudrillard’s ‘autumn pyres’ – those burning cars that are the metaphors of a republican model up in flames (6).

Students have brought new energy to social protest in France. This is why the Unions have been so excited: they see in student representatives like Bruno Julliard, head of the UNEF and de facto spokesman for the movement, a new generation of Union leaders (7). The demonstrations have also been the first taste for many of active politics – making banners, marching in the streets, planning meetings and sit-ins. Yet this experience of political activity doesn’t translate into a set of ideas that challenge the prevailing climate of pessimism about social change.

The students all speak of the ‘neoliberal revolution’ – by which they mean the Anglo-Saxon and primarily the US model – that is casting its menacing shadow over the French ‘social model’. This poses the threat as external to France, in the same way that immigration, organised crime, disease pandemics and global warming are all feared as terrible external threats. As Baudrillard says, facing an ‘external threat’ is far easier than facing what is really going on, namely society’s own absence, its ‘loss of reality’. In this, the students share their perspective with their nemesis: the ‘declinist school’ of right-wing thinkers in France, who call for French people to embrace ‘Thatcherism Mark II’.

The current protests also have strong echoes of the EU referendum campaign a year ago, where ‘neoliberalism’ was the main argument used by the ‘No’ campaign. In both cases, political contestation within society can only give people a limited sense of their own power to change things: the idea of a global threat undermines the practical action of winning arguments in France.

While the students and their critics are invoking outside demons to shake up the French, the current crisis has shown up the craven nature of the country’s political elite. The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has been criticised for pursuing doggedly his reform and refusing to negotiate with the Unions. Yet the truth is that de Villepin’s battle is not his own: it reflects the way in which France’s political class today finds some dynamism. His predecessor, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, famously declared: ‘It is not the street that governs.’ What he meant was that he could prove he was in power only by taking on the street. Similarly, for de Villepin it has been his only real source of strength. This was why rather than giving in as France ground to a halt, he appeared to relish the challenge. He was only forced to give up on the CPE this week when it was clear that he had lost the support of the president, his government and his party.

Another former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, insightfully wrote in Le Monde that the current situation in France originates in the peculiar presidential election of 2002, where 80 per cent of the population voted for Chirac in a second-round run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, a far-right candidate of the National Front party (8). France’s problems go deeper than that, and the 2002 election was more symptom than cause. But it serves as a useful marker with which to understand the peculiarities of the current presidency. Chirac won the election, but only by default; those who voted for him did so only because ‘President Le Pen’ was an unthinkable catastrophe. Elected on such a basis, Chirac was a ‘lame-duck’ president from the outset, and has sought support through various stratagems. His opposition to the Iraq war paid off, his campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the May 2005 EU Constitution referendum backfired. De Villepin has refused to rely upon the president for his own power, and has embarked upon a crusade of his own, finding in the CPE and the student movement the fight he was looking for.

For all the talk of 1968, 1789 and the coming of the Sixth Republic, France is today under the long shadow of the Fifth Republic. The student movement has not brought forth much that is new; it remains bound by the political and social imagination of the past 50 years. Neither the students and Unions nor the government are facing up to France’s problems. Rather than consider the social disintegration that underlies the current crisis, both look beyond France for the causes and the solutions. The Fifth Republic may be little more than a hollow shell today, but it is unlikely to fall any time soon.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student at St John’s College, Oxford.

(1) “Monsieur le Président, je vous écris une letter/ Dans les rues, la sixième république vient de naître…”. For all the lyrics, see Lettre ouverte au président de la République, L’Humanité

(2) Angelique Chrisafis quotes one student at the university of Rennes describing the situation thus: It’s about a general malaise. We’ve had enough of being the Kleenex generation of disposable youth, shat on by employers and screwed by the government. We need a complete regime change in France – the end of the fifth republic. It’s dying before our eyes.” ‘We Need Regime Change in this Country’, Guardian, 8 April 2006

(3) Frédéric Lebaron & Gérard Mauger ‘Révoltes contre l’emplois au rabais’ Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2006

(4) For a partisan account of how Francois Mitterand destroyed the French left, see Michel Rocard (2005) Si la Gauche Savait (If the Left Knew) Robert Laffont: Paris

(5) See Chris Bickerton, Learning from les Rosbifs, 21 September 2005

(6) Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Pyres of Autumn’, New Left Review, 37 Jan/Feb 2006

(7) A Union leader, Bernard Thibault (CGT) was quoted as saying “there is new blood in this movement… I hope these rallies will help us deal the fatal blow”. See France’s political crisis grows as 3 million take to streets, Guardian, 5 April 2006

(8) Lionel Jospin, ‘La Gauche doit offrir une alternative’, Le Monde, 7 April 2006

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