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Jason Francis McGimsey, "Becoming Multitudes: Workers, Students and French Social Movements"

Becoming Multitudes: Workers, Students and French Social MovementsJason Francis McGimsey

Officially speaking, the mass mobilizations against the now congressionally approved pension reform in France have come to an end. The biggest unions met yesterday (November 8th), collectively signing a document that promises another day of action on November 23rd, promoting “multiform actions” that will, however, be decided on by “local and professional categories”. Substantially, unions are strategically biding their time and delegating the responsibility for the movement for two reasons. First and foremost, they are waiting for the right moment to take advantage from the crushing popular opposition to Sarkozy’s policies: the presidential elections for 2012. Their fear is that continuing strikes will eventually alienate the popular consensus that they have enjoyed so far, “degenerating” into radical actions that they would then be forced to distance themselves from.

The second and more interesting reason why French unions have backed down from full-contact opposition to the government is that they never were in control of the movement in the first place. Over the last few months, in the best case scenario, unions functioned as temporary organizational tools, loose containers that provided communication networks between various groups and resources. In the worst case scenario, they assumed their (typical) role of paternalistic social intermediaries, quelling the more heated expressions of social opposition and reconducting them within union lines.

In reality, smaller antagonistic flares continue to sporadically erupt throughout France. There are unannounced strikes, slowdowns and pickets in sectors ranging from transportation to services and oil refineries. Solidarity groups of inter-professional strikers remain active, passing from one strike to the next, blocking entrance ways and insisting that the movement is far from over. And they’re right: although the national bonfire of révolution is not burning brightly, the cinders are still incandescent and there is no smoke in sight.

One fundamental indicator is the renewed attention to the student movements. After an initial push by workers (a logical reaction since the reform immediately effects those who already work), students soon joined in on the protests, mobilizing and barricading hundreds of high schools and universities all over the country. Political reactions were fierce, accusing unions of “manipulating the youth” for their own ends and fearing that these new participants could effectively catalyze a national movement beyond all control. In a certain sense, that is exactly what happened.

In a country where 20 percent of the 25-and-under population is unemployed, youth mobilization represents an immediate, radical threat to politics as usual, both for the right and the left. The structural incapacity of unions to articulate a labor market characterized by precarious contracts, temp workers and underpaid internships has been compensated for by the diffused, networking intelligence of students and young precarious workers who often find themselves marginally represented, at best, in traditional union discourse.

Even now, when the damp November days of Parisian bustle have taken the place of the massive demonstrations of 3 million people last month, a close eye is being kept on various “hot spots” in the university context. The Sorbonne has stepped up security around all of its major campuses, extraordinarily checking student IDs at the gates, while auxiliary police forces are monitoring other “sensitive” universities. There is an instinctive intuition that in order to control governmental opposition, students and youth have to be kept on a short leash.

The reason why is that students and youth now represent the “glue” for social movements. They are able to translate traditional struggles concerning pay, working conditions and retirement requirements into a contemporary labor structure based on precariousness and continuous exploitation. Their flexibility and agility allows them to organize popular antagonism into articulated networks of resistance. Beyond union calls for strikes and demonstrations, is it above all the complex networks created among workers, students and marginalized social groups that are creating, on a day to day basis, this new relationship between mass struggles and singular actions.

With the help of these young activists, the movement against the reform has become a semi-permanent, long-term low intensity insurrection, something similar to what happened in Italy in 1969. The biggest difference being that what was an industrial struggle in 1969 is now diffused throughout the entire metropolis, highlighting today’s incredible collective intelligence.

One could ask: what will all this mean for the reform? Or, more generally: what does this new declination of organized resistance mean for today’s society? One possible answer could be that the fight against this reform and the central role of young students and precarious workers immediately poses the problem of biopolitical exploitation. In other words, it has brings to light the deep contradictions of an entire society put to work without any guarantees, a society that suffers capitalist exploitation at any given moment. A society where communication, language, affects, services and immaterial forms of labor are continually exploited to produce value that ends up on financial markets and in the pockets of a wealthy few. This new form of multitudinary social movement profoundly questions the current organization of society as a whole, in every phase of life, from students to traditional workers and pensioners.

In final analysis, these are all concrete, tangible signals of a shift in the strategies and modalities of social struggle, better calibrated for the contemporary structure of labor. A real change in the very nature of social movements is taking place and, quite possibly, we are only seeing the beginning of a long process of the becoming multitude of class struggle.