"Enough of these fools who shut factories and shut schools!" was a chant of thousands of student protesters as they marched on May 18 against the neoliberal education reforms in France. The conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy's restructure of the education system will mean 11,200 teachers will lose their jobs as well as the cutting of "optional" subjects, such as foreign languages and art.
Teachers were the first to mobilise against the job cuts in March. They were quickly joined by students who took the lead in organising against the education "reforms" by calling spontaneous strikes. Students refused to attend school and up to 50,000 students marched twice a week in Paris.
The students viewed the government's attack on the education system and teachers as an attack on their rights as well.
Already the movement has exerted a lot of pressure on the right-wing Sarkozy government. A May 16 Reuters article reported that, "[Sarkozy] wanted a new law to ensure schools stay open when teachers go on strike so parents can get to work", a move the General Confederation of Labour called a "bare-faced provocation".
The movement to defend education has been given added impetus by the fact that it coincides with the 40th anniversary of the May 1968 revolutionary events in France.
This revolt started among students and spread throughout French society, eventually leading to a general strike involving 10 million people.
Addressing more than 6000 students at the time, Belgian socialist Ernest Mandel said: "Students can and must play a powerful role as a detonator. By playing this role within the working class, above all through the intermediary of the young workers, they can free in the working class itself enormous forces for challenging capitalist society and the bourgeois state."
Students can be a catalyst for social change due to their relatively more privileged position in society, which allows them more time and freedom than older people, who have full-time work and family commitments.
The legacy of France 1968 lives on in those who recognise that we do have power to effect change if we organise and mobilise to make it happen.
In 2006, the government of -president Jacques Chirac proposed the First Job Contract laws that would have made it easier for employers to sack young workers. Students and young workers mobilised in their thousands and the movement grew so large and militant that the French government was forced to back down. This was a massive victory, and showed the power that a truly mass movement can have.
In the current campaign to defend education rights, the student protesters are playing the same leading role. Because of their mass approach, the protests have spread well beyond the student sector to involve large sections of the working class.
French unions reported that 700,000 workers went out on strike on May 22 against Sarkozy's plans, while French fisherpeople have been blocking ports for over a week to demand state aid to cope with soaring oil prices.
Sarkozy has tried to make out that protesting will have no affect, saying: "I was not elected to bow down in front of all the special interests and everything and everyone opposing change". But as the campaign grows and Sarkozy becomes more unpopular (his approval rating is now at 39%), he has been forced to make some significant concessions.
On May 27, Sarkozy announced he would not be pushing ahead with a major plank of his industrial "reforms", undertaking to maintain the 35-hour work week a year after vowing to scrap it. "There will always be a fixed working week and it will be 35 hours", he was quoted by Reuters as saying. Earlier this year Sarkozy described the 35-hour week — in place for 10 years — as an "economic catastrophe".
The more that Sarkozy resists, the larger and more radical the movement will become.
Olivier Besancenot, the Revolutionary Communist League member who received 5% of the vote in the 2007 election, has called for industrial action. Referring to May 1968, he said "There comes a time when a general strike is capable of extracting far more concessions than, perhaps, what institutional left-wing governments could do", according to the May 15 issue of The Star.
Right now throughout France the lessons and spirit of May 1968 are being invoked. Here in Australia we can and should take inspiration from the events of 1968 in France and just as importantly, the struggles underway there now.
The main lesson is that if students and young people unite on a mass scale, we can unleash a force which is capable of achieving lasting social change, a force that is capable of bringing down conservative governments.
[Tim Dobson is a Resistance activist in Wollongong. He will be speaking at this year's Resistance national conference in Sydney on June 27-29. For more details visit http://www.resistance.org.au.]