Rècit of the Spring 2016 French Uprising by Asja Crise
The following account, necessarily incomplete and perhaps also imprecise in places, will attempt to describe the recent struggles in France as they developed over the course of four months, from late February to the middle of June. It is based both on translations of material at the time and first-hand experiences. These struggles understood themselves as challenging not only the “labor law [loi du travail]” handed down by the Socialist government of Manuel Valls and François Hollande, but also—as one key slogan had it—“against its world,” that is, the conditions that have made it possible but that are also left wide open in the slogan. Is this world the capitalist one? The “neoliberal” one? That of E.U.-imposed austerity? Or just that of a routinely treacherous Socialist government? And then there is the more radical, let’s say constructive, slogan that circulated among younger demonstrators, borrowed from the title of the Parisian hip-hop group PNL’s hit the previous summer: le monde ou rien, the world or nothing. While I will proceed more or less chronologically, there are a couple of points to make here at the beginning. I choose to start with a short account of the November 13th attacks aftermath and the context of the state of emergency, leading up to the beginning of mobilizations in late February and March, spearheaded by highschoolers. This account moreover will focus on the Paris metropolitan area, where I was living, with minimal reference to other cities.
Accounts of the different phases of the struggle typically break down like this, as the movement mutates from month to month: March is the month of high school mobilization (picking up from last year’s movement against a different version of the law, this one proposed by Emmanuel Macron, the Economics minister), while April saw the occupation of République by the so-called Nuit Debout movement and May was the month of strikes and blockades, as the key French labor union, the CGT—traditionally aligned with the French Communist Party—found itself forced to enter the fray, in part from pressure from its own restive rank-and-file. Throughout this sequence, we encounter the notorious casseur (“wrecker”) who is an entirely ambiguous figure within the movement (that’s the point). The hooded proletarian—high school student? radicalized union rank-and-file? youth from the suburban housing projects, eager to fight the police? “anarchist” or “autonomist” militants?—is targeted and denounced by all the respectable actors of the movement, from Socialist ministers to the CGT leadership, and even by voices on the “revolutionary” Left. At the same time, the figure operates as a unifying point of identification for the movement itself: “we are all casseurs” was a chant often heard in demonstrations, in particular during pitched battles with police. . . [read more]