Published 28 May 2009
Demonstrations and strikes, uproar in the universities and the
emergence of a new anti-capitalist party: is France on the verge of
another May '68?
I have been living full-time in Paris for the past four years and
reporting from the city for nearly 20. I have, therefore, become
accustomed to frequent street protests. But I have never seen
anything quite like the anger that has been building up during
demonstrations over the past few months against the government of
Nicolas Sarkozy. The most recent of these was a protest I attended in
Montparnasse on 14 May, which was led by hospital staff angry at
proposed health service reforms.
The reforms are based on the so-called "Loi Bachelot" (Bachelot law),
named after Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, the politician in Sarkozy's
government who devised the health reforms and is trying to push them
through the National Assembly. It rests on the principle that
managers will decide the level of medical care appropriate to a
particular hospital. This proposal, long familiar as a fact of life
to readers in the UK, has provoked a furious reaction from all
sections of French society.
Yet, on the surface, all seems well when I arrive at the
demonstration: as I park my bike, a line of black and Arab nurses
dances a salsa past the Métro Duroc. They are accompanied by rappers,
trade unionists, an anarchist jazz band and stern, bossy matrons and
white-coated psychiatrists from La Pitié the hospital where the
young Sigmund Freud attended Charcot's lectures in psychiatry. It is
a surreal snapshot of 21st-century life on the Left Bank, and all
suitably festive on a warm spring morning.
But you don't have to scratch too hard to find real rage lurking
beneath the surface a rage that motivates most of these
demonstrators. "We are sick of being told we have no control over our
own lives," Rachida Ahloulay, one of the dancing nurses, tells me.
"It's not just that the government is giving managers the power over
medical staff," she says, "but it means that we are degraded as
citizens. And that is why France is on the edge of a serious
rebellion. Anger is everywhere!"
This kind of rhetoric is being echoed all over France: in the
universities, which are now permanently blockaded by staff and
students; in the railway unions; among postal workers; and even in
the prison service (warders recently began a series of strikes, which
had never happened in France before). Little wonder that the
mainstream journal Le Nouvel Observateur recently devoted an entire
issue to what it called "The French Insurrection", or that there is
now serious talk in most sections of the media of a "New May '68" a
reprise of the strikes and riots that brought France to its knees and
almost felled the government of Charles de Gaulle more than 40 years ago.
The unlikely figurehead of this new popular revolt is Olivier
Besancenot, a 35-year-old postman from the outskirts of Paris.
Besancenot's boyish good looks, fashionable clothes and fluently easy
manner on television have made him the nation's favourite
revolutionary. Until February of this year, he was a leading figure
in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (the LCR, or Revolutionary
Communist League). In what is now looking like a very smart piece of
PR, the LCR was then dissolved, re-emerging as the Nouveau Parti
Anticapitaliste (NPA, or New Anti-Capitalist Party), a much broader
coalition, formed with the aim of contesting the European
parliamentary elections in early June.
Besancenot, who is now official spokesman for the NPA (there is no
leader), commands a 60 per cent approval rating from French voters
right across the political spectrum.
During the demonstration against the Loi Bachelot, I caught up with
Omar Slaouti, a 42-year-old university professor of chemistry and
long-standing colleague of Besancenot's who is also the NPA's
candidate for the European elections for the Île de France region.
Slaouti is slightly built, but has the streetwise slouch of the tough
kid who grew up in the French suburbs. He also talks with a
non-Parisian accent, which marks out his origins in the banlieue. I
am told he is a big hit with the NPA girls.
I ask Slaouti whether a new May '68 is really on the cards, or is it
just hype? "In France now," he says, "everything is worse than May
'68 in lots of ways more unemployment, racial violence, real
poverty, and so on. The French middle classes are poor, too maybe
the poorest in Europe. And that's when things might change."
This is the line that the NPA has been peddling ceaselessly,
especially on television. It accounts for the party's popularity with
voters who would never normally associate with the extreme left. I
spoke about this with Dr Bernard Granger, a professor of psychiatric
medicine who is also the president of SCCAHP, the union of clinical
heads and hospital assistants. This is a large, but historically
moderate, grouping that has now sworn to bring the government down if
the Loi Bachelot is passed.
"France is at a real crisis point," Granger told me. "And the real
issue is about control who controls the daily lives of ordinary
people. There is no issue more fundamental than health. Everybody
knows if this law is passed, ordinary people will die." This is the
kind of grass-roots appeal that has kept the NPA's bandwagon rolling
It is likely that the NPA's impact on the European elections will be
statistically insignificant the party is unlikely to garner more
than 4.5 per cent of the vote; but as a cultural phenomenon its
impact has been enormous. The NPA describes itself as being "from the
street": its celebrity supporters include the rapper JoeyStarr and
the footballer Franck Ribéry (as well as the decidedly un-street Ken
Loach). That accounts for why the NPA is the favoured political
choice of more than 40 per cent of young people in France, the vast
majority of them having shown no previous interest in Trotsky, but
who now proudly declare their membership of Génération Olivier.
This has created problems for the parties of the left. The Parti
Socialiste (PS), the biggest party on the left, is losing young
voters to the NPA in large numbers, and fast. The next most important
grouping on the left from an electoral point of view, the Parti
Communiste Français (PCF), has tried to make headway in a coalition
with the Greens called the Front de Gauche. Most young people are
cynical about and bored by both parties.
"Who cares?" said Jocelyne, a Senegalese girl from the suburb of
Montreuil. "It's the same old faces Ségolène [Royal] and her pals.
They don't care about us. They don't know us."
A few hours after the demonstration in Montparnasse, I watched a
group of youngsters, most of them claiming allegiance to the NPA,
barge their way into the entrance to the faculty building of Sciences
Po on the rue de Saint-Simon, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Sciences Po is a grande école, a well-funded elite institution that
has mainly stood apart from the strike action which has paralysed the
rest of the higher education sector. "You rich bastards!" shout the
students, under the banner of a red flag with the logo of the NPA.
"Why don't you fucking come out and join the revolution?"
The Sciences Po students, most of them in neat, preppy clothes,
giggle nervously, and soon retreat behind a line of heavily armed
police. Yet even here, in what has historically been a rather
conservative institution, a faction of the NPA is exerting a growing
influence, spreading propaganda, daubing the walls with situationist
slogans and regularly disrupting classes.
I asked one of the militants at Sciences Po, "Frédéric" (he didn't
want to give me his real name), why he supports the NPA. "The NPA
understand this generation better than anyone else," he said. "They
know that our degrees are worthless, that we have all been ripped off
by capitalism, that we will never have proper jobs, that there is no
future. They promise a different way, a real alternative." What did
that mean? "The NPA is a cultural revolution," he said. "They are not
afraid to challenge the basic principles of our society. That's why
they are exciting they promise something real that we can make happen."
Omar Slaouti echoed this. "What I find positive is that all of the
energies, all of the anger in French society, are now flowing in the
right direction, towards real change." He said this to me as we
walked down the Boulevard de Montparnasse, in the slipstream of the
Bachelot demonstration. But was Slaouti seriously talking about
revolution? "But of course. We are not scared of the word
'revolution' that's why young people love us. We are not afraid to
say it. It's the same in Greece, in Guadeloupe everyone of the
young generation can see that capitalism has failed and they are
young enough to believe in an alternative."
One thing is clear: the NPA may not change the world, but it is
already changing French society. Government insiders now say that
Nicolas Sarkozy has for the first time started to take an interest in
history and, in particular, the history of the French Revolution.
Given the incendiary climate on the streets of France, he might also
do well to keep a weather eye on his own political future.
Andrew Hussey is the author of "Paris: the Secret History", published
by Penguin (£9.99)