The Precarious Go Marching

by Emmanuelle Cosse
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Spring 2008: One year after Nicolas Sarkozy’s crushing victory , the commemoration of May ‘68 has occupied French political and media space without focusing on the actuality of social revolts in France. Surprisingly and unexpectedly the first presidential year pass without a hitch. Sarkozy hoped “to liquidate 68” (“In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May ’68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all…” ), but French society does not seem ready for that. Sarkozy promised economic growth “with teeth” to address “pouvoir d’achat” (the purchasing power of the population), and has received the lowest confidence rating of all those who have served as president during the 5th Republic. None of his injunctions (such as “work more to earn more” ) seem to resonate with French workers, regardless of his electoral success. Sarkozy has pitted the working class against the idlers and sensualists who are unemployed and precarious. But they were among the first to make demands of the president. For example, in a massive strike in the distribution sector during the winter of 2007, the hand of precarious labor did not remain invisible and submissive.

A national day of action was organized in February 2008, creating an embarrassment for him. What did the workers denounce? The imposition of part-time work, inefficient salaries (more or less 800 to 900 euros monthly), difficult working conditions, a minimal income and a denunciation of sexism: these demands are not new. But this movement, which does not seek to gain something directly in the negotiations thought power struggle , rather it is questioning French society. For once, the cashier at the supermarket was the incarnation of the precarious person, whom everyone speaks of but nobody wants to recognize. Two years ago, it was the students who fought against the CPE contract. By the end of April 2008, it was the sans-papiers who emerged from the shadows, seeking an end to France’s hypocrisy towards undocumented migrants.

This succession of mobilizations, which questioned certain bases of social democracy and the “benefits” of full employment, is not confined to France. Everywhere in Europe (but mainly in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Great-Britain), many movements have erupted to denounce insufficient wages, dangerous and/or threatening working conditions, and the general conditions of precarity. National movements (Movement of Intermittents), local initiatives, organized struggles (CPE), and unexpected movements coming from nowhere (Génération Précaire) are interacting. This struggle is not uniform, homogenous, or massive. It would be very difficult to identify a victory in these past ten years; and it would be hazardous to adopt an analysis that solely saw these mobilizations predicated on the liberal shift in policies that are defended by those who govern. But, something has happened: the precarious have ‘come out’. After the workers, the students, the unemployed ones, the sans-papiers and disabled people come the precarious, appearing as one political figure and social actor. It is no longer a question of denouncing poverty or the lack of employment, but of questioning the conditions of precariousness, whether imposed or chosen. The precarious are emerging from underground, claiming unconditional social rights: in this process, there is a new speech and a new visibility. We could speak of this in terms of pride, similar to the first lesbian and gay marches. In 1998, Act Up-Paris embraced this comparison when we explained our participation in the “movement des chômeurs”: Something is invented, which is similar to Pride. Angry people speaking in their own name have left the marginality in which years of governmental resignation, charitable hypocrisy and compassionate speeches have constrained them. All this returns us to our own political history: visibility counters the calls of discretion, the urgency of anger against the reason of the experts, the conquest of rights against waiting for gifts” . If 10 years later the term “Pride” still leads to debate, then there can’t be a single mode of understanding the movements around precarity. These struggles have to maintain the capacity to adapt and to play with an identity, whether assigned or chosen.

The ambitions of this article are very modest: It acts within the framework of the In the Middle of a Whirlwind project to put in perspective the major initiatives around precarity in Europe. It doesn’t seek to present an exhaustive history, but simply to tell, with a committed and perfectly subjective perspective, of their creativity and their inventiveness. Major authors have already analyzed what these movements are and what they create; others will continue to do it. If the reader could find influences of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze in this paper, they won’t be seeking in this text a theorization of these struggles. One will be able to find here elements which gravitate around four strong moments of these ten last years: the emergence of the precarious worker as a political figure, the Europeanization of the struggles, the difficulty of dealing with identity and finally, the rebellion of precarious people.

1. “You can expel us, you will not cancel us”. “Work, it is a right! An income, it is due! ”

This is exactly what was said in July 1997 in connection with the collective squatting of Assedic’s office in Paris. Hardly two months after the arrival of Jospin’s government , the demands were placed on the table. Occupations mainly organized by AC! (Agir contre le chômage) began in several cities, mounting during the summer to culminate in a national occupation of Assedic’s offices during the winter. The principal demands sought to address the weakness unemployment compensation, particularly for the longtime unemployed. But where the movement of the unemployed – as it was very quickly dubbed – is crucial is in the strategy to put on the ground immediately the precarious – not only the unemployed. This strategy is adopted by the actors of this movement, in particular AC!. This explains why the range of the claims is much broader than one would expect: the payment of a Christmas gift for all the unemployed, the questioning of the system of unemployment insurance , an immediate increase of social income (around 1500 Francs is required ), and attribution of Revenu minimum d’insertion (RMI) for all those who are deprived of it, in particular those less than 25 years of age.

That also explains why the movement has widened beyond the unemployed and precarious. “Obviously we belong in it”, answers Act Up-Paris when one interrogates the group about its participation. This was our analysis: precarity encourages the AIDS epidemic, as well as homophobia, sexism, prohibition of drugs and control of migration. Fighting against AIDS also means fighting for equal access to care and medication, for a guaranteed income and the freedom of circulation. To belong to this movement means call into question the centrality of work. For Act Up’s militants, generally expelled from the world of work and living off of social incomes , the experience of those living with the disease pushed us to study and adapt theories developed by Toni Negri on guaranteed income and popularized by groups such as Cargo . “Can one praise the “work society” without irony, when our health condition pushes us out of traditional paid employment?” , ask Act-Up. This “precarious Pride” was a humorous moment for the group: meeting with militants from different political arenas and traditions, an intense confrontation of modes of action and debate discovered of part of the trade unions . One was praised us the merits of the full employment, we required “guaranteed, unconditional and immediate rights” and refusal of “alms or granting sparingly”.

The participation by Act Up-Paris in the mobilizations of the unemployed was not expected. Until that time, Act Up was well known for its actions (in the heritage of Act Up-New York) and its direct language (“We die, they study the problem”), even if we had prompted surprise in spring of 1997 with the movement “We are the left” . I still remember the incredulity of Act Up-New York comrades, whom we had regarded as a model for a long time – when we explained our “precarious Pride” to them during the 12th International Conference on AIDS in Geneva (July 1998). What was an AIDS organization doing in a movement of the unemployed? This left them perplexed. However we were on a line extremely close to theirs, as Philippe Mangeot, former president of Act Up-Paris, explained : “This connection of the specific and the global is perhaps what defines best the politicization of Act Up. Having never ceased being an association against AIDS, Act Up was also immediately a group that dealt with general policy, engaged on multiple fronts, always seeking the points of passages between various mobilizations: how to contribute to other movements dealing with the question of health? How to translate the speeches and the knowledge of other fights into the particular [language of the] field of AIDS? As a member “of the” social movements, Act Up always remained on the fringes “of the” social movement”. Thus Act Up-Paris was at the fringes of the social movement but for a guaranteed income.

By all logic, it was during this same moment that alliances with Italian groups in the 3RME federation were developing towards the goal of obtaining European minimum income, network of movements against exclusion, and a maximum existence income. These alliances created joint demonstrations, particularly within the framework of the European March against unemployment . Beginning in 1996, these marches followed European Union conferences and congresses, (which are currently in a phase of expansion ) and constituted one of the first initiatives towards the Europeanization of precarity struggles (not forgetting the importance of debates, conferences and publications (for example Occupation but also of reviews such as Alice or Multitudes ). Connections with the sans-papiers movements were also strong (in particular in France, Italy and Germany), even if the questions of precarity were not expressed as such. Regularization campaigns and denunciation of deportations were at this time the priority.

All this allowed for the creation of interactions between individuals and movements, of which one of the brightest results has been the enormous participation in the counter summit at the G8 in Genoa. In the movement one speaks of a multitude marching in which we are the actors – A multitude which will be deeply shaken in 2001 but which will continue in various forms, in particular within the EuroMayDay network.

2. May Day, May Day!

One of the most obvious and immediate results of the mobilizations throughout Western Europe at the end of the 90’s has been the creation of EuroMayDay (EMD). The purpose of this European network, where associations, collectives and informal groups join together to organize each May 1st, is to create a festive and political demonstration as a counterpoint to the traditional “Labor Day”. May Day was born in 2001 in Milan when several collectives, in particular ChainWorkers, devoted this day to the veneration of San Precario and the invention of novel modes of expression. The demonstration brought together members of social centers, groups of precarious, collectives of migrants, queer groups, etc. The initiative was particularly successful in Italy, and then in Spain. In 2004, at the time of the FSE of London, a call was issued for the creation of a European network: the “Middlesex Declaration”, a declaration of the European precariat, was signed by ten collectives of precarious workers .

This network, which is not formally organized, works mainly via a mailing list that performs multiple functions: as a place of exchange and co-operative work and as a forum for the discussion of local struggles. The network is mainly organized at two meetings during the winter: one discusses common declarations and objectives (in particular the organization of actions, press conferences, and materials) and the other explains local experimentation and reflections. These meetings serve as moments of exchange: militants coming from approximately fifteen countries, cosmopolitan in their political traditions and their engagements, describe their actions, analyses and the fields in which they are invested (migrant, hard-working precarious, cleaning ladies, occupations of buildings, defense of the trainees, access to the culture). The EuroMayDay Network is based on a “block” of demands: globalization of social rights at the European level, dissociation between work and income (“with discontinuous work, continuous income”), calling into question European migratory policies (closing the detention centers, freedom of circulation), free public transportation, free access too and knowledge sharing on the internet, and opposition to sexism, homophobia and racism. We could call it the “hardcore” of EMD, a sort of presupposed and implicit statement of the network, which takes its premise from the Middlesex Declaration. Here, one could also assess the network in a European context that is assumed, expected and encouraged. “We are eurogeneration insurgent: our idea of Europe is a radical, libertarian, transnationalist, antidystopian, open democratic space able to counter global bushism and oppressive, exploitative, powermad, planetwrecking, warmongering neoliberalism in Europe and elsewhere.”

Thus the idea is to make European demands on a European scale – it is not a question of local aggregates . This resembles the alliances born in the second half of the 1990’s between sans-papiers struggles and precarious collectives (which were more than a network). These alliances resulted in demonstrations and united actions at the time of the European summits (Nice, Gothenburg, Prague), and the meetings during the G8 in Genoa. The process developed within the European Forum social (FSE/ESF) – Florence (2002), Paris (2003), London (2004) or Athens (2005) – in the context of the dynamics born in Genoa. This goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of mobilizations.

The principal success of EuroMayDay has been the creation of the network itself, which has lead to the creation of new connections and the reactivation the old ones. But, behind the success of the demonstrations, and the occupations this assessment is contested.

Admittedly, the network has not ceased to expand: in 2008, May Day was organized in 16 cities (Aachen, Berlin, Copenhagen, Hanau, Hamburg, Helsinki, Lisbon, Madrid, Malaga, Maribor, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Terrassa, Tübingen, Vienna), not counting initiatives in Tokyo. But, without assigning a number of qualitative criterions to the network, there were nearly 100,000 demonstrators in Milan against 3000 in Paris, in 2006, when the mobilizations against precarity were at their peak . We must be honest with ourselves in our assessment of this. Is our speech comprehensible and accessible to the precarious ones? How do we maintain the militancy of the spectrum, strictly speaking? Why have so few precarious joined May Day?

This is all the more problematic considering the heterogeneity of the groups in the network: in the EMD, we find organized movements (Coordination des Intermittents), transnational networks (Frassanito), local initiatives and social centers (Terrassa in Barcelona, social centers in Italy: El Gabrio, Il Cantiere, Pergola, etc). This heterogeneity is source of dynamism, but is also a source of conflict (or maybe incomprehension), as objectives can differ so significantly. Thus, at the preparatory meetings each year, the same discussions have occurred in regards to the difficulty of finding a common objective and a common definition; the question of how to articulate the commons and the multiplicity of struggles while maintaining this heterogeneity : This is made all the more difficult by the fact that EMD is composed of two distinct moments: the preparation of the parades (which is done locally) and the preparatory meetings, which could and should be a production process of the “Common” (especially in term of language).

In Paris, May Day did not survive. At May Day 2006 the demonstration were completed in the middle of police cordons, prompting the sans-papiers groups to leave the demonstration. But the major EMD groups in Paris (Coordination des Intermittents, AC !, 9ème collective des sans-papiers, Act Up-Paris, Génération Précaire, Sud Culture) do not necessarily need the May Day tool to act on precarity. This is one of the reasons, among others, that the lack of organization in 2007 and in 2008 did not disturb anyone.

Several initiatives tried to provide visibility to the network at times other than May 1st, such as in April 2006, when 150 militants from France, Belgium, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands demonstrated in the streets of Brussels. At another level, in 2006, the launching of Precarity_WebRing (P_WR), sought to create a “commons”. The objective was to attempt to write a kind of lexicon of precarity through the cartography of the movements taking part in the EMD process via the tools of militant research . We said: “open possibilities to construct common practices, concepts and notions, and to develop militant research projects “with” (instead of “on”) precarious subjects and their/our struggles. The project intends to produce and share knowledge, experiences and materials, to collect information and practices about collectives and conflicts, and to spread news, analyses and investigations. This would help to establish militant co-research projects in a different way than traditional academic or workers’ movement’s research”. Through this project, there was also the matter of attempting to make both local and transnational initiatives work within the EMD process, posing questions such as: How do we discuss our local experiments and draw knowledge from transnational connections and strategies? How do we pass from the EMD label to become a true political actor in power/struggle? P_WR was an extremely ambitious project that did not succeed . Other initiatives, smaller but just as ambitious, are in process: in particular Precarity Map . In all these initiatives there is the will to produce analysis, speech and common language in order to constitute European fronts against precarity.

Frassanito network was born following the 2003 No Borders Camp, sought to intensify the relation between migrants’ struggles and the EMD process. Created after Tony Blair presented the policy of externalization of the detention camps (for example in Libya), the network sought to use all existing initiatives to establish links between migrants and other social movements; for example, to connect the mobilizations around freedom of circulation with the day of action of April 2nd, 2005 or the No Border Network with the EMD process . This helps explain the declaration published around the Fadaiat project in Tarifa (southern Spain) in June 2006. The text seeks to intensify this strategy. The European context at the time (the failure of the ratification of the European Constitutional treaty) had also caused many concerns that the network wanted to address. Chief among these was to “signal the danger of a re-nationalisation of politics, not only on the right but also on the traditional left” . The Frassanito network recalled especially “a kind of centrality of migrants within the process of Euromayday” in regards to mobility and multiplicity. It wanted to push the EMD network not simply to contribute to the linking of migrant struggles and precarious struggles, but to being a major actor in making a junction of these struggles . That cannot truly be achieved at the transnational level, but was made possible locally where May Day groups had already been involved in the organization of joint actions with collectives of migrants (Hamburg or Madrid for example).

Finally, the EMD network has experienced great difficulty in its attempts to constitute a real transnational front and remains weak in the face of the power of welfare. If it is only expressed in national fights, then it has not succeeded in creating an “International of the precarious”. Perhaps that is not desirable we could be also satisfied with the emergence of the multiple voice of precarious.
But it is necessary to abandon a mythical representation of the EuroMayDay network and to realize the real impact it has had on the speech, policies and daily lives of the precarious.

3. Proud to be precarious!? The relation of precariat, observed from France.

The major role within the EuroMayDay Network occupied by the movements of Intermittents and particularly the coordination des Intermittents et Précaires d’Ile-de-France (CIP-IDF) , is not the fruit of chance. What occurred during the coordination of this movement explains the position of many French groups on this question and situates it within the coordination of actors engaged in the movement of the unemployed in 1997. During this time, intermittents sought to expand their relationship with the precarious, explaining the richness of this movement.

On 19 June 2003, a demonstration against the signature of the new compensation protocol for intermittents du spectacle was organized. These workers – actors, dancers, technicians, managers, screenwriters – are covered by a specific system of unemployment insurance because of the nature of their work. The employment of Intermittents is characterized by a discontinuity in work depending upon the productions to which they are committed. The principle of this unemployment insurance is to compensate the Intermittents if they carry out at least 507 work hours in the year. The system indirectly makes it possible to finance creativity and to live more or less decently. In short, it allows these workers to have the assurance of income in spite of the hyper-flexibility of this type of employment.

Asserting a deficit in Unedic , the reform of this regime had been announced several years before under the justification that it offers a better mode of compensation for the remainder of the active population. Like all wage settlements in France, all reforms must be the fruit of an agreement between management and labor, i.e. the representatives of employers (Medef) and at least three majority labor unions. The new protocol suggested in 2003 envisioned a reduction of the duration of benefits, an exit from this specific regime of work and from the ability to profit from this compensation. It gives up the principle of the mutualism to choose that of individualization. The result, observed a few years later, showed that those who managed to get the conditions imposed by the new agreement are better compensated than in the past, but those who haven’t been able to get these conditions imposed have ended up being excluded and find themselves in even more precarious situations.

Following this demonstration, the “Coordination des intermutins d’Ile-de-France”, (now the “Coordination des intermittents et précaires”) was created; elsewhere in France they created many collectives and coordinating bodies aside from CGT, the only major trade union engaged in this fight. On June 26, the agreement relating to the application of this mode of unemployment insurance to intermittent professionals of the cinema, audio-visual, and the spectacle/entertainment sector was signed by CFDT, against the wishes of the majority of the profession. A call for a general strike was launched. During the summer and autumn of that year, festivals were cancelled, movie making suspended, and everywhere one found culture, one would meet intermittent strikers calling for a renegotiation of the protocol. The power struggle was such that management and labor negotiated a new agreement at the end of 2003. It envisioned the installation of a provisional system (of transient funds and the extension of certain provisions) was prolonged until 31 December 2005.

There are two important phrases in this fight that can be found in major texts published by the CIP-IDF: a analysis of the new regime which one finds in “We read the protocol” then the phase of expertise beginning with “We have a proposal to make to you”. This second phase was concretized by the presentation in November 2005 of the “Economic and sociological Statistical study of the mode of unemployment insurance of the professionals of the live performance, the cinema and audio-visual”, carried out by the Friends of Intermittent and Precarious Association, the CNRS and the University of Paris 1. This brilliant example of militant research proposes a new protocol and goes further by describing the profile of Intermittents but also the consequences of the system of unemployment insurance for all the employees of discontinuous employment. It presents its “New Model”, showing that while the government, employers and the trade unions signed the first agreement; other solutions were possible. It has yet to be seen if they will follow this proposal. Since the years of this struggle, a new agreement came into effect on 1 January 1, 2008: Intermittent laborers are again driven out of their mode of work, being forced into impossibly unstable situations.

To understand the importance of the movement of Intermittents, it is necessary to be reminded of the choices that have been made from the beginning. For example, the name chosen for the CIP-IDF, “Coordination of intermittents and precarious”, is broader than one would have expected. “Far from a universal claim, the New Model worked out by the CIP wants to be an “opened base”, appropriable and adaptable by other ‘discontinuous’ workers following the “locals” criteria, specific to the various practices of employment and work”, Antonella Corsani and Maurizio Lazzarato recall . While seeking to defend intermittency and to extend it to the whole of paid discontinuous employment, the Intermittents opened with the problems of freelance journalists, temporary workers, trainees, seasonal workers but also of persons in disability. In the same manner, while questioning cultural practices, Intermittents are not locked up in a single debate around cultural activity. They opened several debates: that of discontinuous and precarious employment, that of cultural production and also that of the social negotiations, calling into question the rules fixed shortly after the second world war. These choices also explain why the CIP was in the first line of the work undertaken on precarity, why it is allied with the groups of unemployed (AC!), within the EuroMayDay network, with the trainees (Génération Précaire) and the movements of the researchers (Sauvons la Recherche) and that one finds it within Parisian May Day where it imports its methods and its reflections.

It is in this context that in February of 2006, the movement against the Contract Première Embauche (CPE) was launched. This was certainly a massive and victorious mobilization, but was also disturbing, inasmuch as the value of work and the need for employment were asserted. In answer to the movement of the banlieues (see section 4, below) in November of 2005, the government passed the law known as “the equal opportunity” with a flagship measure: the CPE. This contract is intended for those less than twenty-six years of age. Its purpose is to develop the employment of young people within companies , but under conditions only favorable to the employers: in spite of the French legislation of the law, the contract envisages a two year period of “consolidation” during which the employer can dismiss its employee without justification. Those less than twenty-six years of age would not have the same social rights possessed by the remainder of the active population. They would be at the mercy of the employer, and would not have any possibility of discussing their firing. Additionally, the signing of such a contract would mean that during those two years, they could not obtain housing, appropriations nor an assurance as to the permanence of their income. After the introduction of the CNE (contract new recruiting), which envisaged an equivalent system under certain conditions , the CPE constitutes one of the first stages of the program defended by the MEDEF which wants, in the long term, to remove the permanent contract (CDI) and to reduce French labor regulation considerably.

While the majority trade unions weakly disputed the CPE the universities were on strike. Throughout February the movement gradually assembled. Almost three-quarters of the French universities were blocked, occupied or closed administratively to prevent new occupations. Sorbonne University was also occupied and would be emptied of its strikers by force. In mid-March, the mobilizations became considerably more extensive: demonstrations, occupations of UMP’s and Medef’s offices, actions in the stations and airports. On 18 March nearly 1.5 million people according to CGT (530,000 according to the police force) took to the street in 160 cities. Each day the processions grew bigger and facilities remained blocked or closed even when CRS tried to reopen them. The mobilization did not weaken for two months. At the end of March, the government implied that CPE would be abandoned. Finally, on 10 April Jacques Chirac, president of the Republic, announced that a new law would repeal the text of CPE.

The confrontation thus turned in favor of the students and the trade unions. Nevertheless, the victory is not complete. Although CPE failed, the remainder of the law known as “equal opportunity” remains in force. This law comprises many hateful points such as the establishment of apprenticeships at fourteen years of age, the repression of “incivilities” and the creation of a parental responsibility contract which allows for the suppression of family benefits if a child engages in acts of delinquency. As well, all the discussions which related to the regulation of the training courses and the precarity faced by students did not lead to the beginning of dialogue or negotiations with the ministries concerned.

If the proposal of CPE is shocking, it is because the situation of students and young workers in France is particularly difficult. With this two-year period of insecurity created by CPE, young employees are seen as “disposable workers” and “under-employees”. Where many studies have shown that between a third and half of French youth are employed part-time, CPE echoes a struggle carried out since September 2005 for non-regulation of the training courses, carried out by Génération Précaire ; this initiative was advanced by several trainees who accumulated multiple training courses without ever obtaining employment. A call for a spontaneous strike, distributed over the Internet at the beginning of September 2005, was a marked success. Very quickly, a network of trainees was organized to denounce “the existence of (those who are) always available (for less wages), (don’t have their contracts) renewed and (are) without any rights”. Strikes and actions against companies and universities, and the occupation of ministries by this army of under-employees have highlighted entrepreneurial practices. The trainees’ claim that “the trainee profits from a true statute integrated in the labor law. This statute must include a progressive minimum remuneration on which all the national insurance contributions in force will be taken”. Génération Précaire joined the struggles carried out by fairwork e.V. in Berlin , Generation Praktikum in Austria, Generazione 1000 Euro in Italy, all joined together in the European network Generation P . The movement against CPE has thus a good opportunity to engage in the struggle of the trainees. Another issue in the movement against CPE was in reference to the recurring speech used. One hears in the processions a clear refusal to recognize itself there. The slogan “CPE no, CDI yes” is the symptom. A text produced by strikers at the university of Rennes II, is particularly interesting because it seeks to reverse the dominating speech. “Tendency striker neither CPE nor CDI ” , say in this call of 22 February. “We are against CPE because we cherish a certain idea of precarity; not that of the daily annoyances to find and preserve a more or less unpleasant employment, always subordinated to the need for being sold like a labour force to survive; but the precarity of the existence and the thought, that doesn’t come to guarantee null authority to subject itself, null community to belong to, family, company or statement. Don’t see in this null liberal celebration of “mobility”, this freedom of going from experiment in experiment; on the contrary, our attachments are powerful, and it is because we don’t want to give up it that we can take the risk all to lose […] Others speak about blooming by work and the recognition which is dependent for him. But how not to see that it always acts at a time given to give up being fully faithful to what animates us when for example, we teach, care, creates, and to agree to make with the established order, to adapt to it, up to the point where to follow our desires means to contribute to the maintenance of this order?” Then the text calls into question the disproportionate request for “Statement” to counter “social insecurity” and the alternative in which these strikers are driven back: “We are maintained, from the effect of a not hazardous policy, in a situation where it is necessary for us to choose between the great poverty of the allowances and the use of all our life to the service of entrepreneurial projects. To this request for safety, we oppose confidence in the community of those who refuse the liberal policy. And which thinks that to refuse with consequence implies to finish with the isolation of each one, of sharing material means, experiments and affects to break with the liberal logic whose CPE is only one symptom. The question of providing for our needs becomes then a collective question: that to constitute between us relations, which are not contractual exploitation relationship. And to make that this “us” is not one of a restricted group, but the “us” of the revolutionary assertion.”

The singular matter indicates with the ambient speech. Obviously, it reverberates with those who have attempted to disconnect the question of income from that of work. This contribution makes it possible to attenuate the somewhat ambivalent feelings which one would have been faced with had they used these slogans two months prior: on one side, there was the pleasure of constructing this mobilization in order to produce new forms of intervention in public space and to invent new alliances. For example, the movement against CPE is committed to fight a new immigration law proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy (then Minister of the Interior). But there was also the rejection of the precariat and an opposition between the figure of the precarious and the desire to work, to be employed and to make a career. The aspirations of the movement against CPE – the denunciation of precarity that the government promised to the youth – were completely justified, but found it difficult to carve out a place amongst hordes of future CDI employees, who by refusing the title of precarious, rejected the struggle of the precarious and by extension, themselves.

This same tension had been expressed, to a lesser extent, in a debate entitled “Proud to be precarious! Our precarity against theirs”, organized by the Paris May Day network on 1 April 2006 during the full movement against the CPE. Joining together intermittents, queer activists, unemployed, collectives of sans-papiers, researchers, trainees and students, these two days of discussion served to create a space for exchange and discussion in the context of the process of organizing the 1st of May demonstration. We wanted to share our analyses and speech and to give more direction to May Day itself. Three axes of discussion had been considered: the ideology of work, social control and resistances, and the visibility of our struggles and our disturbances of social space. But it was the heading of the debate itself that prompted lengthy discussions, a part of which is titled May Day! May Day! . “Proud to be precarious…” wanted to propose an inversion of the speech on the culpability of unemployed and precarious ones. But this reference to “pride” , and the wink to the movements of the unemployed’ of 1997, was not well received and the implicit irony of the slogan not understood. It was a stormy (and happy) debate, because it made it possible to discuss contradictions and to interrogate our speech, which we had the tendency to impose without discussion. Questions such as “precarity undergone, precarity chosen”, how is precarity imposed and what constitutes it; which vocabulary reference and which lifestyles are dependent there. “Precarity goes through us, whether we dispute it or we assert it (and sometimes both at the same time). It makes sense, it is from there that we are, that we speak, that we put ourselves moving”, we had then concluded temporarily, leaving open the discussion.

By all accounts, this was a time of particularly rich discussion and mobilizations throughout France – and also throughout Europe, where other struggles occurred, particularly in Italy . Certain commentators like to attribute these movements to a typically French character trait, which would be the “ refusal of any reform” and the “incapacity to reform the country”. One found this speech in the electoral campaign of 2007. To the stupidity of this type of argument we can oppose the existence of a real capacity for resistance and a refusal to live under conditions that are much more difficult that those their parents lived under , and finally the will to show those who govern that they will not stand for policies that they feel are iniquitous.

This capacity for resistance was also expressed five months earlier in what was called the “movement of the suburbs”. This resistance turned into insurrection and sowed its seeds everywhere, in particular among the students engaged against CPE.

4. When the precarious ones rebel (I)

It would be an unforgivable lapse of memory not to consider the events that occurred in the autumn of 2005 in the French suburbs. At that time and in the months that followed, it acted as an imperceptible and strong critique, which questioned institutions as well as social movements.

Firstly let us return to the facts: Nicolas Sarkozy, Minister of the Interior, was in full preparation for his campaign for the presidential election of 2007. The fear-based policy had been in the middle of the presidential campaign of 2002; the governments of Raffarin and then Villepin had not ceased making increasingly security laws. On 22 June 22 2005, Sarkozy visited La Courneuve, typical town of the Parisian suburbs. When asked what he would do against “insecurity”, he answered that it was necessary “to clean with using Kärcher/ to kärchering” the difficult districts. The racist elements of this statement were shocking, considering that the populations of these districts are mainly of immigrant origin. It is in this context that on 27 October 2005, to Clichy-sous-bois, in the suburbs of Paris, a tragic event occurred. Three young boys pursued by agents of the BAC took refuge in an electric transformer: Bouna, 15 years and Zyed, 17 years, died by electrocution, and Muhittin, the survivor, was arrested. In the evening, the first incidents took place in Clichy-sous-Bois: twenty-three automobiles were burned, as well as a tanker and the Post office. The following day Nicolas Sarkozy, prior to any investigation, defended the intervention of the police and stated that the three young people had been involved in an “attempted burglary”. . These declarations stirred up anger and during the night about thirty cars were burned. Then, in one week, the phenomenon of burned cars (which was not new) spread throughout all 93 districts, then throughout territory of France. Thus, one counts 1408 burned automobiles in 274 towns during the night of 6 November.

Villepin’s government declared a state of emergency. This exceptional procedure was passed into law in 1955 in order to contain the “events”, i.e. the war of Algeria. This measure was drastic and violated fundamental human rights: it authorizes the prefects to prohibit, by the introduction of a curfew, the circulation of people within specific hours; the Ministry of the Interior can arrest with prejudice any person “whose activity proves to be dangerous for safety and the public order”; the prefects can close meeting rooms and theater; searches can be conducted at any time of day or night, and measures can be taken to control press and radio. This law had been drafted to control and repress Algerian militants by concealing any political action and any expression of emancipation. It was more than disconcerting to see this law applied to the children and grandchildren of those who it was targeted towards in 1955. The proclamation of a state of emergency did nothing to calm the situation: on 7 November 1200 cars are burned in 300 towns in 25 departments. The movement then dwindled as a result of incredible repression, calls to calm and perhaps lassitude.

According to the legal assessment of the riots given by the ministry for Justice, from 29 October to 18 November 3101 people (including 914 minor) were in police custody; at the end of November 2005, one counted 562 convictions (while knowing that very many and heavy judgments/sentences fell all the year 2006). “Incidents”, “urban violence”, “riots”, the qualifiers used to evoke these three weeks of confrontations show well how the French and foreign press, very as far as the political community, perceived the movement.

What happened here was as much a political movement as any other: a “movement of the popular quarters” which shook the whole of France and gave precarity and exclusion another face . What has disturbed a number of observers and prompted them to deny the political character of this eruption (in the same manner that they deny the political essence of urban guerrilla warfare), it is that this movement used tactics very far removed from the traditional modes of political expression. No watchwords, no attempts at organization, no public speeches (but only anonymous participation on blogs or during broadcasts on radios reserved to the teenagers), no leaders, no use of traditional democratic representation. This also explains the facility with which justice repressed supposed rioters, who had very little access to the networks of solidarity usually set up in a militant environment . Because many were unaware of the law and of their rights, the heavy and often unjust judgments/sentences rained down. The rioters, fleeting political actors, thus lost their anonymity, three weeks before returning to conditions of exclusion, but this time in jail.

Behind its apparent disorganization, this movement was not sterile claims and denunciations, expressed in. Discrimination and stigmatization, exclusion from the world of work, violence and police harassment, feeling outlawed from society , the permanence of racism, the inefficiency of urban policies (particularly with regard to housing and mobility ) were among the many issues addressed.

This movement also effected the mobilizations in progress and the militant groups. As the riots also questioned the inscription of these groups within the city, its relation with the local (population, social situation), like they called in question the republican policies whose results are always made wait. It pointed out the difficulty of finding and establishing alliances and organizing struggles between cities and suburbs. Because fighting in Paris is not fighting in Clichy-sous-Bois. It is not enough to say that it is necessary to act with the inhabitants of the suburbs. They do not decree. Even within the Movement of Immigration and Suburbs (MIB) , the only organization really established in relation to the young people of the popular quarters, these events stirred more one, in particular by this wild and imperceptible form. Attempts at joint work with local groups , cultural institutions and events do exist. The organization in June 2007 of the first social forum of the popular quarters is one of the direct consequences of this movement. Remain just like so that the groups organized of precarious wish and are able to organize within these struggles, local associations of suburbs are taken by storm of the already organized initiatives.

It is disturbing as the politicians and media only recognize the young people of the suburbs when this kind of movement of urban guerrilla warfare emerges. Six months later, in the middle of the demonstrations against CPE, the young people of suburbs were among the first in line, even if the media generally depicted two populations of youth, those of the suburbs and the more privileged. The composition of the demonstrations and the mobilization of the universities located in the suburbs showed quite the opposite.

Conclusion: When the precarious rebel (II)

“[…] Each slogan, we had recopied it three times, if some would not dare to wear them and would throw them. Finally, we made about fifty flyers because we were approximately 120 in the retention centre. Some didn’t want any, they were afraid. They discouraged us: “It’s pointless”. […] And thus, at midday, we went to the restaurant. Me, I arrived at 12.12, approximately. Many of them were already there but had not dared to show their flyers. Me, I had hung mine, on my shirt, on my chest. I had: “No deportation”. I entered in the refectory. Immediately the policeman at the entry approaches me. He says to me: – “Sir, remove that immediately”. I say: – “No, I do not remove it”. – “If, if, if, you remove it. One will ask the direction if it is possible that you carry it or not”. I say: – “No, we don’t do something violent, we want only to transmit a message”. I had said to everyone not to make violence, not to speak. And then, it is there that all those that were already in the refectory start to show their short flyers. They put it under their hat or into their bonnet, slip it between the buttons of their shirts others held them at the same time as they ate. The police force were agitated, they expected an explosion. But people continued to eat. The chief of the center comes with a sheet and a pen. He notes the slogans. “Am I a human? ”, “No deportation”, “Do the immigrants have rights? ”. He notes, he looks, he notes. “Right of the migrants”, “Unequal justice”, “I am French”, “I am integrated”. He doesn’t know with which to address itself, he goes/walks in the refectory, it notes, it notes. “I perspired for France”, “I build France”, “We are not only numbers”, “I am red of blood”… The following day, we decide to start an hunger strike.”

Thus Abou N’Dianor, mathematics professor, tells how a struggle was born during the week of Christmas 2007, a movement of rebellion at the deportation center of the Mesnil-Amelot. This teacher, who had worked in France since 2001 with a false ID, was arrested because he had decided to leave behind his anonymity three months before: President Sarkozy had announced a new immigration policy, called “chosen”, which privileged immigration by work . Abou N’Dianor thought that because of his qualifications as a teacher and his proof of wages that he could obtain a work license. Instead, he was arrested. Outraged by his detention and the detention of hundreds of other sans-papiers, he contributed to this unexpected movement. He finally succeeded in avoiding expulsion, unlike Paul Wem, another leader of this movement who was expelled. Abou N’Dianor still hopes to obtain regularization but remains for the moment under the threat of deportation.

If in France the mobilization for migrant rights is old , the expression of revolt, massive and repeated, inside the deportation center, by the detainees themselves, is completely incredible. Men facing imminent deportation fought by organizing quiet demonstrations, hunger strikes, and refusals to return to their rooms; registers of grievances were elaborate; they wrote with their consulates to denounce the French practices. For the first time, those detained led a protest against the new French migratory policy without support. This rebellion, which went on for several days before it was made public, is all the more incredible because in spite of deportation, transfers to other detention centers, threats of force and sometimes release, this protest continues It thus passed from a fight against the detention centers by militant groups to an improvised struggle by sans-papiers themselves in the middle of the machine.

The pursuit of sans-papiers by the French police to fill its quotas of deportation also explains why several hundred sans-papiers, supported by CGT (trade labor), launched massive strikes in a number of companies in key sectors: building and construction, cleaning and restoration. “Do you want workers? We are here”, seem to say these migrants who understand the declarations of the ministry for Immigration and the recent regulations on possible legalizations by work. These strikers, who claim what they are owed by France , refuse anonymity and the insecurity that government offers to them, like an echo of the declaration of the unemployed in 1997. They also shout: “You can expel us, but you will not make us disappear”.

Whether they are important social movements or initiatives established at local levels, what arises from the mobilizations born in Europe during the last ten years raises theses social actors out of the darkness, and is part of the attempt to reverse identities which are assigned by power and institutions. Individuals came to those who govern, questioning their decisions, summoned them to justify its and discussed their so-called expertise and knowledge.

If it is difficult to know where the “victories” of these struggles lie, it is certain that they have not been in vain: in the line of emergence of “mouvements des sans” at the beginning of the nineties, the minority one and the minorities definitively are visible. Admittedly, this has not prevented the election of conservative and neo-liberal governments (as in France or Italy recently), nor has it prevented the wandering of the left or improved its capacity to build political projects. But these struggles prove that there are zones of resistance against political, economic, and social systems that are often presented as inescapable. To appropriate an identity, to counter a fate, to assert unconditional rights, the mobilizations of precarious have contributed, and this walk is far from being finished.

Translation : Emmanuelle Cosse, Isabelle Saint-Saëns, Kevin Van Meter.
Thanks to Isabelle Saint-Saëns for her reading, and Kevin Van Meter for his precious editing and confidence.


2 Responses to “The Precarious Go Marching”

  1. NYC Event: French Precarity Struggles in the Crisis « Team Colors Says:

    […] You can read Emmanuelle’s essay, “The Precarious Go Marching,” at: […]

  2. Emmanuelle Cosse (ACT-UP Paris) on French Precarity Struggles in the Crisis - This Is Forever Says:

    […] Team Colors included an article of hers in their 2008 publication ‘In the Middle of a Whirlwind.”  You can find that article here. […]

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