Paris, 18 October

Alexander Zevin

During the strike in Paris on 18 October people holding papers hand papers to other people holding papers. An inflationary papering. The striking workers – mostly rail workers, but also miners, state utility workers, opera singers, librarians and actors from the Comédie Française – have pensions that allow them to retire earlier than other public sector workers – well before the age of 60. The rights they enjoy are known as régimes spéciaux and the government has proposed doing away with them. The strike action set for 18 October demanded the withdrawal of this reform. In return for the unions’ support last spring in the protests against the proposed first employment contract law (CPE), which would have made it easier to hire and fire young workers, students came out in large numbers to support the unions and the régimes spéciaux.

About forty students met in the vestibule off the main entrance of the Ecole Normale Supérieure at 45 rue d’Ulm – an ideal space because cramped and vibratory. A statement of common cause with the rail workers was read aloud to shouts, eye-rolling and a great deal of mumbling. Amendments and counter-amendments were voted on. A route and a slogan were decided.

We left school in the early afternoon to walk to the general rendezvous at République. A very thin Vietnamese student carried an African drum for keeping time. Passers-by stopped briefly to observe the long train of students in sweater vests and herringbone jackets. Some, the very old especially, nodded approvingly, and a middle-aged man with a camera said: ‘Finalement.’

There are many ways to feel out of place as an American in Paris but few are as jarring as joining in a protest. The very phrase ‘marching in solidarity with’ seems exotic. Then there is the word ‘union’: not a thing to which many people in the US besides screenwriters and New York City public school teachers seem to belong; and autoworkers, whom one never meets.

Young Americans. We haven’t much conception of what co-ordinated ‘action’ might mean. Some of us, it is true, have marched to say no, collectively, to an unjustifiable war. Others to protest against laws or court decisions restricting abortion rights. But none of these instances of dissent concerns a structural matter; for instance, the way national wealth is divided and shared. This most recent manifestation united those seeking to keep pension plans intact, to protect job security and to protest university reforms. The idea of marching, let alone voting, for such demands would seem inconceivable, even dangerous to most Americans, of any age. We do not dissent on social rights. We are comfortable only with the basically agnostic language of human rights.

No clearer instance is needed than my hometown: New York City. When the MTA union went on strike two years ago, its action was declared illegal (striking, as it turns out, is illegal for public employees in New York State), the union leader, Robert Toussaint, was sent to jail and otherwise ‘progressive’ residents spat venom at their train conductors, platform sweepers and track-layers for daring to walk off the job.

During the strike I stayed overnight at a friend’s house because commuting from Queens, where I was living, would have been virtually impossible. I was thinking aloud about joining the union demonstration and my friend’s mother, who was boiling an egg in the kitchen, hastily interjected: ‘It’s very romantic of you, Alex, but it doesn’t do a thing. It never does!’

One constantly meets people like her, members of that great vanguard generation of the 1960s and 1970s, their voices so derisive one begins to wonder if these people ever had enough imagination to believe in the first place, let alone be disillusioned. My generation is no better: we receive our disillusionment second-hand and wear it like a badge of honour. Which is different from apathy, and worse.

So when you do agree, in a fit of enthusiasm, to faire la grève with your French classmates, you’re bound to get carried away. It’s a cloudless day, very mild. The Second Empire limestone is blinding; the vistas on the wide, unpoliced boulevards stretch to the horizon. It puts you in an anarcho-syndicalist mood. You might even think a little about Proudhon, though you know you shouldn’t. You begin speaking to students in scattershot French about how you’ve come to Paris to defend the left in this difficult moment: ‘Like Dombrovski . . . I’m like Iaroslav Dombrovski, you know . . . the guy who, when exiled from Poland, came to defend liberty in France? A great general!’ Incomprehension, blown out cheeks. ‘During the Commune, the Commune of Paris . . . you know, 1871!’ One person smiles and starts to walk the other way. Which is difficult at a demonstration. You’re embarrassing yourself, mouthing absurdities. ‘Like Garibaldi!’ ‘Like Tom Paine!’ You start screaming: ‘Guerre à outrance!’ No time for chitchat.

We move slowly from République to Nation, two enormous squares dedicated to civic virtue in algae-coloured bronze. Directly behind us, a group of young girls and boys are carrying signs with dot-printed pictures of Sarkozy sticking up his middle finger. They are wearing matching T-shirts, very clean, and dancing to ‘Hey Ya!’ by Outkast. ‘Who are they?’ I ask another student. ‘Those are the socialist student groups. They’re annoying.’ The students I’m marching with are affiliated with SUD Etudiant, a national union dedicated broadly to a free and accessible system of higher education as well as better conditions for students and workers.

The crowds crash and dissolve like waves as they empty into Nation. Loudspeakers and horns announce the end of the march. A student turns on his radio to listen to the numbers: according to the CGT, the biggest union represented, about 25,000 people took part. People seem disappointed with this.

The voice of my friend’s mother re-enters my thoughts: ‘It’s very romantic but it doesn’t do a thing.’ One needn’t look very far for compelling counter-examples. The most glaring are the 1995 general strikes which crippled France after lasting intermittently for two months. Public and private sector employees protested the then prime minister Alain Juppé’s plan to lay off state workers and cut public spending. Juppé was forced to withdraw some, but not all, of his reforms, leaving intact the same régimes spéciaux that Sarkozy now aims to end. Last spring young people across France, and workers marching in solidarity with them, forced President Chirac to decline to sign the CPE into law.

Sarkozy has spoken a great deal about ‘minimum service’ in schools, hospitals and public transport as one way of limiting the legality of strikes. This is not a right most Americans either enjoy (when they happen to be union members) or miss (when they aren’t). But it is worth asking if any demonstrations or, more generally, movements, can hope to be successful in the absence of this right. Only 15 per cent of public sector workers belong to unions in France and yet they have been fundamental in igniting every major protest against so-called economic reforms from the winter of 1995 up to the present.

Behind each strike lurks a hoped for supersession; the general strike, a malignant form, from which the actual strike derives its (metastatic) energy. The general strike is to the strike what snow is to Christmas morning – an excess, a wish, which is also the realisation of the event in its fullest form. For Guy Debord everything depended on being ready for the general strike, which arrives in haste, unexpectedly, to create a new set of conditions as well as possible actions, relationships etc. This event’s name is May 1968.

Those who single out today’s student demonstrators as backward-looking – as conservative – always make more or less explicit reference to ’68. In the aftermath of the CPE strikes this was all one read in the US press. Then, the story goes, students worked to transform society, but now they scramble to keep it just as it has been for their parents – free from risk, comfortable, remunerative. As if what the critics of these students truly object to is their lack of a genuinely radical politics.

Comparing today’s student activists to those in 1968 is meant to embarrass and shame the former at the expense of the latter. It’s an approach that hides as much as it reveals about these historical conjunctures. If it is interesting it’s because it carries the trace of a structural revision of the past. The Figaro warns students that the moment to struggle against reality has passed; it went out with the revolutionary bathwater in 1968. But why this valorisation of the 68ers from Figaro? Likewise the Herald Tribune’s snide dismissal of students as ‘part-time revolutionaries’ marching to defend ‘thoroughly conservative values’. The current moment is, as it turns out, a recapitulation: the intergenerational conflict of the 1960s and 1970s makes a tenuous return as a funny feeling, as fear and distrust. The critical difference is that the denunciation of the young is made in the name of the same people who participated in (who were, at the very least, implicated in) the revolutionary events of that era.

The casual dismissal – they don’t do a thing – and the learned dismissal – this is not 1968 – turn out to be linked. As injunction. The latter dismissal, which seems to celebrate the aims of 1968 and its participants, is really its celebration as defeat.