A university call to arms after an unsuccessful strike

A question that has interested me since my arrival in France has been the following: how do participants in last spring’s university protests sustain their political hopes in light of the seemingly limited success of their actions last spring? I asked around last June about this and got some nebulous answers about how you just have to keep trying, as if hope was normative even when dismay was the real political feeling of the moment. It would I suppose be exaggeration on my part to say that last spring’s strikes “failed”; certainly they may have slowed things down, and they caused an immense ruckus and drew attention and majorly developed critical analysis of the university and put a major thorn in the side of the education minister — who is still Sarkozy’s Valérie Pécresse, in case you wondered. But they didn’t manage to get the government’s university reforms withdrawn and neither did they manage the radical transformation of universities that many said they desired.

In this light, I wanted to translate a current call for a General Assembly next week at my field site in Paris-8. It goes like this:

“We have even more cause than last year to be angry and to keep fighting.”

This declaration was placed at the start of the communiqué of the National University Coordinating Committee*, which met at Paris-8 on September 30. It perfectly summarizes the feelings of everyone who was there — the representatives of 29 establishments of higher learning and research. We all know that it’s not possible to have a strike comparable to the one we had last semester; we all know that there’s no single form of action that alone would manage to make the government give in; but we all know as well that doing nothing would end up giving the government free reign to impose the worst on us.

For we must not have the slightest illusion on this point: the passage to complete university “autonomy” will wind up threatening the status of ALL workers in higher education. A small cast of mandarins and their lackeys aside, this reform will, before the end of this coming decade, force us all to have to defend our jobs in terms of criteria that the government will wholly determine.

—Autonomous to manage our own fiscal destitution,
—Autonomous to inflict the costs on the students and raise their tuition,
—Autonomous to spread precarious working conditions throughout the educational system,
—Autonomous to impose permanent competition between ourselves.

Last semester’s strike led the government to slow down in its destruction of the public service. But let’s not get this wrong: if we let down our guard, our universities will soon become service stations working under contracts with the State. The State will then retain for itself the autonomy that we claim for ourselves: that is, the autonomy to set scientific programs and pedagogical methods. And given the way the minister acts towards our university today, as in the case of the IFU, we can genuinely fear the worst.

To take our bearings as this year begins under the LRU,
To examine together the ways we might affirm our resistance to this law,
To agree on a common position on our refusal to submit the maquettes [newly mandated course descriptions],
To affirm our full solidarity with all types of university workers, whose jobs are becoming more and more precarious,
To build a real convergence of struggles between students and workers,

We call you to a general assembly Tuesday, October 13, at 12:30 in Lecture Hall Y.

* The French is Coordination Nationale des Universités; I’ve translated coordination as coordinating committee even though it’s more like a periodic meeting of representatives from other groups than an independent standing committee, as far as I know right now. A better translation in American activist jargon might be “spokescouncil,” but I don’t think every anglophone reader would recognize that term.

I’m translating this partly just to give a sense of one current political discourse at Paris-8 for a foreign audience, but also because it gives a great example of a political logic that advocates unstinting commitment in the face of undeniable tactical difficulty, even failure. It calls for even more anger than ever, says that there is even more reason to fight than ever, and yet admits that the massive actions of last spring are unrepeatable. Its justification for continued struggle is not practical in the sense of expecting to win everything it wants; rather, it argues simply that the alternative to continued struggle would be total capitulation. Which is a political logic of “bad or worse” that has frequently cropped up in recent American politics and would seem to demand analysis of its own, as a political form.

I guess there are a couple of competing rhetorical logics at work here: call them a logic of political feeling (we can’t just give in, we can’t let down our guard, we can’t let the worst happen, we have to maintain our anger, keep feeling tense, keep feeling involved at all, join together, keep sharpening our fear of what could come)
but there’s also something like a purely tactical analysis of the situation, an enumeration of institutional antecedents and their causal consequences. If you don’t resist, then your job might get cut according to rules you won’t have any say in. If we look at what the government has done to the IFU, then we can predict that similar bad things will happen again. (I have to ask someone what this last case actually refers to, but for now my best guess is that it refers to the recent transfer of the Institut Français d’Urbanisme away from Paris 8 to another campus.) There’s an analysis of political mechanics to complement the appeal to political sentiment.

The peculiar logic of this call, however, is to say in effect that even though last spring’s mass struggle didn’t work, we still need to try all the harder — but probably with less collective energy and resources than before. I’m not pretending to have any political opinions of my own about French universities at this early point. But there’s something odd, or maybe just a trifle grim, about this logic of advocating increased political commitment as circumstances, for university activists like these, seem to darken. Still, on the other hand, political commitments here can be serious and seemingly pretty durable. Pécresse, for one, has stuck to her guns; perhaps it would be surprising if her opposition didn’t do the same.