Some Reflections on the Student and High School Student Movement

by Jacques Wajnsztejn

Published in : “Nous sommes tous des casseurs” “We are all hooligans” Youth Revolt in France, March 1994

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]


The CIP, unlike the 1986 Devaquet Bill, didn’t come from the Department of Education but the Department of Labor. This is an important difference, because the whole society was symbolically affected through one measure which, while only directly concerned with the young, heralded a series of measures within the framework of a law on employment which continue to threaten a number of social protection laws inherited from the 1936 Popular Front government.

Despite these wide effects, the movement began with those most immediately effected, the IUT students. IUTs (Instituts Universitaires de Technologie) are 2-year post-high school technical schools producing qualified workers and managers, for whom the law was taken as high treason in regard to the “career plan” that had been flaunted at them, that job training and short-term studies would be their best bet for a job in the present climate. The CIP would have lowered their promised qualification and corresponding salary to the level of non-qualified work and the minimum wage. The reaction was immediate, especially in the IUTs around Paris, and took traditional, corporatist forms (“We didn’t take all these classes just to end up at the same level as people who haven’t done anything.”), quickly related by the media, who hurried to locate some student “representatives” suitable to present for public consumption.

This initial opposition to the CIP was quickly taken up by protests in the high schools, especially militant outside of Paris. Their main characteristics can be described like this:

A surprisingly spontaneity

High school kids ditched classes at the slightest rumor of a downtown demonstration, blocking traffic there nearly every day. Little organization, and few links between high schools were visible, but you could see people converging toward “trouble spots,” occupying certain strategic locations. These trouble spots (like the Place Bellecour in Lyon) were in themselves places of organization, coordination, and informal discussion. They were also the places where, in the absence of any clear plan for the next day, you were always sure to hook up with people looking for action. These trouble spots were, in Lyon, the departure point for the first violent conflicts with the police, who, it seems, understood their symbolic value.

Unclear motives…

…But interesting for that: the vagueness their position and possible opportunities led high school kids to take positions different from the IUT or BTS (like the IUT but more working class) students. For them. it wasn’t a question of a career plan or corporatism, but instead a general anxiety about the future matched with a defiant attitude toward anything the State does. Under the influence of suburban ghetto youth, the CIP became a symbol of the hard times young people are having. However, this movement didn’t come out of the same “youthism” of the 1980s, since the CIP was more or less clearly seen as, though definitely discriminatory against young people, also part of a block of measures linked to the bad employment situation in general. The fact that the CIP was included inside the Five Year Law on Employment left no doubt about it – at least for the people most active in the movement.

High schools as a place of socialization and identity

In a surprising way, the high schoolers who mobilized themselves did it somewhat independently of their individual “career paths” (type of studies, whether vocational or college-prep, etc.). Plenty of “good” students rubbed shoulders with the supposedly “bad” tech school students and academic failures, while college students were, overall, little mobilized (with the exception of Rennes II), despite the violent selection process and competition that happens at the end of the first school year.

High schools are still a place of socialization in a society reorganizing itself around the destruction of previous social relationships (of class, neighborhoods, family, etc.) and they provide an identity connection that can serve as an anchoring point for a movement of revolt or protest. That doesn’t mean there’s an automatic unanimity in every school, just as there is no unanimity between generations on certain problems, but it does mean that high schools can be a point of departure for collective struggles, breaking out of the institutions’ normal functioning, i.e. competition, selection, rivalry, and thus individualism.

The effects of this “school spirit” are not always positive, and the pride it sometimes give rise to often led teenagers to shut themselves into their schools and isolate themselves from others in demos, especially with the creation of march stewards, useless as real protection (from police violence) but effective in separating different groups.

But in practice, the effects seem to have been more positive than negative, at least in Lyon. Organization at the school level counterbalanced the lack of organization at the level of coordination between schools, which never really got going. Organization at the school level allowed people to rely on themselves between two spontaneous demos, and also made it possible for the very young to participate in the movement despite a double pressure from both school and parental authorities.

What happened (and especially what didn’t happen) in Paris is particularly worth examining, in a way we can’t do here. By way of hypothesis, we can however point out that social divisions are less strong today in Paris than in certain cities in the provinces, that schools “of quality” (i.e. bourgeois) are more numerous there, that the networks of power and personal relationships are more diversified and effective there, and thus individualism and “personal initiative” thrive better there.

the movement resisted the media’s spin tactics, slipping out of its framework

The spontaneity of actions made it so that the media and the police couldn’t find leaders to work with. They could only bring out again and again the middle class IUT delegates, who had lost all control over the movement as soon as it became dominated by the high schools in the provinces. The “real” leaders, keeping their agitation inside the schools or diffused in the mass of demonstrators, weren’t particularly looking for publicity, and journalists or photographers were reduced to trying to talk to and make an image out of the average youth in the street, often not getting more than a couple of words out of them. The situation approached the ridiculous when, at the “victory/burial” demo of March 31, one TV channel interviewed, for lack of anyone better, an Anarchist Federation militant! One of the movement’s strengths lay in the fact that it never addressed itself to public opinion or to those who manufacture it.

One must also recognize that the level of tension and violence the movement reached in Lyon and Nantes made it neither nice nor responsible, and therefore not very “presentable.” The media could hardly (or hardly wanted to) impose the usual image of respectable young people, both reasonable and concerned, individualistic but generous, twirling the baton in the other sense [in French “baton” means either police club, the baton majorettes twirl, and “riot”-TN], while focusing on the image of violence and destruction.

The supposed self-absorption of young people toward the mass media thus found no place here, and even, on the contrary, during the course of events, anti-press reactions or at least distrust came out, in the wake of various deals showing the ambiguous ties between police and press (police in Lyon using the logo of the TV channel M6, a Parisian photo agency turning in pictures of “hooligans” to the cops).

Just as the movement wasn’t “captured” in the media’s framework, it also didn’t submit to the control of political or union organizations.

“Representative” organizations were generally distrusted, considered to be dividing and coopting the movement. It was symptomatic that young people wanted support from adults, but as individuals. In the official demonstrations, high school kids demanded that unionized teachers take off their union buttons if they wanted to join the march.

In Lyon, the student union (UNEF-ID) was tolerated only as far as it provided a logistical framework for actions (cars with loud speakers, printing for leaflets, contacts with media and police). But during the final week. non-unionized students left the coordination and high schoolers, sick of underhanded maneuvers, tried to form their own coordination with certain IUTs. They didn’t succeed, but this desire to organize was both more effective and less bureaucratic than the front group organization set up by the UNEF which came in when the struggle in Lyon was out of breath.

The student union did succeed in imposing a cut-off point between the official and unofficial demonstrations, in imposing certain march routes and hasty endings to marches, but it failed in its attempt to prevent the gatherings at Place Bellecour and the demonstration at the Palace of Justice to demand the return of the two youths deported to Algeria.

Movement and violence

Beyond the deliberate violent actions, the movement maintained a strategy of tension: there was a desire to occupy territory no matter what the consequences. The police responded in kind, laying siege to Lyon every day around noon (bridges blocked, main arteries cut, metal curtains pulled down over store fronts). This tension, thicker every day, transformed the original pacifism of most demonstrators into a hard, resolute attitude toward the police, without necessarily seeking conflicts.

Little by little, in Lyon and Nantes, the idea emerged that the street offered the only sounding board for the anti-CIP demands and a more general revolt. As opposed to 1986, in Lyon and Nantes, the police became a part of the scenery, since clashes took place right from the first demonstrations and their constant presence was accepted as a given.

The movement being hardly cooptable at a political or media level for the reasons already looked at, the distinction between “hooligans” and “real demonstrators” was taken up as a pseudo-explanation to sew confusion. State and media played on a double confusion: the equation hooligans/suburbs and hooligans/looters. The first equation added to the present political tendency to ghettoize the suburbs, the second sought to delegitimate any non-conformist actions or resistance emerging in the street.

More generally, this was an attempt to instill fear according to the tried and true methods of the past (cf., May ’68 and the media focus on smashed cars, then the Gaullist triumph in the June elections), but this confirmed also, cynically, the fact that the socially marginalized (defined as being neither high school or college students – in a country where everyone is, until at least age 18) have no other recourse but to violence, that therefore this violence must be tracked down and controlled, for example by banning suburban youth from coming into the downtown areas (cf., Pasqua’s orders to pick-up so-called hooligans before they got into Paris; and in Lyon the way subway stations were shut to prevent demonstrators from suburban high schools from getting to town;1 and finally, the Lyon police chief banning demos at Place Bellecour).

Some very uncomfortable teachers

Apart from a certain response to their unions’ slogans (themselves pretty timid and hesitant), the teachers and professors kept the machine running as if the problem had nothing to do with them. There are several possible explanations for this cold attitude. The jobs crisis and steps like the CIP ruin or at least seriously damage the idea of the “student plan,” the idea of the link between good schoolwork and social and professional success. Outside of some critical thinking which remains to be undertaken on this question, they preferred to turn their backs, waiting for things to settle down or for the government to take back its blunder. Nevertheless, many teachers are aware of the crisis brewing in the schools, of the fragile equilibrium dominating that dominates it. More than ever, it’s a matter of just holding on in the face of this new type of education consumer. They can’t hide the fact that the hooligans are also the kids in their classes. They aren’t some outside elements – and while they aren’t always identifiable in a quiet period, there is a vague fear that they’ll take action either under purely barbaric forms (as in the famous “security problems” in the high school movement of 1990) or in more contestatory and political ways (revolt against the institution or against the power of the administration or even against the teachers themselves). Finally, the majority of teachers, finding the present education system not sufficiently rigorous, couldn’t help but have an ambiguous altitude toward a measure which would further devalue the diploma, without offering any educational solution to the problem. They saw the CIP as simply continuing the way the selection process is being shifted from the school to the corporations. The bitterness and disenchantment which results from this surely offers sufficient motivation for a more active participation in the movement. Even if, in practice, the CIP resulted in a devaluation of the role of teachers in the overall education process, some could have thought that this meant a back to basics approach they could profit from in the middle term, since, if it lowered the goal of 80% graduations, it might mean less students in their classes, and thus less work.

While this movement was more favorable to contact with adults than in 1986, teachers pretty much remained spectators. What a contrast to their participation in the legendary demonstration (supported by the pupils in fact!) against the Falloux Bill, hardly two months earlier.*

A massive mobilization for a symbol rather than a mobilization against a step in the general reorganization of work! There’s plenty of material there to deepen the understanding of ideology’s resistance in the era of the end of ideologies!

In fact, the only adults who took part (not counting the union goons and other march steward specialists) were the parents of the teenagers affected. For them as for their kids, the CIP sounded the death knell on the myth of social climbing.

That says a lot, not about the consciousness of others who could reasonably believe that this measure would not ricochet onto them as well, and wouldn’t herald, via the Five Year Employment Law, a new restructuring of work, but on the apathy and submissiveness in the face of what is considered as inevitable: the “diktat” of the economy and “progress.”

Critical elements

Journalists and sociologists have often contrasted this movement with that of ’68 as being one of integration and not of revolt. That seems too easy, and might mean two things:

First of alt. the movement in ‘68 was a protest movement instigated by middle class youth. It also represented a response to a quick integration of more poor youth into the schools without the necessary stages of adjustment also being set up. While the students at that time still had plenty of opportunities to find work and even to choose it, it didn’t stay that way, since already in that period, there was fierce competition in certain departments (Law, Science, Economics, Medicine). In this regard, the Faure Reform after May ’68 (which restructured the school system, creating various types of diplomas, and vocational schools) represented a provisional solution now called into question by the end of the period of growth.

Further, the violence of the anti-CIP reaction cannot be understood if seen as a purely defensive struggle. As already in 1986, the goal, while limited, allows the protest movement to center and clarify itself, without necessarily hiding a social background. When the government makes the slightest blunder, the entire system appears absurd. What is normally accepted or submitted to individually is then refused collectively. The State as such wasn’t denounced more than in 1986 – one still addressed oneself to the government, and, in both cases, it must be remembered that it was right-wing, which makes less comprehensible the struggle and movement’s relation to the State and the ruling class. Nevertheless, the ruling powers’ intransigent attitude helped to clarify the movement’s political perception. It is no longer focused on the traditional left-right opposition, but on the relation between power and justice. The police interventions, measures by the prefectures, and the Pasqua laws clearly demonstrate the fragility of civil rights, and the reality of the State in a society pressed against the wall.

It also seems that the link with the 1968 libertarian revolt has been renewed. The subject is no longer taboo; you sense a renewed interest for a period which until a little while ago had been completely obscured and misrepresented. (The return of certain slogans, like “May ‘68 isn’t finished” bear witness to this evolution).

The 1986 movement can be roughly defined as a movement for equality which came out of an ideological environment that can be summed up in three words: human rights, democracy, consensus; and in an economic climate seeming to indicate recovery. The movement was thus both naive and optimistic: it demanded an abstract equality, an equality in principle, while in reality, the diversification of training and educational levels was already creating inequalities without the phenomena of marginalization being openly perceived.

The withdrawal of the Devaquet Bill seemed like a satisfactory solution and appeared to be a great victory. The 1986 movement was therefore very surprised by the police repression at the end of the national demo in Paris and the death of Malik Oussekine was considered more as an unfortunate blunder on Pasqua’s part than a reaction from the State.

The 1994 movement was against the destruction of social relationships and against discrimination, whether on a social basis, or of age, nationality or race. It was also more about solidarity than equality.

The unemployed (many students have unemployed parents) and the homeless weren’t seen as outsiders, but as victims of a system that grinds down the weakest or most unfortunate.

School drop-outs were not very far off. The image of a society for “winners” that took a beating. The immediate solidarity with the two deportees from Lyon to Algeria was the sign of a revolt and a will to fight, when possible, a system which constantly divides people in order to maintain its domination over all The value of solidarity has beaten back, even if momentarily, the dominant individualistic values.

On the other hand, more and more people know that equality is a decoy, or that it only exists in a deformed caricature of equality at the bottom (all youth are affected by the CIP as all adults are potentially by unemployment). Democracy itself, without being clearly criticized – despite slogans in the style of “Dictatorship means keep your mouth shut; democracy means never shut up” – loses its positive connotations, empty of any meaningful content. Demonstrators perceived this concretely when they wondered if they really had the right to demonstrate, and where, when, etc. There was suddenly a judicial void… which was filled when the old anti-hooligan law was integrated into the new penal code. The demonstrators tried to stand up to the fact that riotous assembly was a crime. Whether you were for or against violence, whether you tolerated the “hooligans” or not was less important than keeping the pressure on. If there was ever a time when this has been possible, it’s 1994. Society is already post-consensual; the image, from the ‘70s and ‘80s, of the “terrorist” as the sole desperate violence against the state, is fading. The violence of the farmers, the miners, or the fishermen is replacing it, in a more concrete way which is thus more understandable. This violence is a violence of social breakdown expressing that the “consensus” doesn’t take everyone into account. It is then seized on, often confusedly, as a break from the artificial consensus in favor of the dominant interests, and as such, is not a priori illegitimate, being an involuntary result of a social tension which itself is at stake in the struggle: “this is the only thing ‘they’ understand, and this is what makes them back down.” If this awareness is possible, it is also because it was the consciousness of a minority. The call to mobilization and for the demonstrations got a big response in every city, even small ones, but the movement was more dispersed than concentrated. Paris didn’t follow, the number of demonstrators didn’t grow, college students hardly budged, and many participants among the most active didn’t realize that their strength was not in their numbers but in their determination. It was a mass vanguard, if you will, who held the streets. It was supported by a base of high school kids, but the latter didn’t keep up the pace of the ones who wanted to impose a constant pressure. This lag, accentuated by the fear of the police and the repression in all its forms (some reprisals were taken in the schools), caused the movement’s decline during the final week in Lyon.

The gradual fixation of many high schoolers on the question of march stewards was another sign of this lag which developed between the most combative who remained focused on their fixed goal, and some among the most active who lost their lucidity and energy in organizing every morning what inevitably failed in the afternoon. But all that wasn’t unambiguous, and you could sometimes observe a double situation with on the one hand the attempt to set up march stewards school by school (with no real function, only as symbols, identity, self-supervision) to catch up with the official demonstrations, and on the other hand, the total absence of basic precautions against the police in the spontaneous demos.

It is remarkable that the idea of a committee of stewards against the first line of police was never once put forward. You could even say that the idea of march stewards was the only real manipulation the movement gave in to. They (the media, the unions, establishment heads, etc.) imposed it from the outside as a line of demarcation in relation to the “hooligans,” and it was accepted by the majority.

While 1986 was the first entirely student movement (which wasn’t the case in 1968), it was still a period where one could believe that the democratization of education and of society more generally was not over and that it was enough to guard against blockages and dysfunctions. Particular to the students of that period, it wasn’t that they were privileged, but that they were the object of a particular reproduction, outside the world of work, which gave rise to their distrust of the world of adults and their virulent “youthism.”

It’s this temporary outsiderness which appeared as a privilege: neither working nor unemployed. The crisis of the labor market and or work itself was not yet such that certain well-determined social groups can be isolated from the world of work.

Today, that is no longer the case. The crisis has spread to all social sectors, the borderline between work and non-work being more and more blurred (the development of job-training, temporary work, generalized casualisation, including inside the schools with the CIP).2

In 1994. the social contradictions are such that being outside is hardly possible. So it’s not surprising that the unemployed and the homeless could speak in the joyful and easily manipulable muddle of the Lyon coordination’s general assemblies. Its new, and it’s not much, but the historic connection with 1968 and the Sorbonne open to all has been renewed, if only in a symbolic way.

Further. the success of the slogan, “Dad, I found a job – yours” made a bridge between generations rooted in reality and an awareness of the general attack against the old bases of the work system – fordism and the welfare state of the “Glorious Thirties.” Things were thus not limited to the specificity “youth,” even if repeated references (sometimes corresponding to objective situations) are made to it (drugs, AIDS. “hard times” specific to one generation, etc).

Without consciously putting itself on a political level or at the level of the struggle against the State (no anti-State slogans, only slogans against particular politicians), the movement had a different and more advanced vision than that of 1986. While Devaquet was seen as a bad pupil who one had to ask to redo his homework, Balladur was directly insulted, which both renewed the metaphoric language of the “déclassés” of 1968 and in the unfrilled language of the suburbs. “Balladur=scumbag” (rhymes in French-TN] is perhaps not very theoretical, but after all, “CRS=SS” (slogan from 68) wasn’t either and yet certain ideas followed it.

However, as in 1986 and contrary to ‘68, the movement was concretely focused on a single issue which took on the value of a pretext. While this gave it a great strength in the unity of its demand, it took away any second wind once the measure was withdrawn. The revolt which largely outmaneuvered the government plan came up against the absence of any utopian project in the movement.3

We are all there…



1 – 700 students from Charlie Chaplin High, coming down on foot from Décines had to block a big highway to get authorities to reopen the subway. This event says a lot about the relationship between the police and public transport.

2 – Of course, there was hardly any critique of work in itself, but the crisis of work, the ideology of “value without labor” brought the movement to the edge of this critique. The same way that workers or managers say before being laid-off (made redundant), “What good is it to put so much into a company?,” high schoolers call into question the usefulness of doing schoolwork if they end up with the CIP or worse still.

3 – Discussions on the Five Year Law which continue today in certain universities (Rennes II), and high schools are the sign that nothing has been settled and that there is no belief in any real victory. But this shouldn’t give us any illusions. If a muted tension still exists and only asks to show itself, the professionals of politics and of protest are already trying to retake the field.

* – Discussed in the article “Circuit-breakers Broken”.