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Is Student Unionism In France At A Crossroads? – A Panel Discussion With Former UNEF Activists At Sciences Po

Photo by Elias H'Limi

Paul Chambellant, staff writer for Sciences Po journal La Péniche, covered a conference organised by French student union UNEF this November. A panel discussion held on 9 November featured syndicalism and the convergence of social struggles.

The discussion panel featured former UNEF activists: Benoît Hamon, former Minister of state and candidate in the 2017 French presidential elections; Sophie Binet, General Secretary of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), France’s second biggest trade union; Raphaëlle Remy-Leuleu, councillor of Paris and member of the Green party (EELV) and Guillaume Hoibian, historian specialised in student movements.

7:15 PM – The auditorium is filling up. Lively discussions spark about a campus blockade earlier in the morning while others exchange concerned whispers regarding the absence of Sophie Binet in the room. The conference begins as both a retrospective on student unionism and an informal discussion among involved syndicalists.

UNEF – a history of division?

7:33 PM – Guillaume Hoibian kicks things off with a brief history of the union. The National Union of French Students (UNEF) was born in 1907 as an association but only became a trade union in 1946 following the adoption of the Grenoble Charter. Recent splits within UNEF have sparked discussions about the decline of the union but they remain inherent to the movement’s history. From 1971 to 2001 UNEF was divided between UNEF-SE (student solidarity), close to the communist party, and UNEF-ID (Independent and Democratic) affiliated with a majority of Lambertists and anti-Stalinist students. For Guillaume Hoibian, the union’s implosion is due to its “hyper-politicisation” in the aftermath of May 1968. He adds that the 2001 reunification was “painful”, with each faction viewing the other as an adversary.

Beyond a challenging co-existence within the movement, Benoît Hamon underlines the unique nature of UNEF engagement, capable of “bringing social questions to the forefront”. He praises a union that, through student mobilisation, “gave a national significance to its struggles”. For him, however, this capacity for social and political power-building seems to have been lost since the protests against the Devaquet law and the first employment contracts. When questioned on the link between unions and politics, he reminds the audience that unionism has always been characterised by a culture of autonomy. He also laments the loss of a historical legacy, where unions would be recognised as “a means to form political consciousness”. Both Benoît Hamon and Guillaume Hoibian further agree that a “turning point” in student unionism history is now marked by increased poverty and instability within universities.

Growing student poverty

8:07 PM – Raphaëlle Rémy-Leuleu enters the room and discreetly takes place next to her two activist peers. After qualifying her entrance as the “biggest gate-crash of history”, she sets the tone claiming that: “spoiler alert: student precarity is not getting any better”. The rest of the panel shares her statement. Guillaume Hoibian notably links the “impoverishment” of students and universities to a drop in unionism involvement and political engagement among the youth, who lack time. Today, more students are undertaking part-time jobs to finance their studies. Professors must cope with a growing lack of resources while being faced with an increasing number of students every year. At the same time, researchers are dealing with a decline in funding. For the speakers, this is the recipe for demobilisation.

According to Raphaëlle Rémy-Leuleu, it is necessary to pay attention to the “social segregation” reinforced by both university selection and a lack of support for young people. She mentions the inaccessibility for people under 25 years old to an Active Solidarity Income (RSA) as well as the need to reassess mobility grants, a source of unequal access to Erasmus exchanges. Benoît Hamon suggests this reflects a French Left “failing in wealth redistribution due to a growing globalisation and financialisation”, which “crushes” the ability of labour to build power relations with capital. What is the solution then? A universal income for those aged from 18 to 25 that is not capped on their parent’s income and, above all, involvement in unions or in politics as a central means for emancipation.

Commitment as a way to address national challenges

8:20 PM – Sophie Binet enters the room under thunderous applause. She explains her delay with her attendance to a Kristallnacht commemoration earlier in the evening. Binet shares her experience as a UNEF activist where she learnt “how to manage with a few bits of strings”. She raises awareness about the “scare effect” which follows young people throughout their professional journey. After first facing a challenging entry into the workplace, they are then the victim of a “Trojan horse” strategy from governments, targeting the youth and then other segments of the population. She emphasises that the few successful social movements mobilise both “workers and young people”. Benoît Hamon fully agrees and urges the students in the room to “fully engage in the fight at the age of 18”.

Guillaume Hoibian recognises that, bearing in mind how precious university years are, union involvement “is not always self-evident”. However, from the Algerian war to the latest Parcoursup reform (French equivalent to UCAS), he reminds the audience that youth mobilisation has always shaped French political life. For Sophie Binet, it is essential to revive a tradition of student involvement which “was lacking during the pension reform protests”. She also encourages the students to be concerned about “growing and earlier incentives towards a retirement system through capitalisation and individual savings”, eroding consent to taxation and national solidarity. These concerns are adding to the list of challenges faced by the country which, according to Benoît Hamon, is already “ripe for fascism”.

Article translated by Emma Carmichael.

Paul Chambellant

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