Crossfire in la Rue du Dragon

January 19, 1996

French intellectuals have regained a place on their country's political map. Stella Hughes explores their growing role

Without leaving the Latin Quarter and its academic bookshops, university buildings and research institutes, two dozen French intellectuals have spent the past year regularly stepping into another world to attend working parties and public seminars in semi-derelict classrooms decorated with graffiti, children's art and grass-roots campaign posters.

The squat in the chic Rue du Dragon houses the "universite des exclus", a university of the homeless and unemployed set up by the action group, Droits Devant, in premises that include the primary school Simone de Beauvoir attended.

Sociologist Catherine Levy first found herself there after being contacted on the leftwing intellectual grapevine when a demonstration was called to head off an attempt to evict the squat before it won a year's grace from the authorities. "It was my first involvement in the issue of homelessness," she recalls. As a specialist in labour studies at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, she had for years worked on a voluntary basis with a small group of economists and historians on projects involving trade unionists, particularly in Lorraine, northern France, after the collapse of the steel industry there.

So when the Rue du Dragon university was launched, with academics invited to join long-term workshops on social problems, Levy quite naturally joined the group looking at work-related issues. While she was used to working with a mixture of academics and non-academics, she opposed initial calls for a total open doors policy. "We first had to establish our aims and methods. I opposed the idea of bringing homeless people and immigrants who could not master French into the group. What they needed was a second type of group where they could master skills," she said. The point was conceded and while some 50 people joined the group's meetings over the year, its hard core was made up of a dozen academics, activists from civic rights associations and trade unionists.

As the group on work quickly became a group on lack of work and unemployment, there were encounters with the homeless and unemployed. The group first invited two researchers to address a public meeting on the issue of work. "The audience was extremely aggressive towards the speakers . . . but also very inquiring," Levy adds.

One of the speakers, Alain Caill, recalls turning up to talk in a room with children playing basketball against the windows, a singing lesson going on next door and "instead of the inevitable one or two sinister-looking unemployed youths ready to heckle the visiting academic, an entire audience of them". Drawing a veil over the long stream of vituperative harangues his talk triggered, Caill stresses their rejection of his idea of a national income for all. "What the sharp intelligence of the homeless and unemployed - the eventual recipients - perceived was the risk of being told to disappear from the social scene altogether, to stop demanding anything, in exchange for a one-way gift which becomes charity," he noted.

That problem of the absence of any social role in a workless existence was raised at a second public talk with a group of youths from another squat - homeless, unemployed and too young to receive French income support, reserved for the over-25s. "They asked us what they could do in that situation. We invited them to join the group on work and finally about 50 of them were involved, writing texts giving their vision of work and what it means," said Levy. "They learned to express their ideas cogently, to put their thoughts in order and really listen to others." The resulting book is about to be published by a group of publishers who are producing a series of cost-price, large-print, short volumes written at the squat.

Levy says that the Rue du Dragon experience has been good for the small, over-familiar circle of leftwing, Parisian intellectuals, meeting outside the usual - rival - institutional structures.

"It has stirred us up, the group brought in new blood, people much younger than most of us. Today, intellectuals cannot afford to work without those who are directly confronted by social problems, we must confront reality outside our own intellectual world."

The long weeks of social unrest in France at the end of 1995 were a watershed experience for the universite des exclus. The militant associations for the homeless and unemployed struggled to give their constituency a voice in the public debate, occupying part of the Pompidou Centre for a hugely successful week-long forum, where it began to look as if an operational interface for the world of work and the world of unemployment could be found. As unions prepared to meet the government for a "social summit", the forum, joined by dozens of associations, demanded a "summit of the excluded".

Meanwhile, as social discontent over planned welfare reforms grew, Levy initiated an "appel des intellectuels". The declaration of support for the strikers got hundreds of signatures, countering an earlier letter of support for prime minister Alain Juppe's reforms, signed by a number of academics. "As treasurer for the strike fund, I got messages of support from academics all over Europe. What interests me now is getting people with work and people without work to formulate general demands which could be taken up in the rest of Europe," explained Levy.

While France's trade union leaders and leftwing politicians were clearly taken aback by the groundswell of opinion, the intellectuals weighed in readily enough to explain its significance, although there were sharp divides in their interpretations of the social unrest. For those - probably a majority - who believe that a Maastricht-determined future necessitating public spending curbs is the only choice for France, the millions of people who took to the streets were quite simply wrong.

Summing up the view that the strike movement raised fundamental issues of the kind of society and the kind of European union people want, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu told striking train drivers he "supported their struggle against the destruction of a civilisation, their defence of public services, of equal rights".

In the other camp, economist Bernard Perret declared that the strikes were just an "anomic coagulation of fears, frustrations and defensive reflexes".

Levy believes many intellectuals find it hard to admit that they were mistaken. "Since Mitterrand came to power in 1981 and especially since Delors enacted his economic policies in 1983, the dominant belief has been that salvation lies in modernisation. For years, it was impossible to question that in the public arena, to ask what type of modernisation and why."

After the strikes, the academic debate continued in newspaper columns, focusing increasingly on the question of whether a future determined by international economic forces is the only perspective, or whether the future of French society can still be determined according to other parameters.

According to Levy, answers to such questions should be based on close observation both of modern productivity-centred working conditions and of the "silent, non-working world". Her working group now plans to tackle the problems preventing the two worlds of work and non-work from acting together.

As the Dragon squat prepares to close, the universite des exclus is seeking a new home. Its emergence impelled a handful of leftwing academics to resume the traditional social role of the French intellectual after years of apparent consensus, this time to engage in a battle of ideas centred on opposition to economic determinism.

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