French workers and young people fight anti-worker labour law

By Clare Doyle

France’s ‘Socialist’ president – Francois Hollande – has this week taken the fight over the country’s labour law to a new level. After months of protests and demonstrations, the bill was heading for defeat in the National Assembly. Nearly 5,000 amendments had been submitted and at least 40 parliamentarians were going to vote against it, including 20 from the governing Socialist Party. Hollande, goaded on by the fanatically business-friendly prime minister, Manuel Valls, has invoked a clause in the country’s constitution – the infamous 49 -3 – to over-rule parliament and make the bill legally enforceable.

Spontaneous protests broke out across the country and workers and young people have responded to a call by the main trade union leaders for demonstrations on Thursday, 12 May. General strike action is still going ahead in mid-May. The government is not over the crisis. It faces votes of no confidence in the parliament and has stirred up deeper hostility in the already hostile electorate. 70% of the population is against the labour law changes and in polls, Hollande is still just over 12% – the worst score of any president in history.

Trial of strength

A major trial of strength in France between the government and a big sector of workers and young people had reached a critical stage. For more than two months since the drawing up of a new labour law, Francois Hollande’s government has faced a wave of opposition from whole swathes of the population.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have taken to the streets across France, angered by this attack on their hard-won gains in terms of hours and security of employment. They have been joined by students and young people fearful for their futures.

A new layer of activists and even passive supporters is learning the hard way how vicious the state forces can become when they move in with tear-gas and batons to clear away the demonstrations. The right wing parties have been urging the closing down of the Nuit Debout gatherings, but they are popular with people starved of a forum for the discussion of everyday politics.

The use of state forces to confront protesters is radicalising a new generation on the streets, but is also undermining the authority of the state within these institutions. Across the country, hundreds of arrests have been made and demonstrators have been badly injured. But police have also found themselves not only injured, but humiliated by being put in to do a job against the “Casseurs” without any advice or instructions. Significantly, on 18 May, their own union organisation is organising a demonstration in protest at the way they have been treated.

The El Khomri bill, named after the Labour Minister, has been an attempt, similar to that taken in other European countries like Italy, to wipe out basic rights that have been fought for and won by generations past. In France many of them date back more than a century to 1910 – the fruits of bitter struggles including a general strike in 1906.

The situation had become extremely tense and volatile. In the space of two months – March and April – the leaders of the trade union federations called four days of strikes and demonstrations, but stopped short of all-out action. Other local and national strikes in various sectors had been gathering pace and the trade union leaders were under pressure to call a new day of action in mid-May when the labour law was to be voted on in parliament.

May Day

The mood on the traditional May Day demonstrations was for a fight. The march in Paris was bigger than most years and 10,000 up on the turn-out for the trade union demo of 28th April. (Both were attacked by the CRS in attempts to discredit the movement for violence.) Numerous political groupings were, as usual, in evidence, as well as the major trade union delegations – apart from the CFDT, which still supports the ’Socialist’ government.

There were groups of people from the neighbourhoods of Paris simply carrying placards declaring they were ’Debout’ – ‘Pantin debout, ‘Banlieus Debout’, ‘Les Lilas debout’ etc. There were ’Lawyers Debout’, ’Children and Parents debout’. Everyone ‘debout’ (standing up) and ready for a fight. But they don’t know when it will break out in earnest, and what form it will take. Will it have to be a real fight…‘to the end’?

For such a genuine ’struggle to the end’, a mass political force is needed with elected leaders who understand what is happening and what is to be done. The enthusiasm of the Nuit Debout people for a different society is laudable, but the logic of their movement is to avoid the vital issue of organisation and political programme.

Many older people – on the demonstrations and in Place de la Republique, where the ‘Nuit Debout’ assembles every evening – have the mass revolutionary strike of 1968 in their minds, drawing parallels but seeing the differences. In those days, the ’democratic dictator’, General de Gaulle, had been in power for a decade and one of the most widespread slogans was ’Ten years is enough!’. One placard carried on the Paris demos. this year has said, ’Nine years is enough!’, meaning Hollande has followed on in the footsteps of the right-wing President, Sarkozy in operating hand in glove with the bosses’ organisation, Medef, to save French capitalism at the expense of the country’s working class – of today and tomorrow.

The mood on May Day was festive, but hatred of the government is palpable – not only on the protests but in society at large. Even onlookers express contempt for a ’so-called’ socialist government. A little old lady called Monique, stands in the sun listening to an Italian band playing revolutionary songs. “The government says it’s socialist but the people at the top get millions while hundreds are sleeping on the streets! And as for Gattaz (head of Medef)!” she splutters with particular bitterness, “He’s rolling in it like his father before him on his ill-gotten gains at the expense of working people!”.

Rapid change

Only days ago, it looked as if Francois Hollande could have been preparing the way for a truce – finding a way to postpone a decision on the law and ‘kicking the can down the road’…possibly even until after the presidential election next year. The use of 49-3 to break the log-jam seemed too dangerous, even provocative.

On May 3rd he announced that he was taking France out of the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement – feinting in the direction of protecting French workers threatened by this deal. He also announced a measure improving the status (and income) of a section of teachers. “He has put on his Father Christmas clothes and started handing out the goodies,” commented Virginie Pregny at a public meeting in Paris last week of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France).

At that time, it looked almost as if a scenario could develop similar to what happened in Italy over the abolition of Article 18. When Silvio Berlusconi first proposed the ‘reform’ in 2002, up to three million protesters descended on Rome and its implementation was delayed…then, and a few more times! Was it possible that the full frontal attack on France’s labour laws was going to be withdrawn and re-presented at a later date?

A new stage

Now, for the moment at least, that option is off the table. Hollande has decided to continue on the road of protecting the big bourgeois in France and provoking the wrath of the French working class. Beneath appearances, capitalism in Europe’s second biggest economy is weak. Company profits continue to soar but growth in the economy is sluggish at 0.5% in the first quarter of this year. The budget deficit is greater than the 3% ‘limit’ set by the European Commission. The bosses continue to award themselves huge pay rises, like that of Renault’s Carlos Ghosn who will have a personal income of no less than €7.2 million this year.

Although there has been an announcement of a fall of 60,000 in the jobless figures, the French economy is beset by stubborn levels of unemployment, including 25% amongst young people. Such is the tension in society that 8 out of 10 believe that France is “on the verge of a social explosion”.

There is a slow-burning fuse that threatens the ruling layers in France. But the ideas of socialism are discredited by the ‘Socialist’ Party and the ideas of communism are distorted by the ‘Communist’ Party. The ‘Left Party’ supports a leader – Jean-Luc Melenchon – who has little programme at all! Stickers supporting him on demonstrations say no more than ‘ jlm 2017’ and his slogan is ‘France not submitting!’! In spite of this vagueness, he gets almost as much support as Hollande in polls that put him at around 12%.

All those who feel dissatisfied with this need to come together to form a new mass party of workers and young people. The movement needs to find a political voice to challenge the government. To get rid of it, not only general strike action is needed but a clear idea of how to get an alternative…a government of working and young people. Those who agree with this idea and want to make it a reality need to come together in assemblies and conferences with the idea of creating a political force that really represents those in struggle. The ‘left’ MPs in the Socialist Party are not even prepared to kill the El Khomri bill by voting no confidence in the government and preventing it from implementing clause 49-3! They have no conception of building a political alternative.

So what are the perspectives for the next year or so in the run-up to the presidential elections? Marine Le Pen of the National Front has been expected to get a big vote in the first round. She has not been on the national stage as much recently as her policies on the labour laws are not much different from those of El Khomri. Her right populism might come back into prominence as a real threat to the Socialist Party, since it has been failing to champion the rights of French workers and young people.

One thing that could possibly rescue Hollande’s chances in the presidential election is the very real possibility of Alain Juppe running as the presidential candidate for the main right party, Les Républicains. He was in office at the time of the month-long public sector strike of 1995 and has gone down in history as “the most loathed prime minister in history” (Financial Times 12 May 2016). Juppe boasts that his programme is one of massive cuts and neo-liberal policies that make Hollande’s programme look almost mild!

The challenge

The coming weeks will now see an intensification of the struggle, rather than concessions on either side. The main union organisations – CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires and the youth organisations UNEF, UNL et FIDL have ‘Invited’ their branches to organise assemblies to discuss strike action and whether it can be ‘renewable’. They are calling for new days of strikes and demonstrations for the 17 and 19 of May and possibly a national demonstration in Paris.

The mood is building for a ‘fight to the end’! Assemblies and strike committees are needed to link up on a local, regional and national level – to organise the strike but also to prepare a representative body that can challenge for political power. The question of who runs society is posed but not yet answered by any political force. This in itself raises the urgent question of building a mass political force of the working class and youth.

No such force exists at the present and will have to be built on the basis of a programme of demands for a shorter working week, minimum salaries, housing for all. It would have to argue the need for real socialist policies of public ownership, planning and democratic control. This is what the forces of the CWI in France and internationally are continually fighting for. The struggle continues.