France swept by new wave of militancy

Terry Conway considers recent developments in France:

A massive wave of protests has been sweeping France again since the Socialist Party (PS) government of François Hollande and Manuel Valls announced in February that they were going to reform the French labour code. The bill they are putting forward, known as the El Khomri law (named after the Minister of Labour), will destroy workers’ rights in order to favour the needs of business by eliminating occupational health, facilitating sackings and deregulating working hours and holidays.

The measures have much in common with attacks that workers elsewhere in Europe and indeed internationally have faced. The 2010 protests against pension reforms in France, which were defeated, saw more people involved that the current mobilisations, but they took place in the context of rising militancy rather than after a period of relative defeat. French workers have maintained more of the gains they made in the post war period and held back the tide of neoliberalism more successfully than elsewhere.
Opinion polls in early March showed 70% of people in France and 78% of young people were opposed to the measures and the polls have stayed at the same sort of level throughout the action so far. But the government had imposed a state of emergency after the killings in Paris last November and extended this several times – giving them greater confidence that they could see off opposition to their measures. But despite high levels of repression, a significant militant movement has emerged. And while the law and the attack it represents is the trigger for the resistance, there is a broader dissatisfaction with the entire system bubbling up, especially amongst young people.

On March 9, 500,000 people participated in a national day of action; an additional 1.2 million joined trade union demonstrations on March 31; and on April 9, tens of thousands more marched in Paris and other French cities against the law. The actions reached every corner of the country.

Nuit Debout

One of the features of this movement has been the involvement of young people, who realise that their futures will be drastically affected if this proposal is enacted. Youth unemployment stands at 25 per cent. Claims by the government that deregulation will mean more jobs for young people is understood by the majority to be the nonsense it is. And young people are increasingly organised in workplaces as well as active as students or unemployed.

After the demonstration of March 31, hundreds of protesters gathered in Paris’s Place de la République, despite driving rain, in the first of the “Nuit Debout” (Rise up at night) occupations. In the weeks that followed, copycat events started popping up all over France. Tens of thousands flocked to the Place de La République to participate in nighttime mass meetings in actions that mirrored the development of the Occupy and Indignados movements.

The trade union movement in France is fragmented. There are 3 significant federations as far as this struggle is concerned. The largest federation by numbers (though not the one which is most voted for as to who should represent workers’ in negotiations) is the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) which is close to the Socialist Party and has supported the government over this law. The smallest relevant federation is Solidaire (SUD) which has been an integral part of the movement from the beginning.
The Confédération Générale du Travail, (CGT) is the second largest, more popular in terms of representation and has played a very significant role in the movement. That participation has been generated mainly by a mobilisation from below by workplace activists putting pressure on the leadership. However the General Secretary of the CGT, Phillipe Martinez marched at the front of many of the protests and addressed a Nuit Debout assembly at the end of April. Most significantly perhaps, many of the key sectors of workers who have taken action in the more recent phases of the struggle are organised by the CGT.

The movement against the bill has led to the strengthening of the dissident frondeurs group in the Socialist Party’s parliamentary group – not so much over the principles involved in the ‘reform’ but more in terms of positioning themselves for the Presidential election of 2017. When it was clear that the bill didn’t have enough votes among Socialist Party members in the lower house of parliament, the government invoked Article 49.3 of the Constitution to block a final vote that might have gone against the bill. The only way to stop the bill from being approved automatically would have been for deputies to vote no confidence in the government, which would have forced the prime minister and the cabinet to resign – a step that the frondeuers were predictably not prepared to take. So on May 17 the law was pushed through, resulting in even more fury from the movement against it.

Trade union action was stepped up with six trade union federations calling action on May 26 – effectively a one day general strike. The CGT had moved before this to step up the tempo of industrial action calling out workers in oil refineries and some ports in rolling action with picket lines that blocked the fuel supply – inevitably hitting production elsewhere. The police tore down the barricades – but they cannot make the oil flow.

There have been weekly strikes on state railways and on the Paris Metro. Truckers and airport workers were some of the most visible taking strike action on May 26 but there were also teachers and postal workers and many more. More than 300,000 demonstrated in every corner of the country.
As the European football championships start on June 9, appeals from Hollande to workers not to ‘spoil’ the tournament are being ignored. In Paris refuse workers are taking strike action up to June 14 while hundreds blockaded France’s largest wholesale market just south of the capital. Railworkers have been striking for 9 consecutive days so far. Air France pilots will begin a four day walkout from June 11.

And all this is a foretaste of what is being projected for June 14 when the bill returns to the Senate. The CGT has called a national day of action on June 14 and further mass protests are planned especially in Paris. Watch this space!

And if the numbers involved so far are less than in the momentous, and ultimately unsuccessful protests of 2010, activists in Britain comparing the French movement to the extremely feeble response to the introduction of the trade union bill here in 2015 would do well to explore how we can bring the spirit of the French protests of today to Britain.

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