Thursday, March 31, 2016

France: As mass protests and strikes loom, the challenges and potential of a movement to defeat the work law

Lisbeth Latham
Today (March 31) workers, students, unemployed and retirees will join the fourth mass mobilisation against the attemps of the Parti Socialiste lead government of Prime Minister Emmanual Valls to pass a new work law. This new legislation if passed will significantly reduce the rights of French workers The, legislation which is popularly referred to as El Khomri, in reference to labour minister Myriam El Khomri, will deepen the efforts of previous efforts by both the current PS government and earlier right-wing government’s to make workers and other popular sections of French society pay for capital’s crisis. Despite the mobilisations against the law, media commentary are seeking to portray these mobilisations as fruitless against the inevitable introduction of the "necessary" liberalisation of France’s labour laws. This dismissal has centred on the relatively small size of the current movement in comparison to previous French mass mobilisations around workers’ rights. This article will explore the proposed bill and the emerging movement against the new laws comparing this movement with previous mass French mobilisations within the world of work and examining the new challenges it faces within current political landscape in France.

The initial proposed bill contained significant attacks on both working conditions and unions, these included:

  • Increased number of consecutive weeks where workers can be required to work overtime – the French working week is 35 hours, however this can currently be increased to 44 hours (with paid overtime) for a period of 12 consecutive weeks. The bill would this to be extended 16 consecutive weeks – where an enterprise agreement had been reached this could be extended to 46 hours over a maximum of 16 weeks;
  • Capping of payments to workers who are unfairly dismissed at 15 months of salary;
  • Making It easier to for employers to force part-time employment – current provision requires that for part-time work to be implemented, the employer must give prior notification to the labor inspectorate in order to avoid abuse. The bill proposed that the employer be able implement part-time work unilaterally;
  • Removal of the legal entitlement to bereavement leave (presently set at two days) with local agreements determine whether workers have access to such leave and its duration;
  • Increase in the maximum duration of night work from 40 hours per week for three months to 40 hours a week for four months;
  • Increased use of "package-days" where work is expressed in days rather than hours – 50% of French managers already are employed on this basis – the change would extend the practice to more workers – with enterprises with less than 50 employees not needing an enterprise agreement to implement. The proposal would also remove responsibility for ensuring workers take minimum hours of rest between work days or days off;
  • Varying of work time over three years. Under France’s 35 hour week it is possible for hours to be averaged over a number of weeks (if the average over this time is not above 35 hours) then no overtime is paid. If there is no enterprise agreement then the maximum span of time that hours can be averaged over is four weeks – with an agreement the maximum is one year. The proposed change is that this be extended to three years. In companies with less than 50 employees were no agreement is in place the four weeks could be extended to sixteen weeks;
  • Increase in the work week for apprentices under the age of 18 – the current maximum working hours are 35 hours per week and eight hours a day – the new maximums would be 40 hours a week and ten hours – this increase would not need to be approved by the labour inspectorate;
  • Making it easier for employers to force through enterprise level agreements – current provisions requires that for an enterprise agreement to be valid it must be agreed to by one or more unions representing 30% of employees (based on votes France’s union representative elections) and that the agreement is not opposed by unions representing more than 50% of workers. The new law would allow a company referendum will validate an agreement even if the unions representing 70% of workers are opposed;
  • Companies would be able to reduce wages or increase working hours (with no increase in wages) even when company is not having financial difficulties. Currently can do this (for a maximum of two years) if they are facing financial difficulties if workers and unions agreed – the proposed change would allow companies to propose the change if they felt it would enable them to meet a business opportunity, to do so they would be able to bypass unions and put a vote to workers – if a majority approved the change any worker who refused to accept the change could be sacked without any redundancy payment;
  • Ending the right to  11 consecutive hours of rest between "package-days" – instead breaks would be able to be broken up with periods of work within these 11 hours. If a worker is on call then on call, the period that they on call and not  engaged in work would count as part of the rest period;
  • Change of mission of occupational physicians – occupational physicians are currently primarily responsible for prevention of workplace injury, and is in place with a focus on the health of workers. Their objective is to maintain of employees to perform their duties - by proposing adaptations to them if necessary. The new bill would give physicians a new mission: to certify "the ability of the employee to exercise any of the existing tasks in the company" and "to ensure the compatibility of the worker's health the position to which he is assigned" – which is an inversion of the current role and significant attack on workplace safety;
  • Leave during natural disaster no longer be legally guaranteed - currently the length of leave for natural disasters is 20 days guaranteed by law. With the bill, it is the branch or company agreement that will define its duration and the conditions for access;
  • The duration and terms of a sabbatical would no longer guaranteed by law - the minimum duration of the sabbatical leave is currently set at a minimum of six months  and a maximum of eleven months. With the bill, any access to a sabbatical, and its duration, would be defined in an enterprise or branch agreement;
  • Weakening of job training programs – currently young workers or older unemployed workers can enter into a "professional contract" which includes on the job training for a recognised qualification while receiving a subsidised wage – the bill would allow these contract to include more limited on the job training that would not result in a recognised qualification;
  • Increased use of three year wage deals – currently there are mandatory annual negotiations on wages. Since 2015, it is possible for an enterprise to hold its negotiations every three years if there is a majority agreement in place in that company. The bill will allow a branch agreement to be negotiated triennially based on 30% support in that branch of industry;
  • Allow for the state to finance private apprenticeship training providers;
  • Facilitate dismissals during the transfer of business - currently, when a company sells all or part of its business, jobs are maintained and work contracts are automatically transferred into the new structure. The bill will provide for a portion of employees to be transferred with the business, but will allow for the dismissal of others;
  • Allow for part-time worker to be paid less for additional hours – currently when part-time workers work hours in addition to their contract they get a differented payment of additional wages – for those hours that constitute upto 1/10 of the contracted hours they receive a loading of 10% on the additional hours worked and a loading of 25% for all hours in addition to this – only a branch agreement can change this arrangement to a flat additional payment of 10%. Under the bill all part-time workers would receive a 10% loading – this change will have a significant impact on gender equality as women workers make up 82% of all part-time workers in France;
  • Reduce notice period for changes in rosters – currently part-time employees must given seven days notice of a change in their work schedule – only a branch or enterprise can reduce this to a shorter period (with a minimum of three days). The bill provides for that the schedule change is possible for all part-time workers with three days notice;
  • Employers able to change paid leave arrangements at short notice - the law currently provides that employers should take into account workers’ family situations when determining dates for paid leave. Within a month scheduled beginning of a workers’ leave the employer has no right to change the start or finish dates of the leave. With the proposed bill, these mandatory measures were transformed into 'supplemental' provisions. They can be challenged by way of enterprise or branch agreement;
  • Under the bill enterprise agreements would have a maximum of 5 years – Current enterprise agreements last indefinitely, unless otherwise provided in the Agreement, or terminated by either party. The agreement can be unilaterally denounced by trade unions signatories or by the employer. In this case, the rights and entitlements within the agreement continue to apply until there is a new agreement. Once terminated there is a three-month notice period before renegotiation begins, allowing trade unions to prepare, inform and mobilize workers ... With the proposed bill, all enterprise agreements have a term of 5 years. The provisions of the agreement are immediately canceled and cease to apply, even if there is no new agreement. There is no notice period prior to the beginning of negotiations;
  • Overpayment: employment centre can draw directly on unemployment benefits - When an employment centre claims to have made a mistake in the payment of unemployment benefits and wishes to recover the overpayment it must get the approval of a judge. This ensures that the overpayment was actually made (sometimes it hasn’t been) and allows the unemployed person to arrange for repayments to be made in instalments. With the proposed bill the judge's approval is no longer mandatory. The employment centre will directly deduct the overpayment from following month’s benefits payment. If the employment centre made a mistake, it unemployed person to go to court to their money repaid. This risks unemployed workers suddenly facing having little or no money one month to another. The spreading of repayments, which has been previously easily accessed, will be much harder to obtain;
  • On call-time may be counted as rest time – in violation of the European Committee on Social Rights requirements that time when works are required to be on call not be counted as mandated rest-time between working time the proposed bill will allow this to occur;
  • Reduced protections for employees who invalidly made redundant - when a court declares a redundancy void the worker is entitled to reinstatement. When this is not possible the current law provides 12 months of salary compensation to a minimum. The new law will limit this to six months, and this will only be for works with at least two years of service with the company;
  • Lower allowances for dismissed sick and injured workers - when a worker is dismissed for incapacity following an industrial accident or an occupational disease and the employer took no steps to find alternative work or arangements – the dismissal is not valid. The current law provides for compensation of a minimum of 12 months of salary. The bill proposes that this be only 6 months salary;
  • Enterprise agreements will be able to reduce overtime payments – the Labour Code provides that the first eight hours of overtime attract a penalty rate of 25% with subsequent hours paid an additional 50%. Under the proposed bill management will be able through an enterprise agreement to reduce the overtime rate to a flat 10% rate.

  • The government has motivated these changes on the idea that France’s existing labour code deter investment in the French economy and discourage companies from taking advantage of business opportunities (for fear of a subsequent contraction in the business) – the reality is that much of the changes have a significant capacity to undermine job creation – this is particularly the case for the provisions for increasing the work week – even those that supposedly make investment "less risky" they don’t address the key cause of France’s economic woes (the ongoing effect of the GFC) nor do they address the reality that outside of a sharp decline in demand companies have the capacity to adjust employment numbers without recourse to redundancy through mechanisms of natural attrition.

    Blaming the growth on precarious employment in France on "rigid employment laws" is undermined by the reality that more liberalised labour markets, like Australia, have extremely high levels of insecure and precarious employment.

    The proposed bill has caused widespread anger across France – with opinion polls indicating 70% opposition. A change.org petition against the bill launched in February received 200, 000 signitures in the first four hours of being online, the petition has now been signed by more than 1.2 million people.

    March 9 strikes and mobilisations
    Strikes and mobilisations were called in 140 cities and towns across France for March 9. These protests were supported by the three most militant union confederations – the CGT (Confédération générale du travail – General Confederation of Labour), FO (Force Ouvri – Workers Force) and the trade union Solidaires – in addition the call for the mobilisation was supported the large education union the FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire – United Union Federation)and the university and high school student unions UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France – National Union of Students of France), FIDL (Fédération indépendante et démocratique lycéenne Independent and Democratic Secondary Student Federation) and UNL (Union Nationale Lycéenne – National Union of Secondary Students). Between 250, 000 and 500, 000 people participated in the protests across France (both the unions and the interior ministry employ official protest counters to count the size of protests – these counters differ in their methodology as to who should be included as a participant in the protests – with police only including those who within the confines of the march on the street – whilst the union counters will tend to include those who are on the edges of protests along the footpaths – which particularly makes sense on big mobilisations).Think this is too long to be in brackets and needs some full stops and that. The largest of these was held in Paris with between 27, 000 and 100, 000 participating in three protests across the day. In addition to the protests a number largest of these was in the SNCF (France’s national rail system) where four main rail unions (including reformist unions such as the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour - CFDT) and the Union nationale des syndicats autonomes (National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions)) had issued a strike notice resulting in significant disruptions to rail services over a range of issues including the ongoing reduction in the SNCF workforce via natural attrition of some 25, 000 workers over the past decade.

    At the Paris union march from the MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France – Movement of the Enterprises of France) to the ministry of labour, CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez told the crowd that in the CGT’s call (reformatting) that the government withdraw the bill that "The message is clear. Mr Hollande and Manuel Valls to stop incorporating the proposals of employers".

    Some of the student slogans at the March 17 and March 24 protests included:
    “On strike until retirement!”
    “Be young and shut up!”
    “Less valls, more tango” - a play on valse (waltz)
    “You do not let us dream, we will not let you sleep!”
    "The night is made for kissing, not for work”

    In the lead up to the March 9 mobilisation the government announced that the presentation of the bill to the council of state would be delayed from the scheduled date of March 9 until March 24 – this was to provide more time for the draft bill to be amended to take on criticisms from both within PS and concerns from the more moderate unions particularly the CFDT - with three aspects expected to be changed. In the wake of the protests El Khomri announced that she would take on board calls. Prime Minister Valls announced he would meet with student organisations to discuss their concerns.

    The bill presented to (and adopted by) the council of ministers on March 24 had undergone considerable changes including:
    • Return to a maximum of 12 consecutive weeks of overtime;
    • The proposal to extend the maximum number of consecutive weeks of overtime will be subject to a consultation period up until October;
    • Proposal to cap unfair dismissal payments has been removed however there has been an indicative scale in place since 2013 for during the conciliation stage of unfair dismissal cases – the government has indicated that it will change this scale by decree (avoiding the need to have the law passed) and extend the scale to apply to awards in cases that move to trial;
    • The provision to remove bereavement leave from the Labour Code has been withdrawn but other forms of leave such as carers leave will be determined in the enterprise agreement;
    • For a company to implement the spreading of overtime over three years an enterprise level agreement would not be sufficient, instead there would need to be branch agreement in place;
    • Increase in the hours for young apprentices was withdrawn (although companies will be able to apply to the labour inspectorate for an increase);
    • proposal to allow unilateral introduction of part-time work dropped;
    • Proposal to extend "package days" was modified to stop employers being able to unilaterally implementing "package days" – any shift would require agreement with union representatives in the enterprise;
    • In the revised bill, the referendum on adopting a contested enterprise agreement is called "consultation". Initially, these "consultations" will not be implemented for determining working hours, however the bill provides for referendum to eventually apply to all sections of the Labour Code including working hours;
    • Removal of the entitlement leave for caring for parent or close family with illness or disability (currently set at three months) and would have to be provided in an enterprise agreement.
    In addition a new change was included removing the minimum payment for wrongful dismissal – at present if a worker is unfairly dismissed they receive a minimum payment of six months if the company has more than ten employees and they have more than two years of experience – the new proposal is to strip this protection entirely meaning a worker who is wrongfully dismissed could receive nothing.

    While MEDEF and other employer groups have been critical of the government for buckling to the movement– the unions leading the mobilisations are clear that they want the bill withdrawn in its entirety.

    A limited Movement?
    Much of the mainstream English language media coverage of March 9 protests (the later student protests have barely rated a mention) have focused on the fact that this mobilisation was smaller than previous mass union mobilisations in France, (new sentence) most notably the 2010 movement against Francois Fillon’s assault on pensions – which featured seven days of mass strikes and protests between September 7 and October 28 of that year involving more than two million people and ongoing strikes in a number of sectors most notably the oil industry.

    While these observations are true, they fail to recognise either the different context in which the current movement is occurring. Much of these conditions act to undermines mobilising capacity of the unions; or that of the big union mobilisations across the last decade only one of these began with truly large union mobilisations, while the others grew into a larger movement from a more modest beginning.

    Looking at the experience of the previous campaigns there arethree distinct experiences for the movements of 2006, 2009 and 2010. In 2009 the movement against the austerity policies that sought to make working people pay for the capital’s crisis began with two mobilisations of more than two million people on January 29 and March 19. By May Day protest numbers were down to 1.2 million people, and the movement dissipated after the summer holidays. By comparison the unsuccessful campaign against pension reforms in 2011 began with mobilisations of around 800, 000 in March of that year (this mobilisation was supported by the entire labour movement). While the campaign against the first employment contract (CPE) in early 2006 initially attracted limited union participation in the protests. Instead the movement was driven by hundreds of thousands of university and high school students whose action during February helped to overcome the resistance of a number of union confederations to participating in the movement (largely to regain control of the movement from the insurgent student). Once the unions came on board the protests and strikes grew rapidly. With 1.5 million and 2.71 million on March 18 and 28 respectively and 3.1 million on April 4, resulting in the scrapping of the law on April 10 (another anti-worker law – the equal opportunity law – remained in place but the movement split and dissipated in the wake of the scrapping of the CPE).

    The last three big national labour movements in France all occurred under governments of the right. The defeat of the 2011 movement saw a shift away from street mobilisation into hopes that change could be achieved through the ballot box – demonstrated by through the PS victory in the 2012 presidential and national assembly elections and the rise of Front de Gauche’s (an alliance of left parties centred around the PCF and the Parti de Gauche) whose presidential candidate Jean Luc Melechon achieved a vote of 11.10% in the presidential election. Since the 2012 election the PS and its governmental allies have been a disappointment to much of its base and the social forces to its left– not only has the PS failed to reverse the pension changes but has also deepened the liberalisation of the labour market in the interests of capital. These actions have resulted in the electoral rise of the Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front Nationale – and electoral decline of the PS and more importantly the parties to its left.

    Unlike the previous mass worker and student mobilisations – the current mobilisations have not been united (with the "reformist" worker and student organisations not supporting the March 9 protest). This division makes it more difficult to build as large protests as in the previous movements. As to bring the members and supporters of the reformist unions (particularly the CFDT - , France’s largest union by membership) into motion, they have to be appealed to over the heads of the leaderships of their unions. However the absence of these forces means that there is a stronger basis for ongoing mobilisation as differences in objectives between the two wings of the union movement (demands for total withdrawal of the bill by the militant class struggle unions vs. calls for consultation and modification of the proposed text of the bill by the reformist forces) are not expressed within the movement itself. This presents a greater opportunity for mobilisations to continue if the legislation is passed, particularly compared to 2011, when the reformist unions who had sought greater consultation by the Fillon government withdrew completely from the movement once the legislation passed – resulting in the almost immediate collapse of the campaign.

    An additional factor impacting on the mobilisations against the El Khomri bill is the continuing state of emergency in France (the state of emergency was initiated in the wake of the terror attacks in Paris on November and has since been extended twice). From its inception the state of emergency has stifled the re-emergence of union mobilisations – with strikes cancelled in the week following November declaration of the state of emergency. The state of emergency has also provided a space in which the state has been able to exercise significant levels of repression particularly directed at students- both at student mobilisations and against student organising. The most notable case of repression was the assault by riot police and BAC undercover police on a 15-year-old high school student who had his jaw broken by police - the video of this violence was shared widely and forced the Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem tweet regret about "shocking violence violence against high school student" (the police officer is now facing criminal charges and is expected to go on trial in May). A number of universities have been closed administratively to stop them being used as organising spaces, whilst there have been reports of CRS riot police actively excluding union activists from university general assemblies to stop them from participating in the deliberation and votes on further actions in the campaign.

    Despite these difficulties and challenges there are important signs that movement that can challenge and potentially defeat the bill is developing. The most important aspect of this has been both ongoing organisation of students through the holding of general assemblies of students at universities and schools but also the development of joint actions between works and students between the mass days of mobilisations – which was so central to the 2006 campaign against CPE, albeit at lower level than in 2006. Since the lead up to the March 9 protests, student unions have holding general assemblies in which students come together to decide on the course of action at their institution – including whether the institution should be operating. These meetings, particularly at universities involve hundreds of students.

    Where to for the movement

    Today’s protests are an important test for the campaign. The growth in the size of the protests from March 9 will be important to maintaining momentum and in bringing pressure to bare on the government MPs, particularly those from the PS who are divided over the law - with its right-wing objecting to the concessions to the movement, center supporting the amended bill and left-wing opposing it.

    The early signs for a growth in the movement are good with more protests scheduled across both metropolitan France and the overseas territories than on March 9. Equally important a statement by the leadership of Solidaires indicates that their militants are reporting that at the local level at least, it appears likely that members, and possibly some branches, of the CFDT will participate in some of the actions despite that confederation’s leadership not supporting the strikes and protest. However, the experiences of 2006, 2009 and 2010 suggest that the growing may not be enough for the movement to force the defeat of the bill either in parliament or once if it is passed. For the movement to have a strong chance of success it will need to increase in intensity and again in both amongst students and workers there are signs this is possible. Amongst students the general assemblies of students, particularly at university continue to grow – with some meetings involving more than 1000 students on individual campuses. Moreover like in 2006, there are reports of students linking up with striking workers and helping to spread the movement. Amongst workers, in a number of sectors, most notably the SNCF, there are discussions of launching "renewable strikes" where workers meet in the local workplace each day to vote on whether to continue their strike action – with general assemblies of workers being organised for tomorrow (April 1). There has already been a further day of protest called by the "facs in the struggle" – the campuses whose general assemblies have voted to participate in the campaign – for April 5.

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    Sunday, March 13, 2016

    France: Call for joint actions by workers and students on March 31

    Labor Code reform: It is urgent to take action!
    Joint Communiqué

    CGT (Confédération générale du travail – General Confederation of Labour), FO (Force Ouvrière – Workers Force), FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire – United Union Federation), Solidaires, UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France – National Union of Students of France), UNL (Union Nationale Lycéenne – National Union of Secondary Students, FIDL (Fédération indépendante et démocratique lycéenne – Independent and Democratic Secondary Student Federation)

    The bill to reform the labor law is a social regression that we do not accept.

    The principles underpinning the Collective Guarantees are challenged, redundancies facilities and the capping of employment tribunal allowances. This bill facilitates creating procedures in companies and institutions that place the wage earners under threat and blackmailed to employment. It seeks to undermine equal rights and treatments by enabling national level negotiations bypassing the unions. It would put in place other regressive provisions around  working time, apprentices, and professional training ...

    Unemployment reached a record level, poverty explodes and, for the first time in the post-war period life expectancy declined. Making work more precarious and workers easier to dismiss does not create jobs as shown by the impact of employment policies pursued for decades.

    We do not accept the society promised to the youth - that of insecurity. Our organizations have other requirements in terms of employment, training, working time, social protection and working conditions.

    Each of our organizations will develop its proposals.

    Today discontent is real and is growing. It is manifested through struggles in business, the public sector and education institutions. It also takes an inter-generational character with the mobilisation of youth engagement and that of retirees.

    In this sense, the mobilizations announced March 9 is an important event that should succeed.
    The social movement is spreading. An overwhelming majority believes that the labor law reform project is a threat to wage earners and will not create jobs. We think so too!

    The first trade union positions and citizens forced the government to first drop. But neither the date change, or the change in title will make this project acceptable.

    On March 31, the wage earners, employees in private companies, youth, and retirees have every reason to rally together, these action take all forms, including strikes and demonstrations throughout the country to obtain the withdrawal of the draft labour code reform law, and to obtain new rights, synonymous with social progress, to also achieve another distribution of wealth based on a society of solidarity.

    The unions CGT, FO, FSU, Trade Union Solidaires, UNEF, UNL, FIDL will meet that day, inviting all the wage earners, the young, the retirees, the private sector workers to register in the mobilizations.


    Montreuil, March 3, 2016



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    Wednesday, March 9, 2016

    France: National mobilisations against proposed changes to the labour law

    Lisbeth Latham
    Today there will be strikes and protests across France today against the proposed changes to the Labour Law. The changes were proposed in November by Myriam El Khomri, Minister for Labour,  and were scheduled to go to cabinet for discussion today - however as opposition has grown this date has been shifted to March 25.

    Map of March 9 Strikes and Protests
    The proposed changes will significantly increase potential work week in France with a standard maximum of 48 hours per week and 60 hours in a week in "exceptional circumstances" (France's 35 hour week would nominally remain in place). The current proposals would also see a reduction in penalty rates and it will be easier for employers to sack workers - with lower compensation in cases of unfair dismissal. The proposed changes are being motivated as a mechanism to combat France's 10.2% unemployment rate.

    Today's mobilisations are important as are likely to be the largest mobilisations in France since the declaration of the state of emergency in November - parliament voted on February 16 to extend the state of emergency until May 26. Today's mobilisations have been endorsed by the largest number of union confederations since the election of PS government in 2011.

    Further mobilisations against the changes to the labour laws have been called for the end of March.

     
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    Tuesday, March 8, 2016

    On Cologne and the problem of hegemonic masculinity

    Lisbeth Latham
    Protest against both sexual violence and racist attacks 
    Over New Year’s Eve, a series of large scale attacks against women took place in Cologne and other German cities. A number of perpetrators were reported as being from refugee communities resulting in an intensification of the debate over how Germany and other Western societies should respond to asylum seekers from non-Western cultures particularly from predominantly Arab and Muslim countries - particularly as far-right forces have sort to use the attacks to build support for their own attacks on migrant communities, especially Muslim communities. Sections of the German left (which is also reflected in the Anglophone left) have sort to respond the right’s use the Cologne attacks, by attempting in various ways to downplay the seriousness of the events of New Year’s Eve and by shifting focus onto sexual violence within German and other Western societies. In doing so the left’s arguments while differing significantly in premise from that of the right, still shares much of the right’s logic regarding the violence in Cologne and refugee policy - albeit the logic is inverted. Much of the left arguments are primarily aimed at proving how racist the right is - and that the right’s supposed concern for women is disingenuous - but ultimately is not useful in either challenging violence against women in our society or the attempted mobilisation of those concerns to attack migrant and refugee communities.  

    What happenedOn New Year’s Eve there were large scale attacks on women at train stations in the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Dortmund, and Bielfeld. The largest of these attacks took place in Cologne where an estimated 1000 men participated in attacks. Groups of men reportedly acted isolated individual women these isolated were then robbed and/or assaulted. These attacks took place despite large scale police presences. Angela Klein reported that 213 local and federal police were deployed at the Cologne station and the adjacent cathedral square. Initial complaints to police were, ignored, but women continued to make complaints and media attention and public awareness around the incident grew, by January 30 to more than 1,000  complaints had been reported to police in Cologne alone (more than 400 involving sexual assault), some of these complaints include complaints against the police for failing to assist women on the night. The other German cities where large numbers of complaints have been made include Hamburg (236 complaints involving 391 victims - with only three of these complaints not involving sexual assault) and Dusseldorf where 113 complaints were made regarding sexual assault and theft.

    Official responseThe initial responses of the German state and media pretended that the attacks had not occurred. A press release from Cologne Police headquarters on January 1 stated, “Shortly before midnight, the station forecourt in the area of the stairway to the cathedral had to be evacuated by uniformed officers in order to prevent a stampede caused by the firing of pyrotechnic munitions by about 1000 revelers. Despite the unplanned break in celebrations, the situation was relaxed, because the police were well placed at critical locations and showed their presence.” ZDF, one of Germany’s state broadcasters did not cover the attacks until January 5, and had made a deliberate decision at least on January 4 to delay reporting on the incidents. They subsequently issued an apology.

    When the nature of the attacks were revealed, Henriette Reker, Mayor of Cologne, suggested that “there’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length – that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship.” She later stated that women in the city should follow a ‘code of conduct’ including a dress code to prevent further attacks.

    The Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the dominant party in the coalition government, under pressure over the slow public acknowledgement of the violence and criticised by far-right parties over the government’s policy supporting large scale (but inadequate) intakes of refugees announced that it will look at quicker mechanisms to deport migrants and asylum seekers guilty of crimes, the government has also made threats that it will reduce its refugee intake.

    Thomas de Maizière, the CDU interior minister has called for a review of Germany’s laws around deportation to make it easier to deport individuals (including refugees) convicted of crimes. Currently only attracting prison sentences in excess of three years impact on refugee status.

    While this call has been met with opposition from some within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the minority partner in the German government. Ralph Stegner, SPD deputy chief, accused de Maizière of knee-jerk opportunism. “We don’t need to change either the basic right to asylum or the Geneva refugee convention to deal with organized criminality by whoever in Germany”. However, other sections of the SPD have engaged in their own anti-refugee rhetoric. Heiko Mass, the SPD justice minister, has stated that those who are applying for asylum can be deported for crimes attracting a one-year prison sentence, while three local chapters of the SPD in Essen have called for blockades against the establishment of refugee centres in the city. The SPD Essen city organisation has distanced itself from these calls.

    In the wake of the attacks there have been a raft of changes in Germany. The governing coalition has Bundestag approved new laws providing for the creation identity cards for refugees linked to a centralised data system - these cards will include country of origin and fingerprints and will be accessible by all government agencies. On February 26, passed of new refugee measures including a two year suspension of family reunions for refugees and reducing payments to refugees by €10 and provision for quick asylum decisions for refugees from an expanded list of “safe countries” which now includes Algeria, Morroco, and Tunisia.

    Far-Right responseDuring 2014, Germany had seen the emergence and strengthening of a number of hard right and neo-nazi organisations, most notably Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes - Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), a Far-Right organisation established in Dresden in October 2014, which were able to mobilise large regular anti-Muslim protests in a number German cities. These actions peaked with a march of 25,000 in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015. These organisations have seized upon the New Year’s Eve attacks as “proof” of the “existential threat” posed by refugees - particularly Muslim, Arab and North African refugees, to German culture and society.

    It is important to note that while some of those who are alleged to attacked women have been identified as coming from North African and Arab backgrounds (including some of whom are refugees) others have been German and US citizens. The Far-Right organisations have sought to pose as the “true” protectors of German women. These organisations accuse the local, state and federal governments along with the media and police of engaging in cover up to conceal the “threat posed” by refugees and Islam to German society.

    Since New Year’s Eve, in a number of German cities there has been a series of anti-refugee protests and an escalation of physical violence against refugee and migrant communities – including a protest of 2000 people in Leipzig on January 11, which included hundreds of Far-Right activists torching cars and smashing windows and resulted in the arrest of 211 people. On February 6, Pegida, with other European far-right organisations, organised Europe-wide anti-Muslim protests, which they have dubbed “Day of European Patriots”, with the largest protest in Dresden involving between 8000 and 15000 people. Pegida has also sought to use outrage over Cologne to attempt to establish Pegida franchises in a number of countries including Ireland and the Netherlands.
    In response to the attempts to use violence of New Year’s Eve to promote anti-refugee and broader islamophobia as mechanisms to “protect women” Laurie Penny argues that the right is seeking to “steal feminism” - however the right are not only not interested in “stealing feminism” they are generally hostile to feminism and it’s liberatory project. Instead they are motivated to mobilise racism - the extent to which the right has a concern for women it is primarily regarding who controls women in society.

    Far-Left responseThe German Far-Left has attempted to mobilise around two core issues - opposition to sexism and to anti-refugee sentiments. This has notably occurred at protests organised by feminists, Left and anti-fascist forces in Cologne on January 6 and January 16. These protests have expressed anger both at victim blaming calls for women to modify their behaviour – attempting instead to focus on sexual violence as a problem, and rejecting the Far-Right’s’ claims of caring about women as cynical hypocrisy to cover their racist attacks on refugees and Muslims. The importance of these dual themes have also been a feature of articles published in Australia and England.
    While I agree with a need to reject both sexism and anti-refugee racism, many of the articles from the Left have a tendency to give more weight to their anti-racist arguments by downplaying the seriousness of the attacks - reflecting the tendency of sections of the Left towards a cynical hypocrisy when it comes to taking violence towards women seriously. Indeed Angela Klein argues that significant sections of the German left failed to take the attacks on New Year’s Eve seriously. This downplaying is a consequence of the poor understanding of why violence towards women occurs (and a lack of real concern when said violence is an inconvenience when addressing other priorities). Also, much of the Left shares with Far-Right and mainstream political forces an orientalist understanding of non-Western cultures, particularly Islam.

    Silke Stockle and Marion Wegscheidher, in an article for the German website Marx 21 (which has been republished by a number of Left-wing Anglophone publications and websites), argue that the mainstream discourse fails to discuss the systematic character of violence against women in Germany and state that the “hundred police officers present at the scene who did nothing to intervene in order to protect the women victims, despite the fact that there was even an undercover policewoman among them, is speaking volumes”. It is undoubtedly the case that the police response to the attacks exacerbated the situation. Angela Klein argues that the police response was deeply flawed in the following ways:
    • Despite being aware that something was occurring as early as 9.30 pm, the police failed to seek additional support and, feeling overwhelmed, reportedly departed the square at 11.35 pm, when attacks were still happening and continued through until the early hours of the morning;
    • The police responded, if at all, above all to acts of theft. Women reported that the police in case of sexual harassment were merely “watched”. Even a female officer who had been sexually harassed in the crowd got no help from her fellow officers. Angela Klein argues this is consistent with the general behaviour of police and legal authorities in Germany towards sexual harassment, which in Germany is still regarded as a “peccadillo” that is not punished under criminal law;
    • There are also reports of women attempting to escape the square being pushed back into it by police.

    However, the failure of the police response, which has seen the Cologne Chief of Police take early retirement - while undoubtedly influenced by misogyny and victim blaming attitudes - does not negate or reduce the responsibility of the perpetrators.

    Much of the discourse of the Left has positioned the gendered violence in Cologne within the context of the pervasive gendered violence in German and other Western cultures. At one level, this is an extremely important point, combating a tendency to focus on the violence and problems of the “other” to minimise and erase the violence within one’s own culture.

    However, in seeking to highlight the problems of sexism within Germany, and Western cultures more broadly, there is a tendency to minimise what occurred in Cologne and other cities. This is done in a number of ways, including:
    • Failing to acknowledge that the number of reported attacks have risen and continuing to comment based on the very early figure of 100 complaints to police;
    • Making a false distinction between rape and sexual assault and then focusing on the number of reported rapes, effectively ignoring the hundreds of sexual assaults that occurred;
    • Making false comparisons to other violence against women in German society, such as at Oktoberfest, to suggest that anger and concern is purely motivated by xenophobia. I argue that these comparisons are false because they do not acknowledge that while sexual violence is a feature of both the Cologne attacks and Oktoberfest, the scale and scope of both the violence and the events are very different. Each year the estimated number of sexual assaults at Oktoberfest is several hundred (of these just 10 to 12 are reported to the police!), at a 16-18 day festival attended by millions of people, which is less than half the number of reported assaults in one square on New Year’s Eve in Cologne);
    • Arguing that the violence either did not occur or was perpetrated by other groups of people;
    These strategies are problematic for a number of reasons. Most importantly because they demonstrate a clear lack of empathy for the women attacked, whose experiences are being erased. This is also the case for women attacked at events like Oktoberfest, whose experiences are being mobilised to erase the experiences of the women assaulted in Cologne.

    Kate Davison writing in Overland, and Ulrich Rippert writing on the World Socialist Website argue the small number of arrests to call into question whether attacks occurred at all. The Huffington Post’s German edition ran an article suggesting that the allegations of violence in Cologne were false rape allegations either consciously or unconsciously prompted by the racist atmosphere in Germany. More recently The Idependent ran an article headlined “Cologne: Three out of 58 men arrested over mass sex attack on New Year's Eve were refugees from Syria or Iraq”.

    These arguments are seriously flawed. Whilst it is true that only a small proportion of alleged perpetrators have been charged - this speaks to the difficulty in identifying people in the circumstances of the New Year’s Eve attacks - to suggest that it reflects a broad conspiracy by the German state does not fit the early response of the German state. Tobias Lill in arguing that the allegations reflect false rape allegations - relies on a number of examples women reportedly making false allegations against refugees- however only one of which was associated with the Cologne attacks - out more than 400 allegations (which is consistent with experiences around the world that very few allegations of rape are false). Lill misses the right’s argument - they are not only opposed to refugees but Muslms particularly from North Africa and the Middle East - of whom the refugees fleeing persecution and war are a subset - so arguing that those perpetrating violence were not refugees (which is questionable) will is not sufficient counter the racist fear campaigns being mounted by the right, particularly when they can shout that a significant proportion of those individuals who have been charged from the Cologne attacks (albeit primarily for theft) were from North Africa (25 Algerians, three Tunisians and 21 Moroccans), Syria, Iraq and Iran.

    Underlying all of these minimising arguments, is an assumption that if refugees were responsible for violence then it calls into the question the legitimacy of the right to asylum for other refugees. Rather than reject this logic these arguments simply attempt to negate the facts on which the right makes its arguments. Downplaying the seriousness of attacks is a flawed strategy as it not only doesn’t negate the racist arguments - but instead risks alienating anyone who has a genuine concern about the violence and leaves the left in a weakened position in dissuading them from accepting the xenophobic arguments of the right. A far more effective and honest argument is simply to deny the relevance of the actions of some individual refugees when it comes to answering the question of what Germany’s (or any other Western country’s) response should be to address the needs of millions of people currently in need of refuge globally.

    Orientalist approach of both the right and far-left
    A major factor underlying the attempt to erase and downplay the extent and seriousness of the violence on New Year’s Eve is that much of the Left discourse accepts the racist logic and assumptions of the Far-Right, Right and centrist parties - i.e. that non-Western cultures are homogenous - but the Left reject the Right’s argument that these cultures are universally misogynist and instead argue the opposite: that they are universally unproblematic. In order to sustain this position it is necessary for responsibility for violence to be shifted onto causes other than “culture”:
    • Sexual violence that is inherent with capitalism;
    • Marginalisation and alienation experienced by refugees;
    • The violence being a consequence of the perpetrator’s gender rather than their culture.
    All of these perspectives, while making some valid points, are flawed in their own way. It is undoubtedly the case that late capitalism promotes cultural products which objectify women and promote violence against them. However, it is odd to think that a brief exposure to the violence and sexism of German culture would be able to quickly overcome a cultural background that contained no attitudes and values that normalise and legitimise violence against women.

    Similarly, while alienation can be an important factor in triggering acts of violence, why would gendered violence manifest in the scale and organised fashion it did on New Year’s Eve? Alienation and disempowerment only make sense if the violence is seen as an antidote to those feelings; or if the targets of the violence are perceived somehow to be responsible for this alienation and thus deserving of punishment.


    While gender is undoubtedly a factor in the violence, gender is not culture-free. Indeed, masculinity and femininity - or what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” - are generally viewed as being culturally constructed and not universal characteristics.

    Viewing non-Western cultures as homogeneous is a reflection of what Edward Said described as Orientalism. Said also argued that orientalist views of culture see Westerners as being less bound or influenced by their culture than non-Western people. While we may view the right’s orientalist views as being more problematic (as they legitimise violence and war), the left’s Orientalism is also problematic as it erases:
    • The agency of women in North Africa and the Middle East, and their supporters, in seeking to transform their society’s attitude towards women;
    • The extent to which attitudes towards women within Western cultures are a consequence of feminist struggles;
    • The extent to which misogyny and sexism towards women within non-Western countries has been actively promoted by the West.
    There are long histories of struggle against sexism within North Africa and the Middle East and the involvement of women in broader liberation struggles. The most notable current example is the contribution and leadership of Kurdish women in the struggle against ISIS in Syria, particularly in the Women’s Protection Units. However, the struggle in the region for women’s rights has deep roots. The Turkish and Egyptian feminist movements date back to the nineteenth century, Turkish women achieved full suffrage in 1934 (this is earlier than in France and prior to the elimination limits to suffrage based on race based exclusions in Australia and the US), with 18 women elected to parliament in the Turkish elections that year (there were not that many women elected to Australian federal parliaments until the mid 1990s). It is also important to note that there were refugees in Cologne’s cathedral square who sought to stop attacks on women, and there have been the protests by refugee communities in Germany against the violence on New Year’s Eve - both of which have received little attention outside of Germany.

    Central to arguments that refugees pose a threat to Western societies is the idea that the West has a benevolent attitude towards women, or what Klein refers to as a thin “varnish of a civilized behaviour towards women”. Of course to sustain this position distance must be created between the gendered violence that exists in Western and non-Western cultures themselves. Those who seek to justify the exclusion of refugees based on the “inherently violent” cultures that refugees come from, ignore that Western cultures are themselves highly violent and misogynist. This is reflected in the already too-high level of violence against women in Germany (which at 1 in 7 of German women is lower than the 1 in 5 Australian women who have experienced sexual violence) but also other forms of violence in German society, such as the Far-Right’s recent spate of assassination attempts against politicians, including the attempt on Henriette Reker’s life the day prior to her election as Mayor of Cologne.

    White Germans (and white Australians) create distance between themselves and violence which occurs in Western societies. The perpetrators of violence are “othered” so it can be more easily argued that they do not represent the culture of that society. So pick-up artists and neomasculinists who advocate and teach rape tactics are not indictments against Western culture - but instead simply “sad losers” who live in their mother’s basement. Even the violence within institutions such as the police and armed forces are argued away as instances of bad apples or at worst problems with the internal culture of those institutions rather than a reflection of broader problems with western culture.

    Whilst most people in Australia (and for that matter Germany) would not publicly agree with the attitudes towards women articulated by MRAs - the National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Survey suggests that the vast majority of Australians understand that violence is a crime (96%), and that violence against women is a serious issue (95%). However below this general opposition to violence, lie widespread attitudes and beliefs that justify and legitimate violence, including sexual violence, against women: 1 in 5 Australians think that domestic violence is excusable if a person gets angry or later regrets it; only 59% of surveyed Australians “believe that women rarely make false claims of rape” - meaning that 41% believe that women often make false rape allegations (they don’t). These seemingly contradictory attitudes reflect the existence of both a view, which has been achieved through struggle, that violence towards women is wrong existing along side widespread attitudes that justify and legitimise such violence.

    The right’s cynical use of the New Year’s Eve attacks are premised on the idea that “Western attitudes towards women” are somehow more “enlightened” than the supposed “misogynist and patriarchal views” of non-Western countries - and that these attitudes are inherent to the respective cultures. However we should remember that the West’s “enlightenment” is not only superficial (as indicated above, but the gains for women that the idea of enlightenment is premised on, have only relatively recently been achieved through changes in laws (and not necessarily in cultural beliefs). Some of the rights for women, which women in Australia have achieved formally (but are not always able to access due to class and other oppressions) as a result of campaigns over the last 120 years include:
    • Ending women’s status as the legal property of their fathers and husbands;
    • The right to attend university;
    • The right to divorce and gain custody of children (in particular the introduction of no-fault divorce);
    • An end to compulsorily dismissal from government jobs upon marriage;
    • Criminalising domestic violence and marital rape;
    • Increased control of fertility [albeit limited and constantly under legal  threat - particularly for women experiencing additional intersections of oppression];
    • Some legal limits on mobilisation of victim blaming in rape prosecutions [most notably shield laws which formally limit the ability of a defence from raising a survivor’s sexual history, but sexist judges may still allow such defences];
    • Some restriction in the application of provocation defences which allow men to justify assault and murder on the basis “that their partner provoked them”;
    • Legal protections against discrimination in employment.
    Western imperialism has played a central role in supporting reactionary misogynist political movements in the Middle East that have undermined the political status of women. The Taliban in Afghanistan emerged as a part of a reactionary counter-revolutionary movement (led primarily by landlords) hostile to the land reforms of the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The Taliban sought to mobilise a broader opposition to the government by harnessing anger at advances in the rights of women. The success of the mujahedeen (from which the Taliban emerged) was made possible by the large scale military and financial support from the West, particularly the US government.

    Similarly, the US and other Western government have been hostile to other governments in Arab and predominantly Muslim countries that have advanced the rights of women - as these governments challenged Western interests - whilst propping up thoroughly misogynist regimes such as the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia. The impact of the Western imperialism’s support for misogyny can be seen in the decline in formal and practical rights between the Ba’athist regime in Iraq and the subsequent US protectorates in Iraq (women’s rights had been under assault in Iraq in the decade between the first and second gulf wars).

    Hegemonic masculinity
    If we recognise that all cultures contain progressive and reactionary characteristics, how can we account for violently misogynist attitudes that permeate society? Hegemonic masculinity is a concept coined by Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell in her 1993 work Masculinities. Rooted in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, hegemonic masculinities are those masculinities that base themselves on the subordinate position of women in relation to men. Like other hegemonies these masculinities primarily rely on ideas of the superiority to maintain the stability of this dominance. Behind these ideas of superiority is a capacity and willingness to mobilise violence to defend the domination of men.

    Implicit in this, is that there is not a singular hegemonic masculinity, but multiple masculinities which have their own concerns regarding threats to their hegemony and how best to respond to these threats.

    Anne Summers in her 2003 work The End of Equality argued that the emergence in Australia in the 1990s of various father’s rights groups was a response to gains of women in the Family Court associated with child custody. These groups sought and were successful in weakening the legal gains by women. Summers argued that part of the push back was associated with escalating violence by men towards women - violence which was most clearly articulated in the emergence of the Black Shirt father’s rights group. These developments in Australia continued, and has been seen in other Western countries, with the emergence of Men’s Rights Activism. These ‘activists’ are implacably hostile to feminism and advocate violence against women, asserting such violence exists in the ‘natural order’ of relations between men and women. MRAs simultaneously paint men as experiencing a uniquely ignored victimhood in order to undermine positive action to eradicate violence against women.

    The concept of hegemonic masculinity does not explain all violence by men towards women - nor does it deny the existence of gendered violence which is not perpetrated by men against women - however, it argues that much gendered violence can be explained within a framework where men’s violence towards women seeks to maintain, justify and legitimise men’s dominance over women.

    The existence of Western hegemonic masculinities supports the logic of the slogans of sections of the German Left which claim that violence against women is not an import into German society - at the same time, German hegemonic masculinity is not the primary cause of the New Year’s Eve attacks and the misogynist aftermath. At the same time there is no escaping that this misogyny (particularly by police and other state agents) did play a driving role in the series of events that followed.

    Across the West, we are seeing concerted attacks on refugees, asylum seekers and Muslim communities. These attacks, and the attempts by the Right to justify them based on the individual criminal individual acts by members of these communities, should be rejected totally as a cynical and racist attempts at collective punishment. It is important to fight against the marginalisation of refugees and any policies that seek to limit the rights of refugees to be united with their families. If violence within within our society is to be overcome the actions of the state actions needs to be directed by marginalised sections of the community - particularly the women in these communities. At the same time it is necessary to confront misogyny and violence against women and recognise that gendered violence is a problem in all communities. If we are to live in societies free of gendered violence then the attitudes and values that legitimise and justify that violence must be challenged with a focus on the many hegemonic masculinities in our communities as a priority.

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      Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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