Wednesday, April 6, 2016

France: Movement against labour law swells as hundreds of thousands join protests and strikes

Lisbeth Latham

The hopes of French President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls of easily driving through their new labour law, that will dramatically cut rights from France’s Labour Code (which sets minimum conditions of employment – particularly in companies with no collective agreement – sets the institutional role of France’s union confederations) was dealt a severe blow as hundreds of thousands of people answered the call of worker and student unions for a day of strikes and mobilisations on March 31. These large mobilisations which were double the size of the previous united day of action on March 9. Despite growth, there remain considerable challenges for the movement if it is to force the government to retreat from its assault on worker’s rights.

Growing Movement
The March 31 mobilisations were larger than the earlier March 9 protests in all measures. Protests were held in 250 towns and cities compared to 140 previously. Union estimates put the number of participants at 1.2 million (up from 500, 000 on March 9), while police estimated 390, 000 people up from 250, 000. The largest demonstration was in Paris where 140, 000 people marched despite heavy rain – other large protests occurred in Marseille (120, 000) and Toulouse (100, 000). High School students unions reported 250 high schools were blockaded up from the peak of 200 during the student day of protest on March 17. University and high school student unions estimate that more than 200, 000 students participated in protests across France.

Socialist government’s efforts to demobilise fail
In the face of widespread hostility to the law (opinion polls suggest that 70% of people are opposed to the laws) the PS lead government have hoped to demobilise protests based on both on appearing to listen to protests and in making concessions in amending the proposed legislation. In the wake of March 9 protests, Valls announced that he would meet with student organisations and that he “looked forward to seeing the student proposals” on the laws. The draft legislation that was sent to the Council of Ministers on March 24 was heavily amended compared to the original draft – however it continues to contain major attacks on workers and the unemployed.

While the government was hoping that its concessions would help to divide and demobilisation the movement they have also been hoping that the continued failure of the leadership of “reformist” unions such as the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Labour Confederation - CFDT), which after initially attempting wrangling amendments to the bill has acted to supported the bill, would help to undermine the mobilisations. Instead the more militant unions have repeatedly stated that the bill is unamendable and that it needs to be withdrawn in total. As a result there have been reports of members of the reformist unions particularly the CFDT and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) joining the protests.

A reflection of the impact of the failure of the government’s strategy is reflected in the collapse in popularity of both Hollande and Valls whose approval ratings are down to 15% and 27% respectively, Hollande’s approval rating is the lowest ever for a Socialist president.

Police Repression
As with previous mobilisations March 31 featured clashes between security forces and protesters with more than 100 people arrested and dozens of injuries. This violence has been made easier by the continued state of emergency which was put in place in the wake of the November 15 terror attacks in Paris. Police violence, particularly towards high school students – highlighted by member CRS riot police breaking a 15 year-old student’s nose on March 24 – has caused wide spread anger. The daily left-wing paper Liberation has been calling on witnesses to police violence to send it videos of any violence from protests. A joint statement issued by student organisations on April 4, set an objective of their mobilisations as “an immediate end to police repression and prosecutions as well as the immediate lifting of the state of emergency”.

For a reduced working week
The premise underlying the labour law is the need to tackle France’s growing unemployment problem, which currently stands at more than 10%. However as student and the militant unions are pointing out the proposed laws will do nothing to reduce unemployment but instead are aimed at boosting profits and flexibility for capital. In addition to calling for the bill to be abandoned the radical union confederation Solidaires and student organisations are calling for a further reduction of the working week – with Solidaires arguing that 32 hour week is necessary along with significant increases in the status and financial support for the unemployed.

Movement to come
The combining factors of the massive growth in the movement, the continuing refusal of the government to seriously engage with the opposition to the bill and the police repression has resulted in a speeding up and intensification of the movement. This is reflected in the large numbers of people who occupied public squares across France in the evening of March 31. In the evening of March 31 the leaderships of the worker and student unions that are leading the campaign issued a statement calling for the total withdrawal of the bill and for further mobilisations on April 5 (students) and April 9 (all sectors). On April 1 the general assemblies of students were held at Paris I (Tolbiac and Sorbonne) and at Paris VIII (Saint-Denis) universities both of which issued statements committing to further mobilisation and continuing the work of informing the university community of the campaign. Over April 2 – 3 a national coordinating meeting of university students was held and a joint statement was issued on April 4. This statement endorsed the mobilisations that had already been called for April 5 and April 9 and announced three further student mobilisations for April 12, 14 and 20 – with the objective of linking up with workers to build a renewable (i.e indefinite) general strike. In the statement students warned that the government is relying on the approaching university holidays to help to demobilise students (which occurred in 2006 following the withdrawal of the First Employment Contract law) but that students should instead use the holidays as an opportunity to intensify organising efforts. The statement also called on the university administrations not impede further mobilisations – which necessitates the universities postponing exams.

The continued growth of the movement has the potential to force the government to backdown – just as it was last week on its push to change France’s constitution to allow individuals convicted of terror related offences of their citizenship – however it is important to keep in mind that the current movement is far short of previous mass French worker and student mobilisations (1995, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2010) most of which were unable to generate sufficient pressure to defeat the neo-liberal assaults on the rights of workers by right-wing governments. While the push for increased mobilisations, particularly the proposal of university students, are important steps – there remain important challenges. The student push for a renewable general strike, which if realised would place massive pressure on the government, faces the serious challenge of the limited support within the union movement for such a strike – at this point only Solidaires (which is calling for such a strike and has a long record of advocating for a general strike as a mechanism for defeating government attacks) and Fédération Nationale des Industries Chimiques Confédération générale du travail (National Chemical Industry Federation General Confederation of Labour - FNIC CGT) which has advocated for a renewable strike in the chemical industry and in oil refining (the FNIC CGT lead a month long strike in France’s oil refineries during October 2010 against both attacks on France’s pensions and restructuring in that sector). An danger of the increase pace of the student mobilisations is that if the broader movement does not expand the students risk narrowing and exhausting their own campaign. It is this challenge of negotiating the need to expand the size, strength and pace of mobilisation – whilst avoiding exhausting those are already a part of campaign which faces the militant wing movement and which will be answered in the coming weeks.

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