For months, strikes and occupations, blockades and street demonstrations have swept France in protest against the Socialist Party government’s plan to gut the country’s labour code. The code du travail runs to 3,400 pages, and contains a host of protections and minimum conditions for workers. President François Hollande and prime minister Manuel Valls in February announced the attack, which is one of the biggest on the working class since the Second World War. John Mullen, a member of the anti-capitalist grouping Ensemble in the Paris region, outlines the most recent developments.
There is a high level of class anger, an explosion of creative fighting tactics and a very deep crisis in social democracy in France. Thursday 23 June was the 11th day of action against the government’s vicious employment bill. Masses around the country showed continuing determination not to allow the bill to become law.
Lively demonstrations took to the streets in dozens of towns, including at least one that hadn’t seen a demonstration in 50 years. Workplace voting in a “citizens’ referendum” about the bill was going on across France this week, and some oil depots were still blocked by workers’ pickets. Nevertheless, the movement is weaker than it was and the next few weeks will be crucial.
The background to the current crisis is the relative success of the French working class over the last 30 years in slowing down neoliberal attacks. This has had very concrete effects. My daughter, when she goes to university, will pay £200 a year; my niece in Britain will pay £9,000. My wife, a primary school teacher in Paris, can retire at 60; my sister in a care profession in the UK has to wait until she is 67. Pensioner poverty is far higher in the UK than in France, council housing still gets built – one can find many more examples.
So French bosses, despite all the handouts they have had from this so-called socialist government, are impatient to go much further. The new bill would allow national minimum conditions – on overtime pay rates or on the length of the working week, for example – to be overturned by local workplace agreements. The bosses are extremely keen for this, since they can see that such a law could severely weaken the power of national union agreements for 50 years or more. This is what has caused months of strikes and demonstrations. It’s very much a political movement, not simply about immediate economic interests. Many of the effects of the law would not be felt for years, and some groups out on the one-day strikes, such as teachers, would not be affected, but understand that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Prime minister Valls would like to become the Tony Blair of French politics and move the Socialist Party decisively to the right. To do this, he is ready to lose both his present electoral base (his popularity rating is 16 percent) and even the next election. He believes that a defeated working class will vote him back into office the next time around. The employment bill has become Valls’ key battle. This is why, in recent weeks, he has made concessions in other areas – the first pay rise for teachers in many years has been announced and long-standing student union demands on training have been conceded, as well as concessions for rail workers.
At the same time, state repression has been ramped up. The union demonstration on May Day was attacked by police for the first time since the 1970s. Levels of police violence are considerably higher than usual. Demonstrations now routinely include street medics – medical staff who come with equipment to treat those beaten by the police.
The government has been stunned by the strength of the movement. One-day strikes across the economy are accompanied by “renewable strikes” in the most militant workplaces, where strike meetings decide every few days whether to continue. These have taken place in transport, airlines, rubbish collection, oil refineries, power stations and electricity companies.
Dynamic, original tactics have been used. Motorway toll booths have been occupied, letting cars through for free and collecting money for strikers; bus depots, train lines and oil depots have been blockaded. An online strike fund collected more than €400,000. Students barricaded universities and high schools. The Up all Night movement occupied squares around the country for many weeks and, along with the student actions, has mobilised a new generation of activists. They have been involved in mass forums and in solidarity actions with refugees and with strikers, both those acting against the employment bill and those striking about other issues.
What ideas this new generation of activists will turn to is one of the most important questions of the year. They are certainly being presented with plenty of choices. In the Up all Night assemblies you can see many defending lifestyle politics: become a vegan, set up a local currency or barter system to defy capitalism, campaign against the idea of work, etc. Others insist that directly confronting the forces of the state (that is, fighting the police) has to be at the centre of political strategy. But people changing their lifestyle leaves the power of capitalism intact. And the state will always be better at street fighting than our side (not to mention the elitism involved in small group street fighting means that it becomes reserved for young men).
Fortunately, the very roots of Up all Night – class struggle over rights at work – have led significant sections of the movement toward putting the working class at the centre of their orientation. Popular activities have included working with local trade unionists to blockade bus depots on strike days, visiting picket lines and collecting money for strikers.
The movement against the employment bill has gone through three phases. In March and April, high school students were central. Exam season has now stopped the blockades of schools, though there are still large numbers of young people on the demonstrations. In April, the Up all Night square occupations were the most visible part of the movement. In May, the prime minister used a special decree to cancel the parliamentary debate on the bill and push it through its first reading without discussion. The renewable strikes, especially in transport and rubbish collection, then came to the fore.
Those launching renewable strikes could not hold out alone for more than two or three weeks. But national union leaders did not want to go further than one-day strikes – they are professional negotiators who see strikes as a way of strengthening their hand in talks aimed at reaching a deal, and they do not want to see the Socialist Party government overthrown and replaced with a right wing administration under which trade union leaders would be much less influential.
We seem to be at a temporary stalemate. Hollande is weak: when asked by pollsters if they wanted him to stand again for president next year, only 14 percent of the population said yes! He has failed to win over the public as he had hoped. New opinion polls register 67 percent against the employment bill, and 60 percent say that the movement is “justified”. This is despite a disgusting propaganda campaign against the trade unions, which highlighted broken office windows at a children’s hospital on the route of a recent march to portray demonstrators as heartless anarchists. (Meanwhile, this year, the government is cutting 20,000 jobs in our hospitals!)
Public opinion, though, cannot in itself win the day. Most of the renewable strikes have now stopped, even thought the mass demonstrations are very angry and do not at all have the atmosphere of defeat. The bill still has to pass through its second reading in the National Assembly and another day of action is planned for 28 June. The Socialist MPs are divided, and some may propose a motion of censure against the government if it again applies the 49.3 decree, which allows the bill to pass without debate.
The government is divided over tactics. This week was a ridiculous circus, with Valls asking the unions to call off the demonstration because of the broken windows and because the police had been working too hard due to the Euro 16 football championship. When the unions refused, the march was banned. In the face of widespread condemnation (even by the French Confederation of Labour, the one union confederation which supports the employment bill) the government backtracked, but authorised a very short march route.
Our side has been weakened by the strategy of the union leaderships. Though they have supported sections of the movement calling strikes, they have not wanted to build even for a one-day general strike, which could have been organised. Yet there is not an alternative leadership for the working class.
It is similar on the political front. Throughout the movement members of anti-capitalist groups (such as Ensemble, the group I belong to, or the New Anticapitalist Party) have been involved in building actions. The Communist Party and Left Party have also mobilised. Nevertheless, no organisation has given a clear political lead on how to win. For the anti-capitalist organisations, this is mainly because both are very much federalist groups; each locality decides on action independently.
Recent events have raised many political questions for anti-capitalists, such as how to relate to Socialist Party members and voters. Many Socialist Party offices around the country have been smashed up, and some leading revolutionary activists have, sadly, been publicly applauding such actions and supporting a campaign of pledges entitled “I will never again vote for the Socialist Party”.
This approach is a mistake. Attacking Socialist Party offices makes Hollande’s job easier by uniting the party, within which there is significant opposition to this bill. And the campaign to never vote Socialist puts the dividing line in the wrong place – between those who hate the party in its entirety, and those who might vote for it against a fascist candidate or in order to elect a local Socialist Party mayor who at least builds low-rent housing.
The dividing line needs to be based on class interest, not on who does and does not have illusions in social democracy. The result of this confusion is that when a group of anarchists attacked the union headquarters of the French Confederation of Labour, the radical left did not denounce the action.
Will the government be able to push its law through a second reading, despite backbench rebellions and further days of action planned by the unions? The lack of respect shown for even formal bourgeois democracy when debate was cancelled during the first reading of the bill infuriated millions of people and was a key factor in strengthening the movement. Dare they do it again? And can Up all Night rise from its present weakened but still active state? Will the government manage to use the summer holidays to pass the law?
Both sides have strengths and weaknesses, and we must do all we can to make it fall our way.
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