French workers answer back with strikes

June 1, 2016

Elizabeth Schulte explains the background to the center-left government's harsh new attack on workers--and reports on the eruption of bitter anger it has provoked.

A GENERAL strike rocked France at the end of May in the latest escalation of protests and workplace actions against the government's attempt to scrap long-standing protections for workers. The economy ground to a halt as dockworkers in port cities like Le Havre, workers in oil refineries and nuclear power stations, airport and Paris metro workers and many more took action.

The strikes and protests began several months ago, including the "Nuit Debout" (Up All Night) occupation of the Place de la République in Paris, with its echoes of the Indignados protests in Spain and the Occupy movement in the U.S. in 2011.

The anger is directed at Socialist Party President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls--especially at their new labor "reform" that will dramatically affect workers already feeling the impact of the center-left government's pro-business policies.

The so-called El Khomri bill, proposed by Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri, would make it easier for companies to fire workers and get around the 35-hour workweek. Currently, the French labor code sets the terms of employment--the El Khomri law would give employers more power over the length of the workday, wages, and hiring and firing.

French workers march during the day-long general strike against labor law "reform"
French workers march during the day-long general strike against labor law "reform"

The "socialist" government claims the law will eliminate antiquated work rules and make it easier for young workers, who currently face double-digit unemployment, to find jobs. But French workers, young and old, know that the only people who will benefit from this "reform" are the employers.

The solution isn't pulling workers down to a common lower level, but raising all of them up. In a statement published in L'Humanité, Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), called for negotiations on a new labor law that would provide greater rights and job security, not "a return to the 19th century."

Opposition to the law runs high, as does anger over the undemocratic way it was pushed through parliament.

When it was clear that it didn't have enough votes among Socialist Party members in the lower house of parliament, the Hollande-Valls government invoked Article 49.3 of the Constitution. That blocked a final vote that might have gone against the El Khomri 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.

Now, the labor law goes to the Senate, which will begin debate on June 14, and the unrest is certain to continue. The European football championships begin on June 10--fans will be met by anti-government demonstrations, including rolling strikes on the Paris Metro. The CGT has called for a national day of action on June 14.

ON MAY 26, workers took to the streets with massive protests. Unions estimated that some 300,000 people took part in demonstrations, including railway workers, postal workers, students, low-wage workers, the unemployed and retirees.

The CGT, the main union federation in France, was joined by at least six other unions in calling for strikes in opposition to the proposed law. Workers shut down production in workplaces all over France.

In Donges in Western France, a blockade of burning tires stopped traffic into and out of a Total oil refinery. Six of France's eight refineries were completely shut down or had production diminished due to the strikes, resulting in fuel shortages--in Paris, 40 percent of gas stations reported running low.

Truckers blocked strategic points in the north and south of the country, stopping deliveries to a supermarket hub and fuel depots. Workers shut down the publication and distribution of national newspapers, except for the left-wing daily L'Humanité, which supported the strikes.

Airport workers, many of them subcontractors, joined walkouts at Charles De Gaulle Airport, also known as Roissy, outside Paris. Fatiha, a hostess at a VIP lounge in the airport, described the fears of her co-workers, many of whom are kept from being part of a union because they are considered subcontractors. "My colleagues are mainly women who are single parents," she told L'Humanité. "They earn minimum wage and can ill afford to lose a day's pay even if they agree with me."

Despite this, there have been several actions at Roissy, including a May 17 strike by workers at a company that hires people to accompany disabled passengers.

The government's use of Article 49.3 made many workers even angrier. "With this provision in force, I feel less and less like I'm living in a democracy," said David, a 44-year-old postal worker at the airport sorting center. "In the second round of presidential elections in 2012, I voted for Hollande, and he betrayed us."

Police, equipped with riot gear and tear gas, were sent in during the general strike to crack down on protesters, who were depicted in the media as violent thugs. But any violence was largely initiated by police, who have been given increasing authority to go after demonstrators.

France has been under a state of emergency since late last year following terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November. The Hollande government has used the attacks as an excuse to further militarize the already heavily armed French police--and crack down widely on dissent, no matter if there isn't the remotest connection to terrorism.

But ordinary people aren't buying the message that protesters are violent thugs. Opinion polls show that 74 percent of the public opposes the government's law, and large numbers support the strikes. "This is disinformation to discredit us," said David, a worker at the airport. "We are workers, not thugs."

MAY'S GENERAL strike is the most recent episode in the months of protests stemming from opposition to the labor law specifically--and from a more general sentiment among workers that the Hollande government doesn't represent them.

The Nuit Debout is part of that outpouring of anger. Beginning on March 31, nightly protests of thousands of young people at the Place de la République in the heart of Paris spread to other cities in the following weeks. Tens of thousands of people attended nightly mass meetings, defying harassment and violence from police.

Before this, there were more examples of resistance to neoliberal austerity, including protests by Air France workers and walkouts in a number of smaller workplaces over wages. Last December, significant environmental protests took place during the COP 21 climate conference in December, despite the government demanding that demonstrations be canceled because of the recently declared state of emergency.

Léon Crémieux, an activist in the Solidaires trade union federation and member of the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), explained in an article for Inprecor that the last two decades have been punctuated by fierce struggles in France--against pension reforms in 1995, 2003 and 2010, a youth-led protest against another labor law attack in 2006, a rebellion against racist police violence in 2005. The current tide of protest deserves to be compared to those mass mobilizations, Crémieux writes.

Today, the "socialist" government is slashing labor laws in the name of "reform," while protecting the interests of the employers' federation MEDEF, whose leader Pierre Gattaz condemned the "thugs' methods" of the unions and urged the government to "resist their blackmail."

Actually, the extortion works the other way. Unemployment stood at 10.6 percent earlier this year, with youth unemployment running as high as 25 percent. Meanwhile, corporate profits are up, and France's economy grew faster than expected in the first quarter of the year.

Hollande is eager to prove that he can transform France into a lean-and-mean economy that slashes so-called lenient work rules in order to compete on the world market. He is up for re-election in a year, and inside the SP, there are signs of discontent about the direction his government has taken. On May 27, 56 Socialist members of parliament came out in opposition to the El Khomri bill.

But Hollande remains defiant, telling Europe 1 radio before the strike: "I will not give in because too many [previous] governments have backed down." He also promised to be hard on protesters accused of taking part in violence--yet he says nothing about the violence of police.

WITH ITS utter disregard for the conditions facing working people and its role in whipping up an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim atmosphere with the call for a "state of emergency," the Hollande-Valls government has provided an opening for the far right to get a hearing. In regional elections last December, the far-right National Front got some 7 million votes.

But the outpouring of class resistance--which is uniting union members alongside younger low-wage workers, students and the unemployed--is showing an alternative.

In the face of growing social and political polarization and the Socialist Party government leading the attack on living standards for the majority of people in France, workers are building their own opposition. Crémieux describes:

a profound gap between the demands of democracy and the desire for decisions to be made by the people concerned rather than uncontrollable officials, and the reality of the system and its institutions. It is obvious both that the political system is profoundly undemocratic and that real power lies outside elected assemblies. The banks and the multinationals, the centers of capitalist power, not only make laws but exonerate themselves from obeying them.

The upsurge seems certain to continue through June 14, when the Senate begins deliberations on the labor law. As the NPA said in a recent statement:

We must build the mobilizations, go on strike, join the blockades. We must combine radicalism with the necessity of broadening the movement...The crisis is deepening because the feeling that "they don't represent us" is so widespread. There is a different kind of legitimacy, that of the streets, of the workplaces, of the exploited and oppressed mobilizing for themselves, building up themselves, in order to force the withdrawal of the labor law and force the departure of Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his government.

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