What stirred the stormy seas in France?

May 24, 2016

The French government, led by Socialist Party President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, is being shaken to the core by mass protests and strikes. Though there are many sources for the discontent that has been coming to a boil throughout the year, the biggest mobilizations to date have been in opposition to an unpopular law proposed by the government's Labor Minister Myriam El Khomri.

The El Khomri Law revises numerous aspects of French labor law, including the principle that national laws and industry-wide economic agreements establish a baseline and any changes in local regulations or workplace deals must be more favorable toward workers.

When the proposed legislation provoked a storm of opposition, even from members of the center-left Socialist Party's parliamentary majority, the Hollande-Valls government invoked Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which blocked a final vote in parliament on the El Khomri Law--only a vote of no confidence that brought down the government could then stop it. Before coming to power, Hollande and Valls both opposed Article 49.3--but they used it anyway to ram through their neoliberal labor law.

Protests and strikes erupted en masse after the social democratic government's high-handed maneuver. The second national day of action called by a coordinating committee of worker and student unions was honored around the country. In Paris, some 100,000 took to the streets. More demonstrations are planned for this week and in June.

Léon Crémieux is an activist in the Solidaires trade union federation and in the New Anti-Capitalist Party. He wrote this article for the magazine Inprecor--it appeared in English, with explanatory footnotes, at the International Viewpoint website and is posted here edited slightly for U.S. publication.

FRANCE HAS entered a new situation since the beginning of March. Previously, the country was dominated by political polarization caused by the National Front and the parallel rise of the "national security" climate following the terrorist attacks in January and November 2015.

None of these elements has been canceled out, and you would have to be blind to think that all was swept away by the present movement.

But the key political event of recent weeks is that despite these two elements, which weigh heavily on political and social life, there has developed a multifaceted mobilization that already deserves to be compared with the great mobilizations of workers and youth over the last 15 years: those of 2003, 2006 and 2010.

In the months preceding March, we could sense the beginnings of a social confrontation. First of all, there was the broad current of sympathy expressed with the mobilization of Air France workers, symbolized by the episode last October where two executives had their shirts ripped off as they tried to escape protesters.[1]

Protesters take to the street against the government's labor law "reform"
Protesters take to the street against the government's labor law "reform"

In the same period, the number of walkouts and strikes in workplaces, especially small and medium-sized ones, increased significantly, especially around issues of wages during mandatory annual negotiations. Similarly, there was the strength of the mobilization on climate change during COP 21 climate conference in Paris--even though the terrorist attacks in November and the introduction of a state of emergency allowed the state to break the momentum of the street mobilizations. The establishment of support networks for migrants and the big demonstrations against the planned construction of the Notre Dame des Landes airport were also the result of action by tens of thousands of young people and activists, coordinated by their associations and social networks.

The first lesson of these developments and mobilizations was that the management of capitalist interests by social democracy, weak political opposition to the left of the SP and the lethargy of the union leaderships didn't cause a similar lethargy and drift of the whole of society, particularly for a large section of workers and young people hard hit by policies of austerity and unemployment.

On the contrary, the situation illustrated the profound alienation from the main institutional parties that have alternated in government over the last 20 years. The discrediting of these parties, in the absence of social struggles, has favored the steady rise of abstention in elections and of the vote for the National Front among popular layers in recent years.

On the social terrain, since the beginning of President François Hollande's term of office, many demands by the MEDEF employers' organization concerning labor law have been implemented through the Macron and Rebsamen laws, which continued the work of unraveling workers' rights that was begun in particular by the Fillon laws in 2008. The adoption by the Socialist governments of the employers' attitude on "labor costs" was the prelude to the National Inter-professional Agreement establishing competitiveness agreements. All this represented a further step toward aligning France with other European countries in terms of pushing back social rights.

The El Khomri Law--A Social Detonator

So the El Khomri law--at the heart of which is the reversal of the hierarchy of standards in employer-labor agreements--has become a social detonator. Obviously, because of its content--which abolishes the principle of favor,[2] among many other attacks – but especially because of all the other elements of the present context, it has been a real catalyst.

This is not the place to lay out immediate perspectives, and it is much too early to make a balance sheet of this movement, which could lead to a major confrontation and a political crisis, but could just as well fail in the face of the many brakes on it that exist.

However several elements can already be highlighted:

First of all, the way it started. There was a lot of preparatory work done by activist networks, including the Copernicus Foundation, the CGT and the Solidaires union federation, regarding the Combrexelle report and the Badinter project. But the mobilizing factor, the trigger and the call to demonstrate on March 9, were clearly and directly due to the social networks, with what is known as the "Caroline De Haas petition."[3]

What is revealing is the tone of the petition, in clearly demanding the withdrawal of the law, branding it as a frontal attack. That tone is in stark contrast to the declaration by union leaders on February 23. Not only did they not demand the withdrawal of the law, limiting themselves to more modest measures, but they complained especially about the lack of dialogue and concluded on the need for the government to meet with them. There was no call for the slightest mobilization.

Similarly the call to the first event, which was also the occasion for numerous calls to strike, came from an appeal that started from social networks and was supported very quickly by the initiators of the petition.

We must insist on this point, because what might seem to be trivial is indicative of a general orientation of passivity by the confederation union leaderships (the position of Solidaires is not to be put in the same category). This obviously draws support from the feeling of pessimism present among many union activists after the failure of the last great mobilization in 2010 (which was again linked to the policies of the union leaderships). But it is also the result of a general orientation around austerity policies, which since 2012 has been combined with their refusal to create too much trouble for a left government.

So the union leaders in no way sought, before the announcement of this law, to prepare their activists for a mobilization by conducting educational campaigns, providing information and raising the awareness of workers. And that's without even talking about conducting more political preparatory work, making a balance sheet of 2010 and putting forward the need for an a broad united movement, for a general strike to force the government to retreat. Two months later, the absence of this preparatory work is still being felt. It was even more necessary because over the last 30 years, the working class and all the popular strata have accumulated many defeats following a series of neoliberal attacks.

The Mainsprings of the Mobilization

But in this overall context, other contradictory elements are present, and it is from them that the dynamics of the mobilization draw support:

The French situation is still at odds with those experienced by other European countries, in which the capitalist juggernaut has done much more harm. There is a broad consciousness of what must be preserved--of what must be defended in terms of services, social security, employment regulations and labor laws. From this point of view, the neoliberal cultural revolution of the Socialist Party has faced many obstacles, even in what is left of its electoral support and its networks of activists. The reactions of the dissident Socialists and the initiators of the petition express this reflex of self-preservation of circles close to the SP or to the Front de Gauche (Left Front).[4]

The activists of the this social movement bear in mind the memory of defeats, but also of strong mobilizations of workers and youth. Until 2010, the country had regularly experienced full-scale confrontations--by workers against pension reforms in 1995, 2003 and 2010, and in a powerful movement drawing its strength from university and school students in 2006, leading to victory against the CPE (First Employment Contract). It should also be emphasized that the victory of 2006 against the Villepin government was obtained after the government had to force through its law by using Article 49.3...perhaps a lesson to be remembered in the coming weeks.[5]

In a different vein, many people, young and not so young, in the popular neighborhoods also remember the urban revolt led by the youth of those neighborhoods for four weeks in October-November 2005, after the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who were chased by police into electricity sub-station in Clichy-sous-Bois and died of electrocution. This revolt produced a profound break between the youth and practically all parties and movements, apart from some of the far left (including the LCR). The alienation of these sectors of the population--especially young Arabs and Blacks, who were targeted by all the law and order campaigns and stigmatized by Sarkozy at the time,[6] while they were also the first victims of unemployment and job insecurity--has persisted in recent years and been compounded by the wave of Islamophobia that swept the country since January 2015. This break is also visible in the present movement, whereas, paradoxically, young people were very active in the movement of 2006, a few months later, against the CPE.

The dismantling of social, political and trade union structures. Until the late 1990s, the workers' movement, including its political wing, constituted a fabric made up of many threads, a fabric with many tears in it, but which still maintained some common references coming from its from history and its "great" battles.

The 2000 decade and the return of social democracy to government transformed the earlier tears in the fabric into deep cuts. This has meant, in particular, that new generations of often radical activists involved in migrant, anti-fascist or climate struggles, active in many union branches, especially in precarious sectors, do not see their struggles as being part of a "workers' movement," which appears to them as defunct. Contradictorily, whereas the old generations of activists, absorbed by institutional politics, have thrown away their revolutionary hopes, the new generations who do not have the same traditional baggage often have a strong awareness of the evils of capitalist barbarism and are always receptive to political arguments about the need for revolutionary transformation. This consciousness is often combined with a very strong demand for real democracy, and a rejection of decision-making being delegated to representatives--the heritage of the fiascos of Stalinism and of social democratic governments. There remains a profound heterogeneity among these younger generations. There is obviously a social cleavage, which is reinforced by the reactions of young people from popular neighborhoods, driven by a racist society to define themselves as Blacks, Arabs and Muslims. In this regard, all young people were certainly not Charlie...The present movement can overcome many of these divisions, but it has not happened yet.

The restructuring of the economic fabric, in industry and services, obviously has very considerable effects on the difficulties of organizing and the atomizing of consciousness. As well as political disintegration of the workers' movement, there is objective destructuring (subcontracting, undermining of job status, etc.) whose effects have not really been opposed by the trade union movement. The difficulties of mobilization and extension in many sectors are obviously also related to this reality, which further weakens the consciousness of belonging to the same class.

Political Crisis

Recent weeks have also revealed the level of political crisis. There is obviously first of all the crisis of the institutional parties. The repudiation of the government and the Socialist Party is reflected in the stalemate that the government faces, unable to get its own MPs to vote in support of its policies (whatever the final outcome of the parliamentary debate on the El Khomri law).[7] The discrediting of the SP is also reflected in the polls; the trend is undeniable and makes this government and the Hollande-Valls partnership the most widely rejected perhaps since the beginning of the Fifth Republic. The corollary of this crisis is obviously the internal crisis of the SP, illustrated by the grotesque debates around the idea of a primary on the left--which accentuates the crisis of the PCF--and the place that is being taken by Emmanuel Macron.[8] Even the project of Valls, to rapidly make the SP the French equivalent of Matteo Renzi's party in Italy, is losing its substance, overtaken on the right.

This crisis is finding its symmetrical counterweight in the crisis of the Republicans[9], and in the final analysis, for the same reasons.

Today, all the mainstream parties in Europe are affected by the changes imposed by globalization and the neoliberal reforms brutally imposed since 2008. After Greece, Italy and the Spanish state, in its way, France is seeing a level of discrediting of these parties that is sending out alarm signals. This obviously poses the need for the bourgeoisie to restructure its political apparatus, breaking down boundaries that appear obsolete.

In France, the crisis may soon be matched by a deeper crisis of the institutions and of the political system itself. The institutions of the Fifth Republic were designed for a system dominated by one party, the same party in the Senate, in the National Assembly and in the Elysée Palace, around a strong regime and a strong President. With the crisis of Gaullism and of the dominant bipartisanship, it was necessary to introduce the reform of 2001, which established a presidential regime, welding the parliamentary majority to the president. It was a crisis solution to the vagaries of cohabitation. But once again, this meant maintaining a supremacy of the dominant parties.

Today, the rise in the level of abstention and of the National Front, plus the discrediting of the Socialist Party and the Republicans is rendering this edifice fragile. It also shows that France, despite possessing the "values of the Republic," is--along with the United Kingdom--the country that has the most archaic electoral system, with elections in single-member constituencies and no proportional representation. France is even worse than the UK, since the election of the president makes him in fact the only head of state with real political power in the European Union.

So the last element characterizing this movement, seen especially in the debates of Nuit Debout,[10] is the 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 rejection of the financial system, energy choices, border closures, policies of unemployment and precarious work are the ingredients that are producing a rejection of the political system, but also of the capitalist system itself. This is latent in society, and it is patently obvious in places where people express themselves, such as Nuit Debout.

So this movement contains many strengths and weaknesses. The coming weeks will tell which will dominate.

Necessity and lack of political representation of the exploited and oppressed

This only highlights the need for and the absence of a political party with a discourse and action that unites all these different elements by staying focused on what makes a common force and by defining a common goal: the general struggle against a political system that has produced the Panama Papers, Calais and the thousands of migrants killed in the Aegean, climatic disturbances, insecurity, social misery and so on.

The movement that is developing calls into question both the objectives and the structures of the capitalist economic and social system and denounces the reality of the places where power lies and the anti-democratic rules of political life and decision-making.

It therefore poses the question of the political representation of the exploited and oppressed and of a project capable of meeting the demands that are emerging. The social struggles of recent months--over climate change, migrants, Notre Dame des Landes, the El Khomri law and many, many strikes--pose all the elements of resistance to the system; they pose demands, both fundamental and immediate, and they outline the paths towards a society that will be guided by fulfilling social needs and will provide the political instruments to achieve these demands, instruments of real democracy, involving choice, debate and decisions. Social struggles and political perspectives (not electoral politics) will be a permanent part of it. All these elements of struggle and resistance will come up against a class society that is brutal, determined to maintain and increase exploitation, and that is forging and re-forging national and European institutions to be seats of untrammelled power, entirely dedicated to maintaining the system and escaping more and more from any kind of democratic and popular control. The Greek experience, the rejection of migrants, the Panama Papers and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement have illustrated, in less than a year, many elements of the way that this society really functions. The debate around these issues is indispensable among those who have been activists of social movements for years. It is indispensable among the younger generation, which by different paths is raising the same strategic questions. This requires putting forward "transitional" demands that attack the heart of the system of capitalist exploitation, that attack the social oppression that structures it and also the institutions and the undemocratic rules of the political system; transitional demands that trace the path towards a society free of capitalist exploitation and able to eliminate all forms of oppression.


1. In the course of a protest by Air France employees against projected layoffs, two company executives had their shirts torn off, one of them while clambering over a security fence to escape. The outrage expressed by the media and the political world was not shared by many French people.
2. According to the "principle of favor," industry-wide and workplace agreements had to be more favorable to employees, not less so, than agreements at a higher level (for example, workplace agreements had to be more favorable than industry-wide agreements, which had to be more favorable than the legislative requirements). In all cases, the more favorable conditions had to be applied. This bill, in line with employers' demands, reverses this hierarchy. Workplace agreements may be less favorable to employees than the industry-wide agreements and legal provisions.
3. Caroline de Haas, leader of the feminist group Osez le feminism, a former Socialist Party activist and collaborator of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as women's rights minister, launched an online petition against the proposed law on February 19.
4. The dissident Socialists or "frondeurs" are a group of Socialist MPs opposed to the neoliberal austerity policies of the SP government.
5. Article 49.3 enables a government to pass a law on its first reading without a vote in parliament. Parliament's only way to counter this is adopting a motion of no confidence in the government. The government used this provision to force through the El Khomri law on May 10. The left opposition of the "frondeurs" and the Front de Gauche MPs failed to gain 10 percent of MPs to support their "left-wing" censure motion. The right-wing motion failed, as the "frondeurs" did not vote for it (unlike the CP) having been threatened with expulsion from the party.
6. He called for them to be cleaned by Kärcher (high pressure water hoses).
7. This article was written before the use of the 49.3 on May 10.
8. Emmanuel Macron, Minister of Economy in the Hollande-Valls government is no longer a member of the SP and prides himself on his pro-business attitude. He has founded a political movement "En marche" and is widely rumored to be about to announce his intention to stand as a candidate in the presidential elections in 2017.
9. Les Républicains is the mainstream right-wing party. It changed its name from Union for a Popular Movement in May 2015, and Nicolas Sarkozy is once again leader of the party.
10. The name for the mass protest movement that translates to "Stay up all night."

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