France: The Movement Against the El Khomri Labour Law - How to Move Forward?

With over a million demonstrators, the protests of March 31 confirmed the deep unpopularity of "La loi Travail" [Labour law] amongst the youth and workers of France. That same night, in Paris's iconic Place de la République, thousands of people - especially young people - participated in the very first "Nuit Debout", or overnight occupation of the square. A very enthusiastic atmosphere helped the protesters as they refused to go back home or even fall asleep. Every night since, the square has found itself occupied by workers and youth.

protest-khomriHowever, following that protest-filled night of March 31, the government has responded to protesters by simply reaffirming its unwavering support for the El Khomri bill. This is not surprising. This counter-reform is just what is needed to satisfy the objective needs of today's French ruling class. If it becomes law, the capitalists will be even freer than they already are to significantly increase the exploitation of workers, lower wages and terminate employment more easily. The stakes are high for big business - and therefore also for its lackeys, President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls. They will not give up on this proposed counter-reform just because a million people expressed their discontent on the nation's streets on this or that day.

By themselves, these great "days of action" like March 31, cannot make the government abandon its planned attack on the working class. Many workers have already realized this through personal experience. French workers still remember the failure of the movement against the Woerth "reforms" which sought to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. This movement, which took place in the autumn of 2010, failed despite several "days of action" that had over three million participants. Despite all this, the union leadership in France that has been organizing these "days of action" against “La loi Travail” have yet to learn the lessons of 2010. Or, more likely, they are only pretending not to have learned these lessons.

The role of union leadership

CGT76In a March 31st press release the leadership of the CGT (one of the five main French trade unions) states: "The government must withdraw this proposed law. It will prove futile to persist stubbornly for several weeks as was done in trying to make constitutional the revoking of citizenship and the state of emergency measures. The proposals this government offers alongside the MEDEF [the largest bosses’ "union" in France] are outdated; it's been over thirty years that France, as well as Europe, has been experiencing a decline in workers' rights and wages with the only consequences being rising unemployment and an increase in dividends paid to shareholders (25% in 2015)."

Who are the CGT leadership trying to convince here? It's not clear. They ask the government not to be stubborn and then come up with the idea that the government's policies favor "an increase in dividends paid to shareholders." Do they not understand that that is precisely the point - the point of this proposed labor law and all other government policies? The government is being stubborn and has been since 2012 because they want to ensure that there is "an increase in dividends paid to shareholders." Moreover, the references to the "revoking of citizenship" and the "state of emergency" are not at all relevant. Hollande did not acquiesce on the question of revoking citizenship due to pressure from the streets, but because it threatened to bring about a parliamentary fiasco, especially thanks to right-wing deputies and senators. As for the state of emergency, it has yet to be lifted.

"It will prove futile to persist stubbornly for several weeks . . ." the leadership of the CGT says to the government. But “La loi Travail” is not some kind of temper tantrum based on a mistake. Again, this is a counter-reform tailor-made to serve the fundamental interests of the ruling class. The government is therefore determined to hold on for "several weeks", especially if it only has to deal with scheduled "days of action," no matter how massive they may be. This is what the CGT leaders should be explaining to all young people and workers, all while indicating the way to lead a victorious struggle - and while organizing this very struggle.

The statement of the CGT ends with the following paragraph: "With all the trade union organizations behind the struggle of March 31, we will propose to continue and intensify the action, strikes and demonstrations, especially on April 5 towards parliamentarians and on Saturday, April 9 and afterwards until the withdrawal of this bill and the gain of new social rights." The leadership of the CGT proposes to protest, on April 5, a parliament in which we already know the majority strongly supports “La loi Travail”. What's the point? One has to wonder. The workers are not willing to lose a day's pay for nothing, so there will be little to no strikes on April 5. As to April 9, a Saturday, again, there will be few strikes. These days will end up being days of protests. The CGT's press release refers to an intensification of action, including "strikes", but it does not foresee any truly massive strike. It is possible - and desirable - that April 9 ends up being a bigger day for the movement than March 31. But will it be this "day of action" itself that will make the government back down? That seems out of the question for us.

Are the leaders of the CGT as naïve as their March 31 statement seems to indicate? We do not think so. They know that the government is determined to pass the El Khomri bill and they understand that only an escalting strike movement embracing a growing number of economic sectors is likely to force the government to acquiesce. But this prospect frightens them as much it frightens the government and the ruling class. Why?

Because an escalating strike movement can quickly gain its own momentum, pushing it beyond the control of union leaders, and may lead to an unlimited general strike - as in May '68 - of revolutionary dimensions.

It is exactly this possibility that would make the government retreat; the ruling class only makes concessions when it fears it is on the brink of possibly losing everything, especially in times of crisis. But nothing could be further from the intentions of the union leaders. They long for calm and stability. In order to look good to the workers, they now lecture the government, tell them not to be "stubborn", and make empty threats - all while patiently awaiting the ebb of the movement. This is the reality of what is happening in the leadership of French trade unions. Having learnt from the experience of the autumn of 2010, along with other failures brought about by this leadership, many union activists already understand this reality.

Mobilization of the youth

Since the demonstrations of March 17, the youth demonstrations have been the target of much violence and police brutality. This abuse is obviously commissioned by the government itself. It is afraid of the youth, of its uncontrollable character, its radicalism and the influence it can have on the entire working class. The government therefore seeks to halt the mobilization of university and high school students through the use of batons wielded by riot and plainclothes police. There have been many injuries and arrests.

Faced with this policy of repression and police intimidation, the trade unions have a responsibility to use their collective force to oppose police interventions. At the very least - to be generous - we can say that the unions are simply slow to adopt the right position. To justify this situation that leaves young people exposed to police violence, we are told that "anarchists" and "thugs" are wreaking havoc in demonstrations of young people during protests and are provoking the police. Let us suppose that this is correct. Is that any reason for the CGT and other trade unions to keep their distances and let the police abuse young people? In addition, how many of these so-called "anarchists" are actually agents provocateurs? The "anarchists" excuse is clearly invalid. Many young people are now furious at the attitude of the CGT, particularly in Paris.

On this issue, the attitude of the union leadership is clearly expressed in the press release of March 31 signed by the CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL and FIDL. Here is the only relevant paragraph: "The signatory trade unions once again affirm that public authorities must guarantee the right to demonstrate, to assemble and to organize, all while ensuring the safety of protesters." That's it - and it is almost unbelievable: the press release requests that the aggressor - the "public authorities" - ensure the safety of the abused. Young people who have been gassed and clubbed in these past weeks will not find this joke at all funny.

Let's ask the question once more: are the national leaders of these trade unions naïve? Are they unaware of the government's role in police violence? The answer is no. They are well aware of this dynamic, yet they do not want to make any inferences based on this knowledge. Why? For one simple reason: they too are afraid of the youth in struggle, of its radicalism, its uncontrollable nature - and the impact it can have on the rest of the working class. It is lamentable, but it is what it is. And again, many union activists are aware of this sad fact.

Lessons of 2010

This analysis so far does not lead to a pessimistic conclusion. The attitude of the union leadership is only a relative obstacle to the success of the movement, which has amongst its rank and file enormous reserves of energy and a fighting spirit. But it is an obstacle nonetheless; union activists must take stock of their leadership and then draw practical conclusions. They must exert the maximum pressure on the union leadership so that they change direction. At the same time, they should not limit their activities to management and schedules defined by these same leaders, which currently are driving the movement towards a cliff. They must also take the initiative to intervene against the police violence that has been targeting the youth.

In autumn of 2010, an escalating strike had already developed among trash collectors and workers in ports, refineries, railways, and in road transport, among other sectors. The union leaders were not at all behind these escalating strikes and refused to support them, let alone expand them to other sectors of the economy. But the movement developed nonetheless - to a certain extent. "Interprofessional General Assemblies" had been established in several cities, uniting trade unionists, workers, youth and unemployed people in a common fight. The embryo of a national coordination of these general assemblies even got to see the light of day. The movement had ebbed, however, before this national coordination could truly play any role. But this experience highlighted the creativity of young people and workers, their ability to organize the struggle on militant and democratic foundations.

The victory of the movement against “La loi Travail” will be possible only on the basis of an escalating strike involving a large number of workers. Many union activists know this and are discussing it. Youth - which was poorly mobilized in 2010 - could contribute its enthusiastic support to such a movement. The coming days and weeks will be decisive.

Methods of struggle and strategy

The scrapping of this labor bill is - logically - the main goal of the current movement. But among the youth in particular, it comes with more of a general questioning of the entire "system." Indeed, even if the government renounced “La loi Travail”, capitalism in crisis would continue on its destructive path: growing unemployment, insecurity and all forms of poverty; the destruction of public services, housing shortages, etc.

From the perspective of the involvement of the working masses, the question of methods and strategy is decisive. Most workers understand that “La loi Travail” is a major attack on their interests: all the polls show this. But for many of them, especially those in the private sector, 24-hour strikes are a major sacrifice. They not only lose a day of pay, but they face punitive measures from their employer. And for what? Even when they are massive, the "days of action" do not force the government to back down. This is why many workers supported the protests of March 31, but did not participate themselves. They understand or sense that in the context of deep economic crisis, the ruling class will never give in easily. Workers would be willing to commit to an escalating strike, provided that its end result will be worth the risks that need to be taken and the sacrifices that must be made. The simple withdrawal of “La loi Travail” is to them insufficient - it would prevent yet another attack on workers, certainly, but also it would not solve any of the problems that today afflict workers, day in and day out. Besides, many of them are already suffering through the working conditions “La loi Travail” wants to make universal.

We are told: the union leaders are not content with just demanding the withdrawal of “La loi Travail”; they also advance other slogans. That is right, but just see how they are doing it - and if their approach can convince the working masses. Here is an excerpt from that inter-union statement already quoted above: "The signatory trade unions (...) confirm their availability to meet with the government and formulate proposals seeking new rights in terms of employment, wages and pensions, working time, social protection, group benefits, working conditions, training and trade union work. These are proposals that will bring about social progress and correspond to the realities of work today and tomorrow."

This quote presents two problems. Firstly, the union leaders are speaking about a reactionary government - which brutally attacks the Labor Code - and say they are "available" to discuss "proposals" of "social progress" in a number of areas. The government has declared war on the workers; in response, union leaders offer it peace, brotherhood and "social progress". The workers understand that it is up to them to mobilize in order to extract this or that concession from this government of the big bosses. But after reading the diplomatic bows of the excerpt just cited, workers just shrug their shoulders and keep walking.

Secondly, are proposals that will bring about real social progress even compatible with the capitalist system in crisis? This is the question that many workers ask themselves. Again, they understand and feel that the deep crisis of the system does not encourage concessions from the ruling class. They see that the order books are empty - and that the lines of the unemployed are getting longer each day. They see that, far from making concessions, employers everywhere are on the offensive - both within their companies as well as nationally, through their government. Therefore, workers are very skeptical of the possibility of obtaining, under this capitalist system in crisis, "new rights in terms of employment, wages and pensions, working time, social protection, group benefits, working conditions, training and trade union work."

In all these areas, the ruling class demands and imposes regression. How can we reverse this trend? For this question there is only one realistic answer: by overthrowing the system, by expropriating the ruling class and placing the economy under the democratic control of the workers themselves. In other words, we must put the question of power at the centre of our programme, explaining that there will be no solution to all the problems faced by youth and workers as long they have not yet taken power and started to reorganize society on a new basis - a socialist basis. An increasing number of workers will understand this and will be willing to dedicate themselves to this struggle because it is the only way to end once and for all with permanent social regression.

Révolution, April 4, 2016