On March 9th half a million workers and youth took to the streets throughout France, protesting against the “socialist” government's’ unprecedented attack on the labour laws. This was followed by further protests on March 17th.
As always, the reformists end up being managed by the system they seek to manage. President Francois Hollande served as a forerunner to Syriza’s Tsipras, as a reformist leader exposed by the capitalist crisis as an “Emperor with no clothes”. Within two years of his election he withdrew the seventy-five percent top rate of income tax. To date he has handed out over €40bn in corporate tax breaks.
Hollande now faces a stagnant economy, ten percent unemployment, rising to twenty-four percent among the youth. In a bid to improve the economy, and with a bankruptcy of ideas, Hollande has based himself openly on the programme of the capitalists. Even Sarkozy never attempted to do away with the 35-hour week, introduced by the Socialist Party in 2000 (although he often spoke of doing so).
The El Khomri bill
The bill that the socialists are attempting to pass through parliament, drafted by the minister of labour, Myriam El Khomri, would have very profound consequences on wages, hours and workers’ rights in general. The bill seeks to loosen French capitalism from the conditions set by the current labour laws. It would allow French companies to negotiate longer working hours and over-time with the trade unions. Workers could be forced to work up to forty-six hours, with overtime pay cut for work over thirty-five hours.
French business would also be given greater freedom to shorten hours and reduce pay, which currently they can do only in times of “serious economic difficulty”. French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, has called this the “de facto end of the 35-hour working week.”
The new law would make it easier to sack workers. According to the capitalists the existing labour laws “discourages business” from creating permanent jobs. They say the reason that vast numbers of young workers are on temporary contracts is because, under French law, permanent jobs are too permanent.
To solve the “problem”, the new law will limit awards for unfair dismissals. This will enable the boss to calculate the cost of dismissing troublesome employees, freeing up positions for the upcoming generation! In negotiations, if no deal can be reached, the union will be by-passed by the bosses and the workers consulted directly in a binding referendum.
However, the ruling class may regret getting their way on this last point. The trade unions are the first point of organisation for most workers in the class struggle. Currently unionisation in France stands at only eight percent. However, the ranks are often far to the left of their representatives. The ruling class underestimate the workers, for whom they have only an aristocratic contempt. But by drawing the entire workforce into a referendum on terms and conditions, they could get more than they bargained for.
In order to increase competition between workers, the El Khomri bill seeks to undermine industry-led negotiations, replacing them with negotiations at the company level. A similar model is being applied in the English school system - the creation of independent schools, free of the national curriculum, creating unequal conditions designed to fragment industry-wide negotiations by the teachers. In “exceptional circumstances”, employees could work up to sixty hours a week. The loosening of rules on lay-offs and working from home and at night is also part of the El Khomri bill.
The average French worker produces €45.6 per hour, according to eurostat, and works 1,661 hours a year. This means he generates approximately €76,000 per year for the boss. Yet in 2014 his average cost was only €29,700. Meaning he generated a profit of over €45,000 for the capitalists.
Despite this, and French workers being among the most productive in Europe, they nevertheless work 186 fewer hours than the Germans, and 239 fewer than the British. That is not enough for French capitalism, which demands that more surplus be sweated from the workers.
The defeat or undermining of the 35-hour week, most importantly, is viewed with symbolic importance by the ruling class. It would signal a victory for the boss class, and a green light for an offensive against the workers in the struggle for cheap labour in France.
The recent agreement at the state-owned EDF, involving a not-insignificant 30,000 workers, lays the basis for further attacks. EDF workers ceded some of their ten-week holiday allowance in return for a pay-rise. The deal is optional, reversible and not open to “blue-collar” workers.
But as the perspicacious FT notes, “...its real significance, however, lies in the precedent it sets for employers and unions to agree substantive reforms at company level.”
The average 39.5 hours worked by EDF “white-collar” workers was compensated by an additional twenty-three days off a year, in addition to the standard twenty-seven. However, EDF recently negotiated between seven and sixteen days a year less annual holiday for the workers. This was compensated by a 7.5% pay rise. It will mean that EDF workers will work far more than the thirty-five hour weekly average limit over the course of a year. This sets a precedent for the French capitalists to repeat.
An online petition demanding the government abandon the bill has gained an enormous 1.3m signatories. This prepared the ground for the March 9th protests called by students and the unions.
The unity of the students and rank-and-file trade union workers has been immediate since the 9th. The students have called for weekly demonstrations, which see the participation of many workers, and workers have also spoken at General Assemblies of the students. The trade union leaders have been somewhat cooler in their support. It marks, however, the beginning of a national coordination of the students.
According to the FT: “Diverse constituencies are coming together in protest, united by dissatisfaction with Francois Hollande’s floundering presidency.” Hollande’s approval rating currently stands at fifteen percent, the lowest of any President in fifty years.
Workers, the unemployed and youth took to the streets on March 9th in more than two-hundred cities across France to oppose the bill. In Paris between 80,000 and 100,000 came out in the cold and the rain. This coincided with a rail strike that shut down a third of trains that day in Paris. Protesters at the Place de la Republique shouted slogans such as “Loi El Khomri, Vie pourrie,” which translates as “El Khomri Law, Rotten Life.”
The SP’s own student union, UNEF, played a leading role. Around one hundred high schools across France were closed by students barricading entrances with garbage cans. The youth presence is not surprising, considering the conditions faced by young workers: one in four are unemployed, work available is casualised and housing is expensive. They are disgusted by the political elite and reject their arguments when they say the youth should be forced to renounce the security of France’s labour laws.
The Associated Press quoted Maryanne Gicquel, a spokesperson for the FIDL high school student union. “She described young people's experience of the job market as ‘a succession of internships and poorly-paid jobs… Now we're being told that it will be easier for companies to lay off workers’.”
The BBC reports, “Teenagers and students were among thousands marching in Paris chanting slogans such as ‘El Khomri, you're beat, the youth are in the street’, in reference to Labour Minister Myriam el Khomri.” The BBC correspondent concluded “This reform has crystallised all those forces on the left who, while feeling increasingly unhappy about the government's drift, until now had no clear-cut issue around which to rally.”
With this attack, Hollande has unified all progressive forces in society against him. A recent survey by pollster Oxoda found that 70 percent of French people over the age of eighteen oppose the bill.
Hollande has opened up divisions within the SP, one year prior to the 2017 Presidential elections. Given this level of popularity, he is unlikely to be re-elected, having alienated much of the working class base that brought him to power. The most advanced workers have turned away from the SP in disgust, thus removing any pressure from below. In these conditions Hollande is free to act as open lackey of the bourgeois, testing the limits of the workers’ tolerance for the SP.
The SP Mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, in a recent article in Le Monde, entitled “Enough is enough”, attacks the government, asking: “Who could imagine that making redundancies easier… will encourage employment?” She added that the reforms were inspired by the “opposing camp” and will mean “...the preparation of a long-lasting weakening of France, and of course, the left.” The spectre of “PASOK” haunts the Social-Democracies of Europe.
Socialist government in retreat
The prime minister, Manuel Valls, has had to postpone the announcement of the law because of the threat of street protests by unions and students and the internal dissent within his own party. Valls has proposed a further round of consultations with the unions and bosses’ organisations before March 24th. The SP government plans to secure parliamentary approval of the bill by the summer.
On March 14th Valls announced a partial retreat. He announced that the bill will no longer limit the amount workers can win in the case of wrongful dismissals. The possibility to introduce flexible work practices into small and medium-sized companies has been slightly decreased, compared to the first draft of the bill, although the main attacks remain.
But multinationals will still be able to cut jobs more easily at their French loss-making operations. A judge will be tasked to verify the “financial rationale” of such cuts. Medef, the bosses’ union, expressed “disappointment” at the retreat.
The new deal is supported by the CFE-CGC and the CFDT union, but the the ex-communist CGT remain opposed. Along with FO and the largest student union, UNEF, they called for the entire draft reform to be withdrawn.
"If the government insists on going ahead with this reform, the people need to go into the streets," CGT leader Philippe Martinez said. One survey shows that two-thirds of people believe there will be widespread protests if the law is pushed through.
One week later the students took to the streets once again, and were again joined by a strong contingent of workers. However, without a clear call from the CGT national leadership to participate in this demonstration, it did not achieve the size of March 9th. But it was marked by an increased participation of students and school students. This is significant, as it underlines what the Marxists have been highlighting for some time, the extreme radicalisation of the youth which merely needed a channel to express itself.
Alors on répond quoi ? RESISTANCE !!! #loitravailnonmerci #OnVautMieuxQueCa #ReleveLaTetePosted by Mouvement Jeunes Communistes de France (MJCF) on Thursday, 17 March 2016
The movement is at an early stage, but is expanding both in the universities and the high schools. Students blocked the entrances to 115 high schools throughout France. A very radical mood prevails, which is being met by provocations, riot police and lock-outs by university administrations - for fear of how far the students could go. This is precisely how May ‘68 began, and the powers that be will have taken note! Tear gas was fired in Paris, arrests have taken place and students have been injured.
It is clear that the government is desperate to stop this process developing, and is doing everything it can to divide the workers from the radicalised students, fearing contagion. It thus offered a carrot to the unions on Thursday, stating it would lift the public sector pay freeze that has been in place since 2010. At the same time, it has met the students with the stick, trying to quell the student movement through force. Such efforts will be in vain. Repression will only further radicalize and mobilize more students. Another demonstration has been called by the student and youth organisations for the 24th. This will be part of the build up to the March 31st general strike, which promises to be a gigantic show of strength by the French working class. All the elements exist for a general conflagration.
President François Hollande said on the eve of the protests that he wanted to help them "have more job stability… we must also give companies the opportunity to recruit more, to give job security to young people throughout their lives, and to provide flexibility for companies. Have we tried everything? Let us look outside France. What has happened elsewhere? They have all evolved, they have all done things," he said.
“Elsewhere” across Europe we see only extreme casualization, pay freezes, the dismantling of the welfare state and Greek-style austerity. But the contradictory rhetoric of the President is of no consequence to the French ruling class, as it serves them in fogging the issue. They understand that “job stability” is incompatible with “flexibility for companies” in the best of capitalist times, let alone in the midst of an unprecedented capitalist crisis. Once they have finished with the SP next year, the bourgeois will discard it like a dirty dishrag.
However, the destruction of the authority of the SP, from the point of view of the bourgeois, is like sawing at the branch they rest on. The capitalists lean on the authority of the reformist leaderships and use this to get their own programme accepted within the labour movement. However, in doing so, they also expose the reformists. What we are therefore witnessing in France is the capitalist crisis destroying the authority of reformism. This is an international phenomenon.
A radicalization of the situation is being prepared in France. This answers all those sceptics who could only see a “shift to the right” in France with the growth of the National Front of Le Pen. What is actually taking place is a polarisation, both to the right and the left. And what we will eventually see is that the forces shifting left are far stronger than those moving to the right.
The March 9th and 17th demonstrations mark an important coalescing of the workers and youth, the living forces in French society. The youth are fighting on clear class issues, in support of the workers and in a fight for their future. The coming general strike will have a huge impact, which will reverberate throughout Europe, adding to the process in Spain where years of protests eventually produced Podemos, to the process in Britain where we have the Corbyn phenomenon, and in turn will strengthen these processes. It will also give a mighty impetus to the Italian workers and youth. The tide is turning in France and the wave will be felt internationally.