Balance sheet of the movement against the French labour law

The [new French] labour law will be adopted in the National Assembly by 22 July, after final feedback from the Senate. The “Socialist” government has won this battle. To do so, they resorted to levels of police repression unprecedented in recent history, as well as a violent campaign of insults and stigmatization against the activists of the CGT involved in the struggle. Using the presence of “thugs” (“rioters”) as a pretext to discredit the movement, the government subjected the latest protests in Paris to massive police supervision and security screening, de facto restricting the right to demonstrate.

In its press release of 8 July, the inter-union association (CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL, LDIFs) announced a new “day of actions and initiatives on September 15, for the repeal of the labour law and the conquest of new guarantees and safeguards.” But there have already been 12 days of action over the past four months. It is therefore clear that September 15 will not force the government to “repeal” the labour law, let alone concede “new guarantees and safeguards.” Do the authors of the statement themselves believe what they are saying? Probably not. They want to conceal the defeat. We believe it is better to recognize it and seek to draw the lessons.

As we have pointed out since March, the government would be likely to retreat only if faced with open-ended strikes in an ever-increasing number of industries. However the open-ended strikes and blockades which began in several sectors in mid-May have not expanded significantly. For example, the railway strike was not strong enough to completely paralyse traffic. The strike at RATP [the Paris transit authority] was not widely enforced and had virtually no impact. In this context, refinery and port workers - who were, as in 2010, the vanguard of the movement – could not be asked to hold indefinitely. Without rapid expansion of open-ended strikes, the movement could only retreat. By the second week of June, the retreat was clearly underway. Therefore the government knew it was in a strong position and had only one idea in its mind: to end it as quickly as possible, in particular by limiting the right to demonstrate.

Why did the open-ended strikes not spread? This question had already arisen after the defeat of the movement of autumn 2010 against the attacks on pensions. A typical response is, “because workers did not want it; they were not ready.” But this explanation does not explain much. It reduces the “combativeness” of workers to an abstraction, of who would show itself, or not, regardless of the overall dynamic of the struggle. The central element of this dynamic being the leadership of movement, its slogans and programme. This “explanation” is the favourite of union leaders because it absolves them from any responsibility.

It is clear that workers are not always willing to fight. “A general strike cannot be decreed,” as the union leaders are fond of saying. Indeed, if it could, capitalism would have been overthrown long ago. However, we cannot content ourselves with such statements. Ultimately, the degree of combativeness of the workers is borne out in the struggle itself. However it is necessary that the struggle is properly led, that the strategy and the slogans put forward create the conditions at each stage of the struggle to bring out the highest expression of the combativeness of workers.

protest-cgt-lille credit-remi-ange-couzinetPhoto: Remi Ange CouzinetTo begin with, the leadership of the movement must give workers a clear idea of the real balance of power. However from the outset, the union leadership has based its entire strategy on organizing “days of action” when it was obvious that this could not make the government back down. It was the pressure of the Nuits Debout movement and the of the CGT delegates during the congress in mid-April to finally make “open-ended strikes” a central slogan. Under the pressure of the rank and file and faced with a fait accompli of the beginning of open-ended strikes, Philippe Martinez came out in support of the strikes and even called to expand them.

However no plan was developed by the leadership of the trade union confederation to support the expansion of open-ended strikes. Martinez presented the open-ended strikes as “a form of struggle” among others, when they were the only form of struggle that could achieve victory. In complete contradiction with the real dynamics of the movement - that is to say, the need to rapidly expand open-ended strikes – the statement from the union confederation on May 20th simply announced two days of action on May 26th and June 14th. The day of action on May 26th could play a dynamic role in expanding the open-ended strikes that were launched in the middle of May. But June 14th is far too distant in the future. As we wrote on May 23rd: “By June 14th, either the open-ended strike will spread to other sectors, or the movement will have ebbed. At least that is the most likely prospect - and consistent with the experience of 2010.”

Philippe Martinez referred the choice on the methods of struggle to the workers gathered in general assemblies. But as we wrote on May 23rd: Of course it is impossible to launch a serious ongoing strike against the will of a majority of workers in any company. The need to organize general assemblies is also evident. Trade union activists understand this. What they need is a clear, offensive and determined attitude of their national leadership. When they call for a general assembly of the workers in their company, they need to show them that the CGT- starting with its national leadership - will not leave them alone and that the CGT will conduct a systematic, energetic, massive campaign to mobilize as many sectors as possible for the movement.

Faced with the Labour Law, the open-ended strike is not, in the words of Martinez, only a "form of struggle" among others; it is now the only form of struggle that could lead to a victory. This is the message that should be hammered home by the tops of the CGT. Without this, the workers of a general assembly will look over the shoulder of their unionized colleagues, towards the leadership of the CGT - and, noting a hesitant, vacillating attitude they will say: "If we strike, we risk being left alone.”

Another weakness of the movement has been its programmatic slogans. The withdrawal of the labour law has been, logically, the central demand. But many workers, including civil servants do not feel immediately threatened by this counter-reform (even when they understand that any setback in the private sector prepares the ground for setbacks in the public sector). Conversely, in the private sector, many workers are already confronted with types of provisions contained within the Labour Law, they are already subjected to the hellish system of permanent precariousness of unpaid overtime and other abuses from the bosses. The character of the struggle is too exclusively defensive. In order to bring wider layers of workers into the movement, it is necessary to bring both positive and offensive demands to the platform - for example on wages and working hous. Instead, union leaders repeat that the fight is to obtain – in addition to the withdrawal of the Labour Law - “new rights with a labour code for the 21st century.” What “new rights,” concretely? And what is a “labour code for the 21st century?” It has not been specified. This ritual formula has no specific content.

Again, there is no guarantee of an a priori victory of the movement; the degree of the combativeness of the workers is shown in the real struggle. The problem, is that the erroneous strategy of the union leadership, instead of fostering this fighting spirit, constitutes an obstacle to its full expression. However there are several elements that clearly indicate the great potential of the movement: the level of opposition to the Labour Law among the population (over 70%), the broad large support for the open-ended strikes (in-spite of the furious media campaign against the CGT), the unprecedented isolation of the government in the opinion polls, the phenomenon of the Nuit Debout movement and the radicalization of the slogans from rank and file of the unions and the youth, such as the slogan for a “general strike.”

Political Radicalization

More generally, it’s clear that after years of economic turmoil, skyrocketing unemployment, and austerity, an enormous amount of anger and frustration is accumulating in the depths of French society. An intensification of the class struggle is inevitable in the coming period. With this perspective, the government and the ruling class will have to pay the price for passing the heavy handed Labour Law. Coming out of this fight, bourgeois democracy and the mainstream media are more discredited than they already were going in. Moreover, the repression by police will leave a mark on the consciousness of the people. As a result, the consciousness of the youth and workers will sharpen and radicalize. In this sense, the ruling class and their politicians have achieved a pyrrhic victory. They don’t have any solutions to the crisis of capitalism, which paves the way for even more powerful social explosions.

In the immediate short term, the class struggle will move to the political arena, with next April’s presidential elections in sight. Many youth and workers will say “we need a government that will repeal the Labour Law and proclaim an end to the politics of austerity.” From this point of view, the movement against the Labour Law and the attitudes of the different parties throughout the struggle have imparted certain lessons. Lessons that will not be forgotten by everyone.

The Socialist Party, already discredited before the Labour Law, marches towards abysmally low popularity numbers. The party has even decided to cancel its summer school, convinced (with good reason), that it would be the target of all those who opposed the Labour Law. For 2017, the last hopes of the leaders of the Socialist Party is that the same process of discretization will hit the Republicans as badly as it has hit them.

The unfortunately famous left-wing “rebels” of the socialist party were only capable of demonstrating their opposition to the Labour Law with empty rhetoric. They did not want to vote for the motion of censure put forward by the right wing Republican and UDI parties. Instead, they wanted to pass a law “from the left” but purposefully ensured the number of signature threshold was so high it could never be met. On two occasions they very carefully “failed”, coming two signatures shy of the 58 requisite signatures. Those who signed were just as complicit in this fraud as those who did not. The rebels took a page from the big playbook of parliamentary farce for two reasons. First, it protects their nominations in the upcoming parliamentary elections. More importantly, they did this because they do not defend a serious alternative to the politics of the government. Since the beginning of Hollande’s term, the “rebels” have contented themselves in demanding for a little less austerity. They never fought against austerity in principle because they didn’t know what to have in its stead. For example, they have consistently voted for budgetary cuts.

The Republicans agree with the substance of the Labour Law. Having already received assurances that their censure motion would be successfully rebuffed, the Republican motion was simply political posturing as they did not want to topple the government. In the Senate, the Republicans made the law even tougher, not in the hopes that their changes would be upheld, but to signal their political intentions if they were to once again come to power. The different candidates in the Republican primaries are also an indication of their true colours. Currently the lead goes to the candidate that promises the biggest cuts in public spending (Juppé promises 85-100 billion euros, 100 billion by Sarkozy, 110 billion by Fillon, and 150 billion by Le Maire). At the same time, they are all proposing to massively lower the “burden” on capital and big business. The message is clear: it’s a declaration of war against workers, the unemployed, and all of the victims of the crisis.

In the last four months of the struggle against the Labour Law, the Front National has practically dropped off the political radar. These hypocrites who claim to tell the story of the “French people” are quietly hiding while working people are engaged in the class struggle on a massive scale. They agree with the Labour Law and would like to go much further. However, they have done the math that in the 74-percent-strong opposition to the El Khomri Labour Law, there are a good number of past and potential FN voters. As a result, they have taken to the shadows, evading microphones and have gone back to working on distilling their contradictory declarations, which Jean-Luc Mélenchon fully acknowledges on his blog.

With the ebb of the mass struggle, the FN will quickly come out of its hiding place and re-take their “anti-system” demagoguery. They will exploit everything: the Socialist Party debacle, the faint-heartedness of the rebels, the crisis of the Republicans, the economic quagmire, the rise of unemployment, Brexit, and the EU crisis - as well as any other occasion that arises that allows the FN to stigmatize “foreigners.” It is even possible that they will critique the Labour Law, retrospectively. They will present themselves like an alternative to the status quo, the adversary of the tried and corrupt political class.

Nevertheless, another credible alternative to the status quo – the alternative of the left – can and must emerge on a mass scale in the months to come. The movement against the Labour law has once again demonstrated the potential. Coming back to the main point, the experience of this movement is favorable for the development of a left-wing alternative. The failure of the Socialist Party opens up a massive political vacuum on the left.

However, this vacuum will not be automatically filled by whoever desires to occupy it. Mélenchon and his movement – will not benefit from the current political situation by some crude mathematical formula. In order for a movement to develop and get engaged around Mélenchon and his movement, they need to get in tune with the current aspirations, anger and radicalism of the masses. In the future, we will discuss more about the type of campaign, according to us, Mélenchon should put forward and what program we think he should defend, but for now it suffices to recount one of the key lessons from the movement against the Labour Law: The overwhelming popular support that he has benefited from comes from, above all else, his clear class content. Mélenchon’s campaign itself should have a very clear class content. This would be the best way, and really the only way, to pull the rug from underneath the reactionary demagogues of the FN.

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