Bring the French government to its knees

12 June 2016
Darren Roso

Camille Senon survived a Nazi massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. She was admitted to France’s Legion of Honour in 1982. But when prime minister Manuel Valls proposed to admit her to the Order of Merit this year, Senon refused. Instead, she declared her solidarity with workers and students who have for months been fighting the Socialist Party government’s proposed attacks on the country’s labour code.

Senon’s public rebuke is one illustration of the polarisation taking place around the country. The labour code, which provides universal protections, is considered sacred by the working class in France. “It crystallises decades of social struggles, and it symbolises the conquests of the workers’ movement against the bosses”, Isabelle Garo says via email from Paris.

“It is a monument of the class struggle that has already been attacked on many occasions, but which is now being ripped to shreds. This is also what imparts a directly political character to the mobilisation under way, not just a social one.

“Article 8 of the 1946 Constitution’s preamble states: ‘All workers shall, through the intermediary of their representatives, participate in the collective determination of their conditions of work and in the management of the workplace’.”

Having recently gone through a deep crisis of leadership, the CGT is again at the sharp end of struggles, in particular following its recent congress in Marseille, which gave increased importance to the radical demands of the rank and file.

The so-called hierarchy of norms stipulates that if an accord favourable to workers is reached at a national level, it cannot be undermined by a company level agreement. The bosses want this dismantled so they can wind back workers’ rights enterprise by enterprise.

“It is the very principle of a protective labour code and independent trade union representation that the bosses want to smash, with the support – without historic precedent of this degree of complicity – of a socialist government, which unflinchingly turns its back on its voters and the overwhelming majority of workers”, she says.

“It is striking that president Hollande has not at all distanced himself from the bosses’ demands, against his majority, and against a part of his own political camp and his elected officials, accentuating the divisions in the Socialist Party. For the clan in power, it is a matter of competing with the right on its own terrain and completing the liberal conversion of the Socialist Party.”

The so-called socialists are smashing the postwar welfare state. France’s institutions have preserved social protections that are better than in other parts of Europe. But now the bosses want to be rid of them as quickly as is possible, under pressure from European institutions, using a government that has betrayed all of its promises.

Democracy further undermined

The attacks have their counterpart in the “brutality of the executive and police violence, which are reaching an unprecedented level”, Garo says. After the terrorist attacks last year, a state of emergency was declared. It has been prolonged, giving police much greater powers.

Garo explains that the tendency towards authoritarianism isn’t new, but that Hollande is pushing conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s repressive policies further. They target social protest and whip up fear and racism. French capitalism no longer promises liberty and equality. It plays on threats, claiming that there is an internal and external enemy. One journalist has gone so far as to compare the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), one of the main union federations, to the Islamic State. Resistance is being criminalised:

“Until now, it was above all the banlieues (suburbs) and the immigrant populations who were the victims of these systematic authoritarian policies, of racial profiling and permanent humiliations, amid near general indifference. Today, the ensemble of protesters, notably the high schoolers and students, from different social origins, are discovering in turn this systematic violence.”

Police are increasingly violent, using flash-balls and stun grenades. “At Rennes, in Brittany, police vehicles have ploughed into demonstrators. The government has violently attacked strikers in certain blocked refineries. The methods and arms henceforth used by law enforcement have injured many, and can kill”, Garo says.

“It is also necessary to underline the severe sentences, absolutely disproportionate, that fall upon demonstrators, while the police are systematically exonerated or acquitted. In these conditions, it is logical that exasperation grows, notably in a section of the youth. The government is trying to divide the social movement and emphasise the violence of protesters to discredit the social mobilisation. Like never before, the socialist government, through the voice of its prime minister, is publicly denouncing the CGT and its ‘abuses’.”

Other anti-democratic measures have been taken. In the National Assembly, the government has suppressed parliamentary debate – an admission of weakness. It demonstrated that Hollande was incapable of getting a majority to vote for his attacks, even within his own ranks.

Garo calls it “a shameful power grab on behalf of an already discredited government whose members had always denounced this method when it was used by right wing governments. The divorce between the executive and the whole of the social body is unprecedented. Whatever the outcome of this conflict, the price to pay will be the deepening of a major political crisis, destabilising the whole of the French political landscape. But this crisis, laden with dangers, is also a bearer of the possibilities of remobilisation, politicisation of the youth, and even the renewal of the left”.

Struggle erupts

A remarkable feature of the current struggle is that the youth took the first step. The high schoolers and students, who traditionally remain remote from workers’ struggle, got involved at the beginning. Many of them work to pay for their studies, so they aren’t divorced from problems of working life. Crucially, their level of rage and political consciousness is higher than in past struggles.

Their rage “now embraces social reality as a whole, as distinct from previous mobilisations of the youth that were more centred on scholastic and university questions. The political maturity and the determination of the youth are impressive”.

In the throng of these mobilisations, the Up All Night movement appeared. It was an explosive novelty linked with workers’ mobilisations. Beginning in Paris, it spread to the provinces. It continues and has been a challenge to the government’s attacks. “If we can regret its weak implantation in the suburbs, it is still an event not to be underestimated, impacting thousands of people, politicised or not”, Garo says. It is a space to connect with different struggles and strikes, much like the square occupations in Egypt, Spain, the USA, Greece and Turkey, with both its own specificities and internal cleavages:

“The Up All Night movement is a place of original politicisation, confrontation of ideas and elaboration of alternatives, active solidarity and a link with workers in struggle. The debates at Up All Night are diverse, but they are also marked by anti-capitalism and the will, in some militants, to bring the various struggles together. Its impact will be durable, impossible to measure immediately; but it is the place where a new militant generation is being formed, which wants to break with resignation and passivity.”

It is not the only place where struggle is erupting.

“The struggle began in the universities and the high schools. Then the workers stepped in for the youth, who are harder to mobilise during the exam period. The strike days and demonstrations have continued, with a slight drop, then kick-started again. It has not reached the level of 2010 or of the pension strikes of 1995 – the great reference point for social struggle.

“But the occupations and blockades are more important: the demonstrations seem in some ways to be substitutes for strikes, and vice versa. At the beginning of June, we counted 450-500 conflicts, over different questions, which broadened the conflict and broke with past weakness. With that said, the public sector is the most mobilised. The workers in rail, refineries, energy and transport, and waste collection have gone on an indefinite strike. All the polls show that they have and maintain large public support, despite the unbelievably heinous campaigns of the media.”

The workers’ movement

The trade union movement has been divided for a long time in France. This is a weakness, but it also means that sections of the movement are not fully integrated into the state apparatus, as they are in other parts of Europe. Garo explains that in France, “they traditionally make a distinction between the reformist trade unions and the combative unions”.

The French Confederation of Labour (CFDT) and the General Confederation of Labour are the two principal representatives of each trend. They rival each other in membership, influence and orientation, oscillating between collaboration or combat with regard to the government.

The CFDT “was formerly close to what we called the second left, now pro-liberal: after some protests … it supported the labour law and refuses to engage in dissent”. During the 1995 strike wave, the CFDT lost many members due to it supporting government attacks on social security.

The CGT has historic ties with the Communist Party. It declined in militancy but, “having recently gone through a deep crisis of leadership, the CGT is again at the sharp end of struggles, in particular following its recent congress in Marseille, which gave increased importance to the radical demands of the rank and file”.

In the current battle, “the CGT and its secretary general, Philippe Martinez, are playing a motor role industrially, but also politically, offering another vision of society, in particular defending the reduction of working hours, a key demand in the battle against the neoliberal policies of austerity”.

Other combative unions are involved in the struggle, such as Force Ouvrière, founded in 1947 from a split in the CGT, and SUD-Solidaires, born in 1981, which has a presence in state public sectors like health, journalism, culture, post and rail.

The class struggle is alive but no-one can predict where the struggle will lead:

“The defeats of the French workers’ movement have accumulated, with the sole exception of the struggle against the First Employment Contract in 2006, a victory essentially of the high schools and students, more symbolic and temporary than decisive in putting a brake on the neoliberal agenda that is advancing like a steamroller.

“In 2010, in contrast, a considerable mobilisation brought millions of demonstrators into the streets, but it failed to stop attacks on the pension. For this reason, a victory against the attack on the labour code would be of immense consequence … Such victory isn’t certain, but it remains feasible, considering the level of mobilisation and public support for the mobilisation under way.”

The left

Because of its internal strategic divergences, Garo says, the Left Front – a formation which includes the Communist Party, the Left Party and a number of other groups – has splintered. “Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Party has announced his candidature for the presidential elections, but the communists are profoundly divided.” The far left New Anticapitalist Party and Workers’ Struggle each have announced different candidates, which shows that historic divergences still weigh negatively on the present. This strikes a sombre note against a backdrop of colossal social struggle.

“The division to the left of the Socialist Party is total and dramatic, and faces enemies that are united over the essentials and a far right that captures, along with rising racism, a part of popular rage. The struggles under way are able to influence this situation, but their political translation is not immediate or to be taken for granted”, she says.

“On the one hand, it remains to redefine an alternative anti-capitalist project, both credible and mobilising, to succeed in uniting the present struggles, without caving in to the presidential and personalised logic of the existing French institutions, all the while using them for it. On the other hand, it will be necessary that the radical left take note of the democratic and radical demands that are expressed today. In short, the possibilities being sketched are as fragile as they are necessary.”

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