France: New stage in battle over labour law

Hollande provokes fresh struggles

Clare Doyle, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI)

Francois Hollande, France’s ‘socialist’ president, has taken the fight over the country’s ‘El Khomri’ labour law (named after the employment minister) to a new level.

The draft law makes it much easier for the bosses to lay off workers and reduce redundancy payments. It will also make it easier to increase the working week by reducing overtime payments (France’s statutory working week is 35 hours).

Trial of strength

Months of protests and demonstrations have mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers angered by this attack on their hard-won gains. They have been joined by students and young people fearful for their futures.

The bill was heading for defeat in the National Assembly. Nearly 5,000 amendments had been submitted and at least 40 parliamentarians were going to vote against it, including 20 from the governing Socialist Party.

Hollande, goaded on by the fanatically business-friendly prime minister, Manuel Valls, has decided to invoke a clause in the country’s constitution to overrule parliament and make the bill legally enforceable.

Spontaneous protests broke out across the country and workers and young people responded to a call by the main trade union leaders for demonstrations on 12 May. Strikes and demonstrations are going ahead nationally on 17 and 19 May.

The government has faced votes of no confidence in the parliament and has stirred up deep hostility in an already hostile electorate. 70% of the population is against the labour law changes and in polls, Hollande’s rating has gone to little over 12% – the worst score of any president in history.

A major trial of strength in France between the government and a big sector of workers and young people has reached a critical stage.

The right-wing parties have been urging the closing down of the Nuit Debout (open public assemblies), but they are popular with people starved of a forum for the discussion of everyday politics.

The heavy use of state forces to confront protesters is radicalising a new generation on the streets, but is also undermining the authority of the state within these institutions. Significantly, on 18 May, the police’s own organisation is holding a demonstration in protest at the way they have been treated.

The situation has become extremely tense and volatile. In the space of two months – March and April – the leaders of the trade union federations called four days of strikes and demonstrations, but stopped short of all-out action.

The mood on the traditional May Day demonstrations was for a fight. The march in Paris was bigger than most years and 10,000 up on the 60,000 turnout for the trade union demo of 28 April. (Both were attacked by the CRS riot police in attempts to discredit the movement for ‘encouraging’ violence.)

A mass political force is needed with elected leaders who understand what is happening and what is to be done. The enthusiasm of the Nuit Debout participants for a different society is laudable, but the logic of their movement is to avoid the vital issue of organisation and political programme.

At the beginning of May, it looked as if Hollande, with next year’s presidential elections in mind, was preparing the way for a truce. He announced that France would pull out of the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement – feinting in the direction of protecting French workers.

He also announced a measure improving the status (and income) of a section of teachers. “He has put on his Father Christmas clothes and started handing out the goodies,” commented Virginie Pregny at a public meeting in Paris of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France).

However, Hollande has decided to continue on the road of protecting the big bourgeois in France and further provoking the wrath of the French working class.

The movement needs to find a political voice to challenge the government. Not only general strike action is needed but a clear idea of how to get an alternative – a government of the ‘99%’.

Those who agree with this idea and want to make it a reality need to come together in assemblies and conferences with the idea of creating a political force that really represents those in struggle.

General strike

The coming weeks are likely to see an intensification of the struggle. The main unions and youth organisations have ‘invited’ their branches to organise assemblies to discuss prolonging this week’s planned strike action. They could also call for a national demonstration in Paris.

The mood is building for a ‘fight to the end’! Assemblies and strike committees are needed to link up on a local, regional and national level – to organise the strike but also to prepare a representative body that can challenge for political power.

The question of who runs society is always posed by general strike action and raises the urgent need for a mass political force of the working class and youth, armed with genuinely socialist ideas and a clear programme.

This is what the CWI in France and internationally is continually fighting for. The struggle continues.

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