On Thursday 23 June, for the first time since the Gaullist state ban on the 8 February 1962 demonstration against the war in Algeria, which ended in the massacre of eight CGT activists in the Charonne Metro station, French trade unions saw their demonstration banned by the authorities.
In the face of the firm refusal by the unions (CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL, FIDL) to back down, the government relented, much to the disgust of the right-wing Figaro newspaper, which ran the headline “The government obeys the CGT”.
The demonstration finally took place in a limited area, with 60,000 attending, despite an extraordinary police operation around Place de la Bastille. After spending four years meticulously and obstinately refusing to make even the smallest gesture towards governing in the interests of the popular, left-wing electorate that voted it in, the Hollande-Valls government has decided to round off its sorry stint with a big show-stopper: nothing less than the destruction of the Labour Code.
After having passed several socially regressive laws, such as the Macron Law and the Rebsammen Law [both of which reduce employers’ obligations vis-a-vis trade unions and collective agreements], Valls has now asked a young and inexperienced politician from the right wing of the Socialist Party to propose a bill which is based on the neo-liberal idea that regulations which protect workers are the cause of mass unemployment (in France, more than five million people for whom the Hollande years bear the bitter taste of broken promises), and that therefore a fundamental deregulation of the labour market is the only possible means of improving the lot of the unemployed and restoring “growth”.
If the opposition among union leaderships to the previous laws was weak or superficial, this time a combination of factors has permitted the mass mobilisation which we have seen developing since the start of March.
First of all, there were grassroots initiatives, and initiatives taken by middle layers of trade union activist structures, such as the appeal “Labour Law? No Thanks!”, which combined a strong set of arguments which took apart and explained the bill, article-by-article, and an online petition campaign which gathered over 1.3 million signatures.
There was a fear amongst union leaders, who saw themselves losing all ability to negotiate on workers’ behalf, because the logic of “social dialogue” is not to negotiate between unions and employers to obtain improvements (big or small) for workers, but rather, to “negotiate” bosses’ demands. That went hand in hand with a fear that it would become impossible to “be reformist”, because of the law’s attack on the very possibility of making reforms in favour of workers, by creating a permanent upheaval of the rules, by putting an end to a Labour Code as a universally applicable set of laws which limits competition between workers.
The new law would achieve this by allowing each employer to sidestep the Labour Code, by giving legal priority to local collective agreements which would take precedence over national, sectoral collective agreements. social anger Finally, a deep social anger has broken out against the depth of the social crisis. This has wound up crystallising at a moment when the parties of the Left Front, as well as the organisations of the far left, had shown themselves incapable, since 2012, of forming a credible mass opposition to the neoliberal policies implemented by the Hollande government since day one. Since the first and last attempt at a national cross-union summit on the model of 2010, i.e., with the CFDT union federation supporting the spirit if not the letter of the labour law, in late February, we have since seen a series of days of action with calls for strikes and demonstrations being supported by a “stable” cross-union alliance consisting of the CGT, FO, the FSU, SUD-Solidaires, UNEF (students), UNL (college students) and FIDL (college students).
The unifying (and politically spot-on!) demand of the cross-union alliance is for the withdrawal of the law, which is “neither amendable, nor negotiable”. To date there have been 12 days of action and that is impressive. But the main problem of this mobilisation lies in the fact that the union leaders fear “winning”, because a defeat of the government, which a withdrawal of the law would represent, would mean the political death of Hollande. On the one hand, the union leaderships are snookered by the pressure of the masses, who know the terrible meaning of this law: so the leaders themselves fear for their position as the acknowledged negotiators on behalf of the workers.
But on the other hand, they want to “negotiate” this law with a government which has made a conscious decision to concede nothing. Instead of a tactic of a mobilisation which concentrates the forces of the movement in order to force the government to give way, that is, a general strike over two to five days with a threat of fighting to the end, they have opted to hop from date to date through the calendar.
The political nature of this contest of strength is shown by the government’s systematic recourse to repression. At the outset (March), the actions of college and university students were the main target. The policy was to intimidate young people, with the message “if you revolt, you will be beaten and teargassed!”. Since then, everyone has taken their baton blows and teargas clouds, from a policing policy which, especially in Paris and the big cities, is designed to lead to clashes, with or without the assistance of the “casseurs”, a vague term which covers ultra-left elements who aim at “provoking riots to generate revolution” and the young and young-at-heart who are exasperated by police provocations.
On 10 May, when the government was due to discuss the law, in light of the weak parliamentary support for the bill which was reduced to the Socialist Party parliamentary fraction alone (and even this group was riven by “frondeurs” [rebels]) Valls chose to activate the constitution’s Article 49-3, which allows a government to force an issue by transforming parliamentary debate on a given bill into a piece of blackmail, with the vote reduced to a vote of confidence “for or against the government”.
This had the effect of cutting short the parliamentary debate, and of heading off attempts at amendments. Since then, over the month of June, the law was subject to the deliberations of the Senate, where the right-wing majority added even worse amendments to the text that had been adopted in the Assembly under Article 49-3. And the strikes? Unlike the strike waves of 1995, 2003, 2006, or 2010, there are fewer strikes... and more.
Fewer, because the most-mobilised sectors from these previous movements (RATP, post, hospitals, teachers) are not striking, or striking in small numbers, with the exception of the SNCF, but at the same time, there are many more one-off strikes, including minority strikes, which cover all sectors, public and private. SNCF, EDF, road freight drivers and dockers are the main and most visible groups in the mobilisations, but their actions have more the character of blockades, more or less prolonged, than of the strikes which spread in 1936 or 1968.
Finally, the real feat of the last four months is that in spite of the drip-drip tactic of the union leaderships, chosen so as to avoid calling a general strike, wave after wave of strikes or demonstrations continue to give voice to a movement of resistance, which can still bring hundreds of thousands or even millions into the streets, as on 14 June. The problem is that this movement is in danger of running out of steam if it does not find a way of knocking out its opponent once and for all.
The result is a political ferment, which is illustrated by the Nuit Debout protests, which, while limited to a phenomenon involving a few thousand people in Place de la République, nevertheless expresses radicalisation of opposition to capitalist society and to anti-social governments of the 1%.
The stakes of this conflict are huge: were they to lose, French workers would be reduced to pre-1936 conditions. But apart from pure and simple repression, the state of emergency laws, Article 49-3 and a media barrage, the government has run out of efficient auxiliary methods to support its plans: the CFDT has been completely discredited in the eyes of working-class public opinion, and has therefore become useless to the government.
Every passing day reveals the strain acting on the government. And quite apart from the dreadful mess that the Socialist Party has prepared for itself in the 2017 election, the President is losing credibility, which is setting off a crisis of the regime that goes well beyond a simple governmental crisis. Nothing is decided yet: let’s do all we can to push them back and bring them down!