Far from abating, the battle over France’s labour law reform has intensified. The Hollande-Valls government has said it will impose the changes. The main trade union federation has said it will fight to the end.
Most of the country’s oil refineries are blocked, in spite of police attacks with tear-gas and truncheons and most forms of transport are now grinding to a halt. The nationwide demonstrations of 26 May were bigger than the previous ones - in some cases twice as big. Young people at France’s secondary schools and universities have still been demonstrating their anger at the government, in spite of the approach of important exams.
The so-called socialist government has talked of ’softening’ the terms of the laws drawn up by Labour Minister, Myriam El Khomri. Given his continuing unpopularity, Francois Hollande has begun to worry about his chances of success in next year’s presidential election, which could see the leader of the far-right National Front reach the second round. But few believe the government is prepared to back down, acting as they are in collusion with the top bosses of industry to maintain profits, regardless of how hard they make life for workers and young people.
The European football championship is due to start in France on June 10th, with matches taking place in stadiums across a grid-locked country. A national protest rally in Paris is due for the 14th June when the hated bill goes to the upper house of the French parliament - the Senate. This week is critical.
Towards a general strike
The mood of combativity that exists in France as a whole has reached its most intense in the Northern port of Le Havre. "It has become, in effect, the strike capital of France", reports a CGT activist and member of Gauche Revolutionnaire (French section of the Committee for a Workers’ International). "The port is blocked, the police dare not take on the workers’ blockades and there is a daily general assembly of representatives from every workplace and students as well."
Outside France, the scenes of violent confrontations reach the media. Inside France the government-dominated media attempt to use incidents of battles with the police to discredit the movement. The question is urgently raised of defence guards for all demonstrations and pickets. In spite of everything, still up to 70% of the French people support this monumental struggle which has seemed to be moving firmly in the direction of an all-out general strike. The leader of the CGT, Philippe Martinez, has now hinted that some deal could be done and negotiations may be organised.
In this situation, as the statement by Gauche Revolutionnaire below explains, it has been the weakness of the trade union leaderships which have dragged out this dispute. One of the national federations - which is allied to the ’Socialist’ government has accepted the attacks on labour rights from the beginning. The others - the biggest being the CGT - plus Force Ouvriere and Solidaires/Sud have opposed it all the way but have proved unwilling and incapable of leading a determined and coordinated struggle up to, and including, a general strike to bring down this anti-working class government of Hollande/Valls.
As in the great sit-in strikes of 80 years ago and the ’month of revolution’ in May ’68, such a struggle would pose the question of power and the need for the workers and youth to build fighting, democratically elected bodies from below, up to national level, in order to form a government truly representative of workers and their allies in society.
The battle in France is not over. For more detail, read the statement of Gauche Revolutionnaire below.
Get rid of the labour law and all of Valls and Hollande’s policies!
Intensify the struggle and spread the strikes!
By passing the El Khomri labour law with the help of article 49-3 the government has played its last card. Lacking any public support or popularity, Valls and Hollande have nothing left except the CRS (riot police) and threats to use against strikers in the refineries, public transport and ports… they’re running on empty. By using article 49-3, the mask of ‘democracy’ has slipped and Valls is now behaving half like a fanatic, half like a paid lackey of the employers. He prefers to create chaos rather than show a minimum of respect for democracy, given that 70% of people are opposed to the employment law and millions of strikers and demonstrators over the last three months are living proof of that.
The El Khomri law is an amalgam of everything that the MEDEF (French bosses’ organisation) and right wing governments like the PS have been wanting to bring in. It is against those currently in work, those unemployed and future generations of workers. It means permanent insecurity at work, the bosses having the upper hand in the workplace over flexibility, overtime pay at only 10% (instead of 25 or 50%) and by simple agreement in the workplace, extension of the working day, reduction in holidays. The so-called concessions like the tax on short-term contracts, have been withdrawn as a result of minimal pressure from MEDEF. Everything has been done to increase the exploitation of workers so as to benefit the bosses and share-holders.
This law amounts to a real social counter-revolution. That is what a wide section of workers and young people have understood about it and why since the 9th March they have opposed and resisted it. A majority of people support these actions, so it is important to find ways to involve them actively. The only thing that frightens the government, the employers, share-holders and the media who serve them, is a mass movement - a general strike like May 1968 or June 1936. The key to winning is to widen the movement by extending it to all those who support it. Despite government propaganda about petrol shortages, the blockades have been widely supported by workers and the general population. The city of Le Havre, which has been as militant as any since the struggle began, has organised an economic blockade of the port and of main roads, demonstrating the power that workers have when they are organised and determined.
How can we extend the strike?
The answer is to step up our response to the government on a mass scale. There are hundreds of strikes over wages and conditions running at the same time and sometimes overlapping the overall struggles against the employment law, the blockades and school and university student contingents on demonstrations. The strikes at the refineries (Donges, Feyzin, Gonfreville l’Orcher near leHavre, Grands Puits etc.) represent a decisive development. Far more than blockades by ‘outsiders’ (unless they are on a mass scale) it is the action of workers themselves in halting production or distribution that can bring about an economic blockade.
No sooner had the lorry drivers begun their own blockades than the government announced that their sector would not be affected by the possible reductions in overtime pay to 10% of normal pay. Not only does this show that the government is weak and that it gives way when the opposition is strong enough, but it reveals that the real objective of the law is precisely to drive down workers’ pay. Strike calls continue to be announced - all trade unions in civil aviation, for example, and on the railways, where several sites and depots have been on unlimited strike for several days, but where the movement will only spread after the call for an unlimited strike by several unions from the 31st May. Docks and harbours will be out and public transport (especially Paris). At the same time local strikes continue - in education, in regional public transport and against numerous private sector employers. We need to spread the strike to major employers like the supermarkets, engineering etc.
The strike day and national demonstration announced for the 14th June may seem far away to those who have been in action since the start of March. But by supporting current strikes, helping to get strikes off the ground wherever they are needed, including over specific demands such as wages and conditions, we can continue to build this movement. The demonstration on the 14th June can be a high point in the struggle, directly targeting the government, with everyone demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands through the capital.
Build real instruments of mass struggle
Genuine general assemblies are needed to bring together strikers, trade unions and all those in action: young people, Nuit Debout activists and others. Such assemblies would enable a wide-ranging discussion of actions to be taken, involving more people and democratically electing action committees at local, regional and national level, involving workers and young people on a wider scale than is presently possible just through the trade unions and other organisations. Many workers can become active without currently being members of a union and this is even more true of young people. The struggle needs to draw on everyone’s energy, allowing tens of thousands of people to become strike activists.
Similarly, the question arises of getting up strike collections which are sufficient to allow lone parents, low waged workers or those who have already been on strike for a number of days, to hold out. The capitalists are demanding ever stronger attacks on workers. The Economy minister, Macron, has referred to the need to resort to ‘salary moderation’, in other words to lower the standard of living of workers and their families
Immediately creating broad democratic forums is vital to allow collective discussions and the drawing up of a plan in which the main strike days are not seen as separate from each other but as stages in a developing struggle and where, in organisational terms, we can bring everyone up to date and prepare for the next ones.
The need to give the struggle a voice
We still need to find a way of focussing and expressing the anger which has accumulated, rejecting the employment law and all of Valls’ and Hollande’s politics, demanding higher wages and job creation and protesting at constantly being told to tighten our belts while the super-rich are rolling in millions of euros.
These are the ideas that are on the minds of all those demonstrating and striking. General assemblies could extend the discussion of these ideas, something which to some extent is already happening in the Nuits Debout movement, where thousands of youth, of people in insecure jobs, unemployed, pensioners, unionised or non-unionised workers have come together to debate what’s wrong with society and what we need to do about it. Many of these debates have as their central theme the need to change society and overthrow capitalism.
The trade union leaders have not been receptive to this movement, even though Martinez, as national leader of the CGT, has spoken out in support at this late stage. If they had done so, it would have been easier to say: ‘we’re in this fight together, let’s go forward to a general strike’. And when the leading lights behind ‘Nuits Debout’ simply said: ‘we’re not making any demands’ that didn’t help to bring people together in workplaces and working class districts! On the contrary, there is a pressing need to formulate clear demands to stop the attacks on living and working conditions which come at us like a steam roller, crushing the daily lives of millions.
Nevertheless, the Nuits Debout movement and the collective blockades - uniting young people and workers from different workplaces - demonstrate a willingness to come together in struggle. The movement could start to speak with a single voice if the general assemblies could spread their demands on a national level - such as for a 32 hour working week to create jobs for the unemployed, pay increases that would provide decent living standards, an end to redundancies and the taking into public ownership of any companies threatening to close or sack workers. This would make it possible to counter the dominant line of the politicians in the governing ‘Socialist’ Party (PS) or the National Front (FN) and the media who are all working in the interests of the fat cats and the share-holders and to give voice to the workers and young people, i.e. 90% of the population.
What’s missing is a genuine mass social and political opposition, united in the face of the arrogant Valls, Hollande and all the other ministers - each more illegitimate than the last. While continuing to build action, there is a pressing need for a mass political force for workers and youth - a new party of struggle against capitalism whose activists and cadres will be precisely those who are involved in action right now. Such a party would enable a united voice to be heard at national level in opposition to the 100% capitalist propaganda from the parties and the media who serve the bourgeoisie and capitalism.
Such a party wouldn’t waste its time manoeuvring with the PS or any of the other parties, but would resolutely defend, at every level, the interests and aspirations of the great majority of the population. Such a party, operating democratically, would help to build the struggle but more importantly could raise the need for a real alternative to capitalism, to unite all those who have had enough of this system and want to do more than just resist: really change society and overthrow capitalism. Such a party would be a forum for democratic debate, so as to jointly determine how we can achieve that aim.
Changing society, overthrowing capitalism
A general strike is a movement which is essentially political because it is about saying ‘we’ve had enough, we aren’t going to live like this anymore!’. And if we don’t want to live like this anymore then of course we have to beat the El Khomri law, but also change the balance of power at work, get rid of all those little Valls and Sarkozys who act like little dictators at work, and end a system which suffocates young people. In the long run, what needs to emerge is a government that operates genuinely in the interests of the working class, young people and the majority of the population: that should be on the agenda from now on. That is why Gauche Revolutionnaire has maintained since the start of this fight that what was shown on the 9th March, and what makes people want to continue, isn’t just a rejection of the employment law. It not only demonstrates frustration with weak trade union leaders, but also anger against the whole system and the beginnings of a revolt against it.
This is what the present struggle is expressing – a desire to build for a general strike given that it is not possible to live like this anymore, to keep obeying instruction to ‘work, shop and keep your trap shut!’ which is so oppressive. It’s because we’ve had enough of carrying out completely stupid tasks at work, paying through the nose for things produced in near slave conditions by children at the other end of the planet, seeing public health and education getting worse each year. It’s because we’ve had enough of capitalism, full stop. But the discussion about what we put in its place hasn’t gone much further than a few vague ideas: a new constitution, a citizen’s wage for life…. These are things which demonstrate a desire for radical change in society but don’t get to the heart of the problem, namely what amounts to a ‘democratic’ dictatorship by the capitalist class.
This is the true nature of society in France and what parliamentary debates sometimes cover up. It is what the use of article 49-3 of the constitution to push through the labour law means. Society rests on the ownership by the super-rich of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. To construct a truly free and democratic society we need to abolish large-scale private property and expropriate the capitalists through nationalisation/socialisation under the democratic control of the workers and general population. In this way society could be planned to take account of the needs and potential of all people - not for profit, with its trail of human, environmental and social damage that we witness every day. That is what democratic socialism means: the genuine alternative to capitalist barbarism and its wars, poverty, racism and injustice.
Sixty two individual people own as much wealth as half the world’s population. The richest continue to get richer and the majority of the population gets poorer. The employment law is there to speed up the growth of even greater inequality. But the fight to defeat this law shows that there are millions of us who are no longer prepared to be crushed for the benefit of this handful of super-rich for whom profit is king. This anger and this revolt needs to get organised and channelled into a genuine mass party to prepare a revolutionary socialist movement to overthrow the system and allow us at last to build a new society built on justice, fraternity and tolerance.
That’s what we want to build, join us!