France: Mass protests continue, but what next?

Extend the action – for a general strike!

The “Day of strikes and protests”, on Tuesday 4 April, saw renewed mass action and demonstrations across France. As we go to publication, these protests, in around 200 towns and cities, seem to be either the same size or even bigger than those on 28 March, which saw nearly 3 million demonstrate.

It is now eight weeks since the first mass demonstration against the CPE, the ‘First Job Contract’, that allows workers under 26 to be sacked without reason or warning during their first 24 months with any employer. While President Chirac has now offered a reworking of the law to reduce the CPE to 12 months and to force employers to give reasons for sackings, mass opposition remains firm. An opinion poll held after Chirac’s 31 March, TV broadcast, when he made the concessions, showed that 54% supported the protest movement, 56% were not satisfied with Chirac’s changes and that 62% thought the president was unconvincing.

Faced with this opposition, the main employer’s organisation, Medef, distanced itself from Chirac. Its president has now demagogically criticised the CPE for putting too many “burdens” onto young people. However, Medef’s proposals are to apply the principles behind the CPE to all workers. But this is precisely why the movement against the CPE is so widespread.

Millions of workers see the CPE as the second stage of a step-by-step plan to give more power to employers to intimidate and threaten workers. Last year, there was hardly any trade union opposition when the government passed the CNE, which lets a company with less than 20 employees sack any new worker during their first 24 months. Workers and youth were determined that this would not be repeated.

Now many within Chirac’s own UMP party are desperate to find a way out. Prime Minister Villepin is isolated and has rapidly lost support to Sarkozy, his rival in the coming race to become the UMP candidate in next year’s presidential election. Sarkozy, head of the UMP, and interior minister, criticised Villepin for ramming through the CPE law without enough discussion. Just before these latest protests one of Sarkozy’s allies said: “It’s over. It’s the end of the CPE. Finally we are going to have a real parliamentary debate and a real dialogue with the social partners.”

Attempt to divide movement

This, in fact, is the government’s new strategy – an attempt to divide the movement by offering the possibility of talks. Already leaders of the CFDT trade union federation indicated they are prepared to talk to the government if the CPE is “not implemented”, something which is a retreat from the movement’s call for its abolition. At least one leader of Unef, the largest university student organisation, indicated a readiness to talk to the government on the basis of the limited concessions Chirac has already offered.

Chirac may be forced to make some further concessions, but as Medef has made clear, the employers will return to the offensive.

Despite the near doubling of the numbers on the Thursday 28 March protests, compared with those participating on demonstrations on Saturday, 18 March, the trade union leaders continued not to call for serious action against the government.

The result is that, despite the continuing mass opposition to both the CPE and the government, there is a danger that this movement will not achieve the victory that is possible.

Initiatives from below

Initiatives are starting to come from below, with groups of workers discussing continuing their strikes into Wednesday, 5 April. If such strikes develop in the coming days they could provide an impetus for the wider movement to escalate. It is clear that such a mobilisation from below will not simply be around the CPE or the CPE and CNE, but would take up the general issues facing working people. A movement like this could, in today’s France, spread rapidly, especially if it gave confidence to private sector workers to join in. Without such a development, it is an open to question how long only weekly protests can be maintained.

Gauche révolutionnaire (the CWI in France), linked building support for the “Days of action” with arguing both for an extension of strikes into 5 April and calling for a general strike to unify the struggle against the CPE with those struggles against the other attacks on living standards that Chirac and his government are attempting to carry out.

Although Gauche révolutionnaire explains that, ultimately, only a government that breaks with capitalism can solve the crisis facing working people, it is clear that, at this time, many of those participating in the protests look at the Socialist Party (PS) as either the “lesser evil” or the only alternative to the UMP in the coming elections.

This means that the Socialist Party could win next year’s elections, but this will not lead to a fundamental change in the situation. Time and again, the experience of Socialist Party governments is that they operate within capitalism. This is why, nearly 25 years since Mitterrand became the first ‘Socialist’ French president, in 1981, French workers and youth are facing an offensive to cut their living standards.

Gauche révolutionnaire calls for a new political force, a new workers’ party, which can combine today’s mighty wave of resistance with a genuinely socialist struggle to change society. In the 2002 presidential election, after the bitter experience of the Jospin ‘Plural Left’ government, over 10% voted for parties calling themselves ‘Trotskyists’. This year, over two months of struggle show again the huge potential that exists in France for a new workers’ party. This potential will be strengthened by both the experience of struggle and the disappointment that a new Socialist Party government will inevitably bring.

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April 2006