France : Up to half a million on streets to stop new labour law

Will there be a general strike against the Valls-Hollande government ?

It has been several months since the balance of forces between the classes has been hardened in France. Redundancy plans have multiplied with accelerating de-industrialisation. Budget cuts are bigger and bigger in public services. And the policy of the government of the PS (Parti Socialiste) is even more clearly on the side of the French capitalist ruling class. Almost one year ago, on April 9th, 2015, a section of the most organised and the most politically conscious workers went out onto the streets to say ‘no’to the policy of the bosses and the government. The rejection of the PS and its allies was increasingly reflected in the election results, with a strong abstention rate and in the vote for the FN which was to some extent a protest vote.

But over a whole period, consciousnesses has been rising as anger has been accumulating. In spite of the absence of perspective given by the union leaderships, the number of struggles against the bosses’ rotten plans and the attacks on public services initially held up in 2014. Then in 2015, the figures significantly increased, and have recently gone up to more than 200 strikes a day, some of them – on salaries and living conditions – have lasted a long time and some have been victorious.

In numerous companies, a mood of resistance has built up, often without union leadership, around combative workplace union teams. This dates from the Sarkozy years when the bosses had let go a bit. But today under the Valls-Hollande government, these teams have reached a certain political maturity and are more deeply rooted. They are now at the head of the wind of revolt which is blowing in France this spring, alongside the university and high school students on the move.

Hollande and Valls facing a wall of resistance!

The Hollande-Valls government is trying to add a huge stone to its edifice of austerity and neo-liberal policy with what is known as the El Khomri bill on working conditions, named after the Minister for Labour who officially issued it and behind whom Valls and Holland are hiding. The government wants to provide a blank cheque for the worsening of workers’ and young people’s working conditions and make them more precarious with this new law by breaking the legal limits on working time, by facilitating redundancies and by destroying the social gains in the labour code regarding the protection of the employee.

But a growing part of the population firmly objects. Announced at the end of February, the Bill should have been officially presented to parliament on March 9th of this year. In the space of one week, an on-line petition collected more than 1 million signatures! At the beginning, the union leaderships issued a statement rejecting only two points of the new law. A section of them, in particular the CGT (the main French trade union federation), had to call for a day of ‘inter-professional’(general) strike but not until March 31st. But this was without taking into account the pressure building up from among the youth and from the unions’ rank and file.

Ten days before March 9th, the official organisations of young people, although a section of them are historically close to the PS, called for a mobilisation, strike action and marches on the 9th. The government tried hard to play for time and delayed the official presentation of the Bill until March 24th. This had no effect on scaling down the mobilisation in favour of the total and immediate withdrawal of the Bill quite the opposite! One by one, the local workplace unions, the base of the CGT, called for work stoppages and strikes on March 9th, while consciously pressurising their national leadership to also make a call.

A growing section of young people and workers are aware that the proposed labour law, is symbolic of the future that the PS, but also the other right parties and the bosses are promising us. And they refuse to accept this perspective. The mobilisation continues among the population. Everybody feels that the situation is serious and that such a movement is the one that we have been hoping for for a long time.

March 9th was a real success with nearly half a million people on the streets, mobilised – on strike for many or having taken time off from work – to make their anger heard, determined not to hold back. Marches and workplace banners were very present alongside young people mobilised in a number of cities.

The mobilisation of the youth

It has been 10 years since young people initiated a mass mobilisation in the country. Then it was about the fight against the CPE (new proposals for young people’s first jobs). It gathered many young people together and drew together workers and their organisations, forcing the government to retreat in 2006. But the bill on working conditions is of a quite different scale. It draws a picture of a future in which precarious work will be the rule in the workplaces. It is a major attack for the workers of today and then for young people, whatever the level of their studies.

General assemblies have begun to take place, with few participating for the moment in the universities. But the struggle is clearly only in its early stages. High school students mobilised by blockading their schools and big contingents on marches were organised in numerous cities either on their own or around activists. The organisation of the movement is thus only in its beginnings, and is linking up around the existing student organisations at the university.

The government urged youth organisations to simply discuss the issues but this failed. The UNEF students’ union, close to the PS, called for the mobilisation to be stepped up to get the law withdrawn even before it is officially presented. The next date for mobilisation among the youth will be March 17th.

The role of the unions

Facing a ‘socialist’government, the union leaderships obviously feel ill at ease. They have a big responsibility. In a country where the rate of unionisation is low, their survival depends on their positioning with regard to the government and the bosses and of the expectations of the workers.

From the start, very clearly, the leadership of the CFDT (French trade union federation close to the PS) along with some other unions, chose to try to improve (!?) the bill. The CGT, with the main teachers’ union, the FSU, and SUD Solidaires, were very fast to react under pressure from below. Very consciously, the membership of the CGT forced the leadership to cut the link with CFDT early and to form a block of unions with the youth organisations for the total withdrawal of the bill.

And the pressure from below is strong. Many CGT unions made a call on their own for the first time, without waiting for the opinion of the confederation, to mobilise on March 9th. And for what follows on it’s the same – for the preparation of the day’s general strike of March 31st. Many people are already discussing the next step to take after March 31st, to mobilise from March 24th during the official presentation of the law. Workplaces fighting on wages or against restructuring and redundancies have included the date of March 31st as a culminating point in their actions.

A deep political crisis

The potential is there. The political crisis is huge and the government is quite powerless. Actually, as shown by the recent election results, it is not only a crisis of the government and against Hollande ; it is a crisis of the regime and of the whole political class in the service of the capitalists.

From the Parti Socialiste (PS) to the Front National (FN), the positionings are complicated. The PS is riddled with ruptures, the right is very divided and criticises the too abrupt or «clumsy» method of Hollande! And the FN is hampered as well – some people like Marion Marechal Le Pen showing her support for a law for more bosses’ freedom and Marine Le Pen keeping silent.

They are all afraid of a prolonged movement which would block things up in the country and would prevent them from making their little arrangements between friends for 2017. In this context, the government keeps going on its way, sticking to its policies. At the same time, it is continuing with the repression against union activists, its racist policy against refugees and its anti-Muslim propaganda raising the spectre of terrorist threats.

However, for now, all these elements are no longer real obstacles to struggling as far as the young people and workers who want to fight are concerned. These questions become additional reasons to justify the necessity of uniting and of fighting. Links are made and the political issues strengthen the idea that it is time to move ahead all together.

Towards a general strike in France in the spring?

There is, as well, a certain understanding – partly instinctive, partly thought out after the mass movements of 1995, 2003 and 2010 – that a general strike – a real, one which can stop the employment bill and the government and level everything down in society, is on its way. From that point of view, the political discussions are serious and closely linked to the questions of the future – how to take the movement forward, how to step things up, to convince more people and not to run out of steam, including among the young high school students, the consciousness that they are fighting for their future. The perspective of world-wide precariousness, wars, terrorism, migrants blocked on borders disgusts them and instinctively motivates their mobilisation.

The mixture of this youth – mobilised for its future – with the combative and organised sections, who often openly call themselves revolutionary, must be able to meet the broader layers of the population who are looking with sympathy at this movement. This is what is at stake during the next two months of March and April.

Thus, the potential for a general strike is there. An important part of the labour movement and the youth are not only breaking with social democracy; they want to get rid of it and want to fight. Getting organised to fight and build another socialist society is not widespread yet but many young people and workers are looking for a political perspective. For the moment, the question of bringing down this government is not posed in the movement either. The coming weeks are going to be heated and events can accelerate.

The memberss of Gauche Revolutionnaire, in their places of study and work, in their labour unions and in the streets, are completely involved in pursuing the task of building a powerful enough mass movement to stop the capitalists and the governments which serve them and in putting forward a real socialist perspective against the government and the capitalists.

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March 2016