France: General strike answers attacks

June 2, 2016

A general strike rocked France in late May in the latest escalation of protests and workplace actions against the government's attempt to scrap long-standing protections for workers.

The economy ground to a halt as dockworkers in port cities, workers in oil refineries and nuclear power stations, airport and Paris metro workers and many more took action.

Workers took to the streets on May 26 with massive protests. Unions estimated that 300,000 people took part in demonstrations, including railway workers, postal workers, students, low-wage workers, the unemployed and retirees.

The General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the main union federation in France, was joined by at least six other unions in calling for strikes in opposition to the proposed law. Workers shut down production in workplaces all over France.

The strikes and protests began months ago, including the “Nuit Debout” (Up All Night) occupation of the Place de la Republique in Paris, with its echoes of the indignados protests in Spain and the Occupy movement in the US in 2011.

The anger is directed at the Socialist Party government's new labour “reform”. The bill, proposed by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, would make it easier for companies to fire workers and get around the 35-hour workweek.

Currently, the French labour code sets the terms of employment. The El Khomri law would give employers more power over the length of the workday, wages and hiring and firing.

The government claims the law will eliminate antiquated work rules and make it easier for young workers, facing double-digit unemployment, to find jobs. But French workers, young and old, know that the only people who will benefit are the employers.

In a statement published in L'Humanite, secretary general of the CGT Philippe Martinez called for negotiations on a new labour law that would provide greater rights and job security — not “a return to the 19th century”.

Opposition to the law runs high, as does anger over the undemocratic way it was pushed through parliament.

When it was clear that it did not have enough votes among Socialist Party members in the lower house of parliament, the government invoked Article 49.3 of the constitution, blocking a final vote. The labour law now goes to the Senate, which will begin debate on June 14.

The European football championships begin in France on June 10. Fans will be met by anti-government demonstrations, including rolling strikes on the Paris Metro. The CGT has called for a national day of action on June 14.

The scale of anger and unrest could be seen on May 26. Six of France's eight oil refineries were completely shut down or had production diminished due to the strikes. This led to fuel shortages — in Paris, 40% of gas stations reported running low.

Workers shut down the publication and distribution of national newspapers, except for the left-wing daily L'Humanite, which supported the strikes.

Airport workers, many of them subcontractors, joined walkouts at Charles De Gaulle Airport.

Police, equipped with riot gear and tear gas, were sent in to crack down on protesters, who were depicted in the media as violent thugs. But any violence was largely initiated by police, who have been given increasing authority to go after demonstrators.

France has been under a state of emergency since the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. The government has used the attacks as an excuse to further militarise the already heavily armed French police and crack down widely on dissent.

But ordinary people are not buying the message that protesters are violent thugs. Opinion polls show that 74% of the public opposes the government's law and large numbers support the strikes.

The general strike was the most recent episode in the months of protests stemming from opposition to the labour law — as well as a more general sentiment among workers towards the Socialist Party government.

Nuit Debout is part of that outpouring of anger. Starting on March 31, nightly protests of thousands of young people spread to other cities. Tens of thousands of people attended nightly mass meetings, defying police harassment and violence.

Earlier, there were other examples of resistance to neoliberal austerity, including protests by Air France workers and walkouts in a number of smaller workplaces over wages. In December, significant environmental protests took place during the COP 21 climate conference in December. This was despite the government demanding demonstrations be cancelled due to the recently declared state of emergency.

The past two decades have been punctuated by fierce struggles in France — against pension reforms in 1995, 2003 and 2010; a youth-led protest against another labour law attack in 2006; and a rebellion against racist police violence in 2005.

Today, the government is slashing labour laws in the name of "reform," while protecting the interests of the employers' federation MEDEF.

Unemployment stood at 10.6% earlier this year, with youth unemployment running as high as 25%. Meanwhile, corporate profits are up, and France's economy grew faster than expected in the first quarter of the year.

President Francois Hollande is eager to prove that he can transform France into a lean-and-mean economy that slashes so-called lenient work rules in order to compete on the world market. He is up for re-election in a year, and inside the SP, there are signs of discontent with his government. On May 27, 56 Socialist members of parliament came out in opposition to the El Khomri bill.

But Hollande remains defiant, telling Europe 1 radio before the strike: “I will not give in because too many [previous] governments have backed down.”

With its utter disregard for the conditions facing working people and its role in whipping up an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim atmosphere with the call for a “state of emergency”, the Hollande government has provided an opening for the far right. In regional elections last December, the far-right National Front got about 7 million votes.

But the outpouring of class resistance — which is uniting union members alongside younger low-wage workers, students and the unemployed — is showing an alternative. The upsurge seems certain to continue through June 14, when the Senate begins deliberations on the labour law.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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