France: New mobilisations called as campaign steps up to defend workers’ rights

Issue 
March 9 mobilisation against the “El Khomri” labour law.

French workers and students are set to hold a new national mobilisation against the “El Khomri” labour law, which undermines workers’ rights.

The protest is the 14th national mobilisation in the campaign against the law this year — but the first since the law was forced through parliament without a vote and since France's summer holidays.

This break adds to what has already been a difficult campaign for France’s militant worker and student groups. They have faced overcome the opposition to mobilisations by more conservative worker and student groups and significant levels of state repression in the context of a state of emergency in place since November.

The new work law represents a significant deregulation of France’s employment law, similar to the neoliberal deregulation that has occurred in other Western countries. Indeed, many of the changes seem mild in comparison to conditions in Australia because France’s labour movement has successfully fought off or managed to limit the impact of the previous assaults on their working rights over the past 20 years.

A central aspect of the law is greater ability for enterprise and industry wide agreements to undermine France’s labour code. This includes allowing agreements to cut penalty rates for overtime and increase working hours. The law also makes it easier for enterprise and industry agreements to be reached by removing the ability for unions representing 50% or more of workers covered by an agreement to veto the agreement.

It also makes it easier for companies to sack workers and cancel agreements, even when companies are not experiencing financial problems.

Unpopular

The proposed laws have been deeply unpopular in France. When they were announced, a petition circulated by feminist activist and former ministerial adviser for the governing Socialist Party (PS) Caroline de Haas, attracted 200,000 signatures in its first four hours online. It quickly became the most signed online petition in France’s history and currently has more than 1.3 million signatories.

Opinion polls show 70% of French people polled are opposed to the changes.

The determination of the PS government to force through the law regardless has contributed to the collapse in popularity of President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Hollande’s approval rating fell to 12% in July.

Opposition to the law has been strengthened by the campaign of demonstrations and industrial action by unions and students since March 9. The largest of the 13 national mobilisations so far were on March 31 and June 14, when more than 1 million people took part across France.

However, the movement has not reached the size or momentum of previous movements to defend workers rights. The 2010 movement in defence of pensions featured five nation days of protest that mobilised more than 3 million people.

One factor undermining the size of the mobilisations is the fact that militant worker and student groups have been unable to build a united movement involving more conservative groups. Another factor is the high level of police repression.

In 2010, there was no agreement between France’s unions as to the objective of the campaign. The more militant unions such as the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), Workers Force (FO), and Solidaires rejected the attacks on pensions outright. However, the reformist unions like the French Democratic Labour Confederation (CFDT) and French Confederation of Christian Workers (FCTC) wanted the government to consult more with unions prior to passing the changes.

Yet united mobilisations were nonetheless achieved, involving all of France’s largest union confederations. This time, such unity has been missing.

The campaign has been driven by an alliance of the CGT, FO, Solidaires and the FSU education union, as well as three student unions. But the more conservative unions have not mobilised their members beyond a small demonstration in Paris on March 12 involving a few hundred activists.

The leader of one of France’s largest confederations, the CFDT, has been openly hostile to efforts to defeat or reform the new labour law — even playing an active role in its drafting. Despite this opposition, the more militant unions have been able to draw members from the more conservative unions into the campaign.

Repression

Throughout the movement, mass mobilisations have faced sustained repression by riot police. Because students dominated the early period of the mobilisations, the violence was initially primarily directed at students. Footage of high school students being beaten by riot police in March caused national outrage.

Yet repression has increased in scope and intensity over time, with many injuries from tear gas canisters fired at the bodies of protesters. The largest day of violence was during the June 14 protests where police used 1700 tear gas canisters, 150 sting grenades, as well as flash ball launchers — with hundreds of injuries reported.

The ongoing state of emergency, brought in after the ISIS attack in Paris in November, has helped create an atmosphere where police feel more comfortable unleashing violence against protesters. This confidence has been increased by statements by Hollande and Valls linking protesters to acts of terror that have occurred in France — including the stabbing of a police officer the day prior to the June 14 protests.

As part of this campaign, police tried to ban the June 28 protest in Paris. Had it been successful, it would have been the first time in 50 years that a union demonstration had been banned in France.

As well as the mass days of action, the movement has also included the Nuit Debout occupations of city squares along with ongoing industrial action during May and June.

Nuit Debout

Nuit Debout — which can be translated as “standing night”, “up all night”, or “rise up at night” — began as an occupation of the Place de la Republique in Paris after the March 31 protests.

Drawing inspiration from the Occupy movement, Spain’s indignados movement and the Arab Spring, it rapidly spread to more than 50 French cities and towns within a week.

Organising through general assemblies, Nuit Debout has drawn thousands of people into activity and created a space to discuss not only the struggle against the labour law, but the broader direction of French society. The Nuit Debout general assemblies in April initiated the call for joint militant union mobilisations for May Day.

The assemblies also drafted a motion of censure aimed at blocking the final passing of the legislation through parliament on July 21. After declining in July and August with the summer holidays, the assemblies were relaunched on September 1.

By late May, unions began intensifying industrial action in transport, oil refining, publishing and the power industries — sectors where the CGT is strong

The most disruptive strikes were in the oil refineries. All eight of France’s refineries were hit with strikes and blockades on May 24, which resulted in fuel shortages across France. Police attacks broke up the blockades by June 3.

The government sought to undermine and deflect opposition by amending the law several times. These amendments removed some of the worst features, but many destructive and unpopular measures remained. When the bill was introduced to parliament, it faced more than 400 amendments from left parties, including the left-wing of the governing PS.

To avoid these amendments and ensure that the bill passed, the government enacted a clause of the French Constitution on three occasions. The clause allows the government to pass laws through parliament without taking a vote — the only way a law can be rejected in such a case is if a censure motion against the government is passed within 24-hours of the clause being enacted.

New phase

Valls and Hollande hoped that forcing through the law would suck the life out of the movement — as happened with the movement against pension attacks in 2010. It is unclear what will happen with the movement, but there are reasons to think we might not see a repeat of the 2010 experience.

The 2010 movement dissipated quickly after the passing of the pension law, but there are a number of factors that may give the current movement ongoing life.

The government’s refusal to test the law in parliament has robbed it of considerable legitimacy, particularly as Hollande has previously been strongly critical of that constitutional clause. In response to the a previous government’s use of the clause to pass the First Employment Contract Law in 2006, Hollande described it as a “brutality” and “a denial of democracy”.

The 2010 movement dissipated quickly because the more conservative wing of the movement, which had not sought the abandonment of the bill in its entirety, simply withdrew from the campaign once the law passed — leaving the more militant sections of the movement isolated. As these unions are not part of the current movement, the law’s passing will have less of an impact with no active sector of the campaign likely to withdraw.

The first test of the struggle to extend the movement will come with Thursday’s mobilisations.

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