France: Struggle over workplace rights looms as Macron secures power

July 1, 2017
French workers march on May Day in Paris.

The parliamentary majority President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition won in the second round of legislative elections held on June 18 was reported as a triumph against the weakened forces of both the left and the traditional right.

But questions have emerged over the real strength of the government as it prepares an assault on the rights of workers and their unions.

The parliamentary majority secured by Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) and the allied Democratic Movement (MoDem) was smaller than expected. They won 360 seats in the 577-seat body (313 LREM and 47 MoDem respectively) — down from predictions after the first round of as many as 440 seats.

Despite still winning a clear majority, the stability of the government is questionable. In the week after the second round, the government had four ministers resign over a 48-hour period. The resignations relate to two separate sets of corruption scandals.

All of MoDem’s ministers have resigned, including party leader Francois Bayrou, over allegations that MoDem misused European Union parliamentary funds. Another minister who resigned was Richard Ferrand, also LREM’s secretary-general, who faces allegations of profiting from real estate sales while the head of a health insurance fund.

None of the four ex-ministers have been charged, and two now lead LREM and MoDem in parliament.

The traditional right-wing parties were weakened in the elections, losing 93 seats to hold just 136. The far-right National Front failed to reproduce Marine Le Pen’s success in the presidential elections, winning eight seats (up from the two in 2012).

However, the big losers were left parties.

The combined left vote, including Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed(FI), was the lowest combined vote in the first round for socialists/communists since World War II. The  Socialist Part and its allies won just 45 seats, down from 331 in 2012.

FI won 17 seats, allowing it to form its own parliamentary group. The French Communist Party (PCF) received its lowest vote ever, but still increased its seat tally from seven to 11.

There were efforts to form a united parliamentary group between the FI and PCF. However, attempts were blocked by ongoing tensions between the groups.

Although the PCF does not have sufficient seats to form its own parliamentary group on its own, it was able to do so by securing the participation of five left MPs elected from France’s overseas territories.

The PCF and FI pledged to work together to fight against Macron’s neoliberal agenda for France. While the pledge may be undermined by their forces being divided in parliament, a far bigger problem is that the forces do not exist in parliament to build a left opposition capable of blocking Macron’s agenda.

Therefore, if Macron is to be stopped, it will be in the streets.

The first major attack looming against the popular classes is new proposed workplace laws. These follow on from the laws passed last year.

On June 28, the government presented an enabling bill that would introduce temporary ordinances to undermine the Labour Code. Once an enabling law has been passed, such ordinances are short term orders that change the laws for a period of time while the legalisation is still being debated. The enabling bill (but not the ordinances) will be debated on July 24. The text for the ordinances isnot expected to be published until September.

The exact character of the attacks is unclear. The government has only been willing to meet with unions for six hours to verbally outline their plans. However, the changes are expected to further weaken the historic principle in French industrial relations that the three levels of agreements — national, industry, and enterprise — should only improve workers’ rights as the agreements flow down to the local level.

Since 2004, changes to France’s labour laws began to allow enterprise agreements to begin to undermine industry agreements to a limited extent. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) expects the new changes to dramatically expand the areas in which an enterprise agreement can undercut industry level agreements.

Adding to this danger are the changes introduced in last year’s El Khomri labour laws, which make it dramatically easier for enterprise agreements to be imposed. The laws remove the ability of unions representing more than 50% of workers in workplace to veto an agreement negotiated by unions representing more than 30% of workers. Such an agreement can now be approved based on a ballot of workers.

If a new agreement undercuts existing conditions, it won’t automatically apply to existing workers. However, the El Khomri labour laws allow a company to sack any worker who refuses to accept the new lower conditions.

The CGT labelled the laws the death of industry level agreements and of the employment contract.

Resistance to the new laws has been muted. Protests have primarily been led by the Social Front (FS), which was established in April to bring together dozens of unions and social movement groups. FS called mobilisations on May Day, May 8 and June 19, with thousands taking to the streets in cities and towns across France.

A section of the more militant unions have begun to organise. On June 27, the CGT, Workers’ Force (FO), the trade union Solidaires and the United Trade Union Federation (FSU), along with the university student union UNEF, held a series of small demonstrations across France to coincide with MPs taking up their seats.

These unions have also called for joint mobilisations on September 12. The CGT has called for a day of strikes and protests.

This is an important step in building a movement in opposition to Macron’s attacks, but unions face a big hurdle in building a united movement to defend workers’ rights that they were unable to overcome last year. This is the refusal of the more conservative union confederations to mobilise their members to oppose the attacks.

Laurent Berger, the secretary- general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, expressed concerns at the pace at which the government is seeking to push through its changes. However, it has resisted being drawn on the proposals themselves.

This suggests the militant unions and the FS have considerable work ahead if they are to draw the members and supporters of the conservative unions into the streets.

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