France: Thousands protest against regressive labour laws

September 23, 2016

Mobilisations are facing growing levels of police repression. Paris, September 15.

More than 170,000 workers and students joined more than 110 protests across France on September 15 against new labour laws that dramatically deregulate France’s labour code.

The protests, called by four of France’s union confederations and three national student groups, continued the campaign of mobilisations against the anti-worker laws that began in March. They were the first mass protests since the laws were enacted in August.

Angering opponents of the laws, the government of Prime Minister Manuel Valls forced the bill through parliament in July without a vote, invoking the undemocratic clause 49.3 of the French Constitution.

The new laws provide for a wide range of changes to working conditions and a significant weakening of the authority of unions in the workplace. Some of the most significant include greater ability for companies to increase working hours beyond the standard 35-hour week while cutting overtime rates.

Other changes make it easier for companies to sack workers and terminate collective agreements. The laws make it harder for unions to veto collective agreements.

As well as opposing the new laws, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT, France’s largest union confederation) has raised extra demands. The CGT is calling for cutting the working week to 32-hours to combat mass unemployment; restoring the retirement age to 60 and raising the minimum wage to €1800, up from €1466.

The September 15 protests mark a clear decline in the movement against the laws, which peaked with mobilisations of more than 1 million people on March 31 and July 14. The drop in size of the protests is linked to a sense of defeat now that the laws have passed, even though polls show about 70% of the population oppose the laws. Another factor is the growing levels of police repression against protests.

The September 15 demonstrations were met with large numbers of riot police, and the use of tear gas and other crowd control weapons. The most serious violence occurred in Paris, where Laurent Theron, an activist with the hospital federation of the militant Solidaires union, was hit in the face by a grenade and blinded in one eye.

In a statement, Solidaires said: “We strongly denounce the disproportionate use of sting ball grenades, tear gas and flash ball launchers that have left hundreds injured, sometimes very seriously. The General Inspectorate of the National Police has received complaints regarding many cases, especially by activists of Solidaires injured while they were demonstrating peacefully.

“To date, no sanction has been imposed and the main responsibility for this situation, the interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, is still in office”.

No new mobilisations have been called in the campaign, but the CGT is refusing to concede defeat. In a September 15 statement, the CGT stated that, like the laws aimed at young workers passed in 2006 but which were defeated shortly after they were passed, “nothing is set in stone. What has been passed can be annulled.”

However, the campaign is expected to shift into a new phase of legal challenges to the laws’ implementation. Mobilisations of workers in local enterprises are also expected, with the aim of using these struggles to give the movement new impetus.

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