The French working class fights on
In the last edition of Lalkar we commented on the unrest in France (‘Deepening class struggle in France’ – May/June 2016) which is being caused by the attempts of the ‘socialist’ government to heap the financial and social pain of the latest capitalist crisis of overproduction onto the backs of the working classes of France through their harmless sounding ‘labour reform bill’. Here we update the unfolding story
The attacks by the French state on the workers and students who are demonstrating against Hollande and Valls’ plans (which will increase unemployment, make those remaining in work toil for longer hours and enjoy far less security in that employment) are continuing and so is the magnificent opposition. Popular strikes are breaking out across the country affecting rail, shipping, airline pilots, fuel depots and refuse collections alongside the daily and nightly demonstrations and mass meetings. The costs are staggering, just for SNCF (the French railways) the daily cost of the strikes has been estimated at between 15 and 20 million euros. Although there are issues being fought over that are peculiar only to certain groups of striking workers, the common target of all workers’ wrath is the imposition of a new labour law which threatens to strip away previously established employment rights. The 35-hour week won in 2000 is routinely cited as evidence of ‘lazy French workers’. The reality is somewhat different: the number of hours actually worked in France averages 37.5 a week, higher than in either Germany or Britain. Now, under the new law, the 35 hour week is theoretically retained, but only as an average over a three month period. In practice, workers will be expected to work as much as 46 or even 60 hours a week, supposedly compensated by time off elsewhere in the roster. In other words, the 35-hour week will become an ever more notional limit, impossible to police in practice. Also lost in the ‘flexible working’ morass will be the regulations that have previously guaranteed decent breaks between shifts, requiring 11 consecutive hours of rest between each working day and one consecutive 35 hour rest period a week. The new law also makes it easier to fire workers and dilutes state regulation on holiday entitlement and maternity leave (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36387492).
The Nuit Debout movement is not only demonstrating every night across the country and blockading things like fuel but it is also holding mass meetings, which include trade unionists, to discuss and debate the situation and possible political solutions in scenes reminiscent of 1968 (there is still a long way to go to get to that point however). The government is refusing to withdraw its plans but has hinted that some ‘reforms’ could be watered down a little in an effort to split the workers’ resolve with as little cost to its scheme as possible. Its aim is to reduce significantly the numbers of those engaged in active opposition to the assault demanded by the French ruling class and then to use newly-legislated ‘special powers’ (theoretically granted for the purpose of combatting terrorism) on those who continue stubbornly to stand up against the state’s attacks.
It is significant that when trade union and student leaders of the people’s opposition stated that there would be no truce for the duration of the Euro 2016 football tournament, President Hollande replied by saying that the “biggest threat” to the football tournament in France was ” terrorism“, not strikes, signalling a possible willingness to treat strikers and demonstrators as terrorists. The police have attacked the victims of the state’s schemes with batons, water cannons, mass arrests and 1001 minor provocations since the fight-back started but so far have not used the anti-terror powers that the government gave them. But this could soon change.
Just 9 days prior to the start of that tournament on 10 June, when two-and-a-half million people were expected to descend on France for the kick-off of the European football championship, the situation re strike action and fuel blockades was this: a good half of the rail services were severely hit, with the largest militant trade union CGT calling out members in both rail and bus transport industries. The union, SUD, called an open-ended strike in Paris’s public transport system, starting on June 10 – the very day that the Euro 2016 football tournament was due to kick-off, pledging to cause transport chaos in the French capital unless the government backed down. Another union, Force Ouvrière, also issued strike calls, with their secretary general, Patrice Clos, telling Reuters that his members would be called to strike in the host towns and cities in order to put pressure on the government. ” At our congress it was decided to do this because the law affects workers … we decided that we will call a strike all over sectors on each day of matches in the towns concerned ,” Clos said. At the time of writing this article the football tournament is still going on and neither terrorism (of the recognised kind) or strike action has so far disrupted the event. In fact it has been the hooligan elements within the football fans (most notably the British ones) who have caused all the trouble so far.
If we are to believe the oft told lie that bourgeois democracy treats and represents all people of all classes equally then surely, with opinion polls revealing that somewhere from 60% up to three quarters of the French people are against the anti-worker laws which Hollande is trying to sneak past the French parliament without debate or vote, no ‘democratic’ government, let alone ‘socialist’ government, should be stubbornly insisting on forcing these laws through in their entirety. Moreover, a significant majority (around 66%) of all questioned believe that the offending law should be scrapped entirely. Only a very small number give the laws limited support while total support is confined to the bourgeoisie itself. This being the case, why is the French government, we must ask, fighting against the vast majority to impose laws that will only benefit the wealthy few?
Are the workers angry? Workers are blocking six of France’s eight oil refineries, some of its fuel depots, and plan to shut down or lower output in at least five of its nuclear power plants in a declared bid to have the new labour law scrapped. Up to a third of petrol stations are running on empty, forcing the state to delve into its strategic petrol reserves, which could theoretically keep pumps flowing for three months. Some 80 per cent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power, but 10 nuclear power stations are now running on reduced output. Police stations have been attacked as people who have suffered under police batons on the streets have decided to hit back at their tormentors. The sparks are appearing in cities and towns all across France, bringing the possibility of conflagration closer each day. What Chirac and his government, widely recognised as reactionary, tried and failed to do ten years ago when they promulgated similar union-bashing legislation (without actually daring to carry it out, such was the strength of popular protests), is being attempted ten years on by the ‘socialist’ Hollande and his gang of representatives of the bourgeoisie. Can the bourgeoisie allow Hollande to back down like Chirac or will he have to push on to the bitter (and it would be bitter) end? Will the French workers allow themselves to be split?
Clearly the capitalists hope that Hollande will be able to use his fake-socialist credentials to finish the job that Chirac started. Let those in Britain who dream of a new post-Cameron lease of life for the welfare state on the back of a Corbyn premiership take note.
Another development in the struggle has been the challenge to the might of France’s imperialist media, with workers instructed by their union, CGT, not to print or distribute any newspapers which refuse to publish a statement from CGT leader Philippe Martinez making the case against the proposed labour reforms. The left-leaning L’Humanité, which printed the statement, was the only daily that got printed and distributed on the day in question. Needless to say, the imperialist press, which daily churns out capitalist propaganda, was quick to cry foul. Nicolas Beytout, the proprietor of a rag called L’Opinion, fulminated that ” This scandalous intrusion by the union into the content of the media must be denounced as a deplorable attack on democracy,” whilst the editor of the supposedly ‘left-wing’ paper Libération bragged that “We’ve never published a communiqué under pressure and we never will,” denouncing the CGT’s action as “shameful and stupid.” On the contrary, the CGT is to be congratulated for exposing the real class nature of a mainstream press that is bought and sold by monopoly capital and faithfully cleaves to an editorial line that is acceptable to capitalism.
The question of who should rule the country is slowly but surely coming to the fore and we watch the struggles, tactics and debates of workers, students, unemployed youths etc. with great interest as they begin to recognise that immigrant workers are their kin while the French-born bourgeoisie is their natural enemy; that calling yourself socialist does not make you a socialist; that Hollande, Valls and their party are as much a pillar of support for French/European imperialism as any self-declared rightist party. They must also learn that their resistance must include all workers regardless of whether they are in work or not, regardless of their colour, ethnic origins, religion, sex or age.
We take hope from the fact that workers in struggle learn political lessons quickly and we wish them well in their studies. May they soon recognise the real prize and go for it in earnest.