Mass Movement in France Defies Hollande's Socialist Government Austerity Program
Workers, Students, youth and Farmers Demand Progressive Change
On May 26th, photos of thousands of protesters flooding the streets of Paris erupted on social media! It is estimated that 100,000 people took to the street in Paris, as workers went on a national strike against pro-business labour reform bill “Loi Travail” introduced by the Hollande socialist government. Rallies also took place in towns and cities across France, including Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes. This protest was the eighth national day of coordinated actions against this law within the last three months.
Hollande presented this labor reform proposal as a solution to a stagnating economy and a record high unemployment rate. When looked at closely it becomes clear that it is not more than a neo-liberal policy aimed at reversing the gains of French workers and giving corporations more leeway to manoeuvre against their employees.
The law will give companies greater freedom to reduce pay, make it easier for them to fire workers and create poorly paid positions instead of permanent contracts. It gives employers the space to negotiate the 35-hour work week, meaning staff may work up to 40 hours a week — or even 60 in exceptional circumstances.
Peter Jacquemain, a close adviser to the French labour minister, resigned over his disagreement with this bill. In an interview with L'Humanité newspaper he declared "This bill is a historic mistake. It is a regression in social rights, to the extent that many gains of the workers will be renegotiated at a business level, where the balance of power is systematically not favourable for the employees."
A million people signed a petition against the proposed reform in February. In March a daily night-time sit-in and occupation of public spaces started in Paris and spread out around the country. It became known as the Nuit Debout ("Up All Night") movement. Following France’s long history of youth protest movements – from May 1968 to various rallies and protests in the early 2000–the Nuit Debout movement is led by youth and students who are opposing the government’s pro-corporate policies and standing up for their future. Asked in an interview with the Guardian newspaper on why he got involved in the protest movement, K Ivanovitch from the city of Lyon responded “because politicians do not represent in any way the aspirations of the people. We want a society built on something other than just profit and money-making.”
Imperialist War at Home
Ivanovitch’s feelings are shared among a lot of youth in France that find themselves increasingly in worst economical situation. The rate of unemployment, which stands at 10 percent overall, is at 24 percent for young people. The rate of youth unemployment in French suburbs and deprived areas largely populated with African and Muslim immigrant families arise over 40 percent. Now, 11 years after the 2005 protest movements against poverty, racism and dismay of the government towards the French suburbs, the situation have got worst!
A study released on January 2014 by the social policy consultants COMPAS shows that 8.7 million French people live below the poverty line, which represents around 14 percent of the population, the highest rates of poverty since 1997. The number of people living below the poverty line in the French suburb is even three times higher than the national average.
Report published in June 2015 by UNICEF show that more than 3 million children living in France – or one in every five – live below the poverty line. The report revealed that around 30,000 children are homeless, while 9,000 live in slums and 140,000 drop out of school each year.
The overall situation of students, poor and working people in France is worsening as the income inequality gap between poor and rich keeps growing. The fight against this controversial labor reforms bill fits within the fight against Hollande’s government austerity policies, from more privatizations to cuts on social services.
A Wall Street Journal headline from September 2015 reads “French Budget Focuses on Spending Cuts, Tax Breaks for Businesses”. The article goes on to state that the French government presented a 2016 budget that centers on restraining public spending and a deepening of a three-year program to grant more than €40 billion in tax breaks to businesses.
The students and workers movement in France are fighting back! They are responding to this recent government attack, through the labor reform bill, by increasing strikes, rallies and protests throughout the country and disrupting the economical life.
On May 10, facing major public protests and opposition to the labor reform bill from a group of his own MPs, French Prime Minister Valls announced that the government planned to force the bill through parliament without a vote, using Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. This anti-democratic provision 49-3, allows the executive to force the National Assembly to either adopt the bill or bring down the government, meaning that in order to prevent the bill from passing the Socialist Party's MPs opposing the bill would have to vote in favour of unseating their own government.
This is not the first time that the Hollande government uses this undemocratic clause. On February 17, 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ government enacted this provision to pass the so-called “Macron Law,” named after French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker. This law constitutes an attack on the French working class with the privatizes of numerous public companies, facilitating the laying off of workers and increasing fees for a number of medical and legal services. Ironically, in 2006 French Prime Minister at that time Dominique de Villepin, used this same Article 49.3. François Hollande was then the First Secretary of the French Socialist Party and head of the opposition, he attacked Villepin’s decision calling Article 49-3 “an act of brutality, a denial of democracy, a way of blocking or preventing parliamentary debate.” Fast forward 2016, the Hollande’s government is using the same dirty trick to force through parliament the unpopular “Loi Travail”.
"This denial of democracy after a social movement that brought together hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, in businesses , universities , high schools and public squares of France is an insult to the people of this country " Commented Nuit Debout's organizers through a public statement on their website.
Loi Travail : non, merci !
By forcing this labor law reforms though parliament without vote, the Hollande’s government didn’t succeed in silencing the opposition . Quite the contrary!
Students and workers from all parts of France continued mobilizing to demand the repeal of this law. Some 220,000 workers took over the streets on May 17, with thousands more on picket lines, blockading fuel depots and occupying refineries in the ongoing battle against the new anti-labor law. In Paris protesters waved banners reading: "What the government do, streets will undo." Two days later on May 19th over 400,000 people took part in protests nationwide.
French workers and militants with the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) continued to strike, blockade and disrupt oil refineries and nuclear power stations. According to figures from the Ministry of Transportation, as of May 26 oil workers strikes have forced the closure of 3,000 gas stations, which created a huge shortage causing a third of France's petrol stations to run dry. This forced the government to start using its strategic fuel reserves. The workers strike at nuclear plants across the country caused outages at, at least 11 power plants. Union activists also blocked roads, bridges and ports in northern France while some train drivers and air traffic controllers joined the strike.
One of the strategic locations affected by the strike was the oil terminals at the Port of Le Havre operated by CIM, a major crude oil and refined product storage operator in France. Workers there voted 95 percent in favor of an open-ended strike. Franck Barbay, CGT union secretary to CIM said “We import 40% of national crude oil here. We supply refineries, the airports of Orly and Roissy. We are aware of our responsibilities, but we expect that Mr. Valls takes his by repealing the law. "
Despite the gas shortages and disruptions an overwhelming majority of French people supports the protests. According to the Guardian newspapers, a recent Ifop poll suggests that six out of ten French think the protest movement and blockages are "justified “and another Opinionway survey found that 66 per cent think François Hollande, should scrap it
In Port-de-Bouc, southern France, three gas stations had shut because of the blockades. Journalists with AP witnessed the lines of people waiting to fill at the pump "I've been waiting for half an hour," said Sarah Lasbe, a 26-year-old restaurant employee. "I don't mind waiting because I think they are right," she said.
The French government is losing the public opinion battle. Hollande’s approval ratings are record low. According to an Ifop poll published in April in the Journal du Dimanche, only 14 per cent of the people are satisfied with his performance.
William Martinet, president of the country’s main student organization UNEF said “French President Francois Hollande is cut off from social reality. He was not elected for this labor law.”
Hollande’s government and the French ruling class government are desperately responding to the pressure by engaging in a negative media campaign against the protesters and unleashing their brutal police force on them. Pierre Gattaz, head of the MEDEF, France’s largest employer federation joined the negative media campaign by calling the protesters “hooligans” and “terrorists” and called on the
Hollande government to “to have the rule of law respected”.
At least 1300 people were arrested during weeks of protest, videos of police brutality against protesters surface daily on social media. The videos showed the disproportionate use force by police on protesters and strikers, including a horrifying video of a police officer in Toulouse aggressively grabbing a woman by the neck, shoving her against railings and throwing her to the ground. The police are also attacking independent and freelance journalist who are covering the protests. In a statement released on May 30, 2016 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that they are “very concerned about a surge in unlawful police violence against journalists covering protests against the government’s labour reform law and calls on France’s highest authorities to put a stop to the attacks. Some journalists say wearing a press armband turns them into a target of police violence.”
Imperialist War abroad!
While the French government and police continues their attacks and violent crackdown on poor and working people in France, the French military continues its imperialist wars and missions in Africa and the Middle East.
On April 29, 2015 French President Hollande announced an extra €3.8 billion ($4.2 billion) in defense spending over the next four years to cover both overseas military operations and permanent deployment of troops throughout France. The current €31.4 billion defense budget will be increased, with an extra €600 million in spending next year, reaching as much as €1.5 billion in 2019. Further that week Finance Minister Michel Sapin said in a radio interview with Europe1 that to balance the books after the increase in military budget, there will be cuts to other ministries resources such as in the healthcare and housing sector.
France has around 10,300 military personnel deployed in overseas operations (as of 25 February 2015). Over 3,000 troops are spread across five countries in Africa — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — as part of Operation Burkhane. France was the first European country to join U.S. led bombing campaign on Iraq and Syria with a total of 3,200 military troops deployed to Iraq.
In 2011, France pushed heavily for intervention in Libya. An imperialist coalition of US /UK/France/Canada/NATO bombed Libya, flying over 26,000 bombing sorties, killing over 2000 civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure. The western intervention in Libya was justified in the name of support for human rights and democracy. However, over five years after the bombing, the situation in Libya is devastated and unlivable with the UN estimating that over 400,000 Libyans were forced to flee their homes. In addition the French newspaper Le Monde reported on Feb 24, 2016 that French Special Forces and intelligence commandos are engaged in covert operations in Libya in conjunction with the United States and Britain. Le Monde called it France’s Secret War in Libya.
After the Terrorist attacks on Paris, France’s imperialist government keeps drumming and preparing for more wars and interventions by playing the card of the “war on terror”. François Hollande vowed that France will continue its military interventions abroad to fight global terrorism and that “France will remain a country of freedom”.
Freedom! It seems crucial here to remind Mr. Hollande of France’s bloody colonial history.
Where was this freedom when France plundered for decades the resources of colonies in Africa? Where was this freedom when French military occupied tortured, massacred and killed people in North Africa, over one million murdered in Algeria? Where was this freedom when the French government censored and repressed hip-hop artists of North African descent for speaking up against the government’s racist policies towards the youth of the French banlieue? Where was this freedom when in 2005 the French government tried to impose on French school teachers a requirement to only teach the "positive values" of colonialism to their students? I see no freedom Mr. Hollande, I only see imperialist hypocrisy!
The Struggle in France Continues…
The best way to counter terrorism is by showing strength and unity of all working, poor and oppressed layers of the French society in fighting together against austerity and for an anti-war government.
The students and workers in France are standing up for their rights and against the government’s pro-business “Loi Travail”. French labour unions have called for new strikes in the coming days that will target trains, the Paris subway system, ports and possibly airports. About 40 percent of France's high-speed trains and more than half of regional trains will be cancelled.
The seven unions that have been active in fighting this labor reform law — the CGT, Workers Force (FO), Unitary Union Federation (FSU), Solidarity (Solidaire), National Union of French Students (UNEF), National High School Union (UNL) and the Independent and Democratic Federation of High Schools (FIDL) issued a united call for a national protest June 14 in Paris. On this day the French Senate is due to deliberate about the new labour law.
This mobilization against “Loi Travail” will be a good test and experience for progressive left and working and poor class in France as the economical crisis deepens and the government will keep escalating and pushing its austerity program.
“The nation is angry, and has every right to express itself” said Jean Durand, a militant with the CGT union “we'll continue our protests until the government backs down.”
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