Workers and political activists prepare to battle Macron’s ‘XXL’ assault on French labour laws, reports Susan Ram
Across France, preparations are under way for tomorrow’s day-long roar of protest, combined with broad-spectrum strike action, against President Emmanuel Macron’s labour law ‘reforms’. Mass demonstrations are projected to fill the streets at 180 different locations, from big cities to smaller departmental towns, with marches swelled by hundreds of thousands of workers and employees responding to 4,000 separate strike calls.
The day of action has been called by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), in partnership with Solidaires (Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, or SUD) and the Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (FSU).
With upwards of 700,000 members located in key sectors of the economy (the railways, ports, transport, petroleum and gas), the CGT is the preeminent force of the French trade union movement: combative and capable of wielding strike power on such a scale as to bring the country to a standstill.
The FSU is the main trade union in the public sector, with 165,000 members (more than 80 per cent of them teachers).
Although weaker in terms of numbers, Solidaires has strategic reach (it is particularly strong in the postal sector, France Telecom, healthcare, education and transport, including Air France) and a radical, social movement impetus which has included action in defence of immigrants and the unemployed.
The day of action will go ahead without the formal, leadership-mandated involvement of two other big union groupings: the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) and Force Ouvrière (FO). While the leader of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, has expressed ‘disappointment’ with the labour law package announced by Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, on August 31, this was apparently insufficient to offset his instincts for compromise (the CFDT has close ties with the disintegrating Parti Socialiste, some of whose luminaries are now in bed with Macron).
Jean-Claude Mailly, the secretary-general of FO (France’s third largest union confederation in terms of membership), has similarly opted out. However, mutiny has broken out in FO ranks, with numerous affiliated unions promising to disobey orders and join the national strike tomorrow. There are also signs of discontent within the CFDT, with union members at Lyon and Brest announcing their participation in the face of decrees from Paris.
Tomorrow’s day of action also has wider political significance, given the decision of France’s preeminent organisation of the radical Left, La France Insoumise (LFI), to throw its weight, mass membership and enthusiasm behind the CGT’s initiative. Tensions between the confederation’s secretary-general, Philippe Martinez, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of LFI had earlier threatened to undermine such an outcome. A rapprochement was achieved following a meeting between them on September 6. However, relations remain on a delicate footing, especially in respect of follow-up mobilisations planned for later this month. While LFI is planning a massive turnout on September 23, its own day of resistance to Macron’s war on the Code de travail, the CGT has already called for a second day of nationwide industrial action on September 21.
What to look out for tomorrow, September 12? French railway operations are liable to serious disruption, given strike action by CGT cheminots and rail workers belonging to SUD-Solidaires. Road haulage, too, will face stoppages, along with the petroleum sector, where the FNIC-CGT has vowed to prevent any movement out of refineries. French air traffic control is also likely to suffer turbulence. With hundreds of thousands of public sector workers on the streets, there will be school and college closures, strike activity by postal workers and repercussions for the healthcare sector.
Tomorrow offers a momentous opportunity for a coming together of every fighting section of the French trade union movement and the political Left. Along with striking workers and employees, pensioners, political activists, and students from universities, colleges and lycées will be adding their weight to the presence on the streets – and their voices to a great roar of fury that should rattle the windows of the Élysée Palace.
Whether lurking in its chambers or back on Mount Olympus, ‘Jupiter’ Macron will be stroking his chin and taking stock.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.