François Hollande, President of the French Republic. Photo: Wikipedia François Hollande, President of the French Republic. Photo: Wikipedia

The government has been stunned by the strength of the strikes and protests, but what now for the movement? John Mullen investigates

Events in France are showing a high level of class anger, an explosion of creative fighting tactics, and a very deep crisis in social democracy. Thursday 23 June saw the 11th day of action  against a vicious Employment bill. Masses around the country showed continuing determination not to allow the new law onto the statute book. Lively demonstrations took to the streets in dozens of towns, including at least one which hadn’t seen a demonstration for fifty years. Workplace voting in a “citizens’ referendum” about the law was going on across France this week, and some oil depots were still blocked. Nevertheless the movement is weaker than it was and the next few weeks will be crucial.

The background to the crisis is the relative success of the French working class over the last thirty years in slowing down neoliberal attacks. This has very concrete effects. My daughter, when she goes to university here, will pay two hundred pounds a year; my niece in Britain, nine thousand. My wife, a primary school teacher in Paris, can retire at sixty; my sister in a care profession in the UK, at sixty seven. Pensioner poverty is far higher in the UK than in France, council housing still gets built, and one can find many more examples.

So French bosses, despite all the handouts they have had from this so called Socialist government, are impatient to go much further. This new bill would make it possible to overturn national minimum conditions – on overtime pay rates or on the length of the working week, for example – by local workplace agreements. The bosses are extremely keen, since they can see that such a law could severely weaken the power of national union agreements for fifty years or more. This is what has caused three months of strikes and demonstrations. It’s very much a political movement, not about immediate economic interests: many of the effects of the law would not be felt for years, and some groups out on the one-day strikes, such as teachers, would not be affected by this law, but understand that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Prime Minister Valls would like to become the Tony Blair of French politics and move the Socialist Party as far right as New Labour. To do this, he is ready to lose his present electoral base (his popularity rating is16%, and even lose the next elections, feeling that a defeated working class will let him back into office the next time round. The employment law has become the key battle for him. This is why, over recent weeks, he has made concessions in other areas (the first pay rise for teachers for many years has been announced and long standing student union demands on training have been conceded, as well as concessions for railworkers). At the same time, state repression has been ramped up. The union demonstration on the first of May was attacked by police for the first time since the end of the 1970s. Levels of police violence are considerably higher than usual: demonstrations now routinely include « street medics » – medical staff who come with equipment to treat those beaten by the police.

The government has been stunned by the strength of the movement. One-day strikes across the economy, accompanied by “renewable strikes” in the most militant workplaces, in which striker meetings decide every few days whether to continue. These have taken place in transport, airlines, rubbish collection, oil refineries, power stations and electricity companies. Dynamic, original tactics have been used. Motorway toll booths have been occupied, letting cars through free and collecting money for strikers ; bus depots, train lines and oil depots have been blockaded. An online strike fund collected over 400 000 euros. Students barricaded universities and high schools. And the new Up all night movement occupied squares around the country for many weeks and, along with the student actions, has brought into being a whole new generation of activists, involved in mass forums but also in solidarity actions with refugees and with strikers, both those acting against the employment bill and those striking on other issues, like the casual workers at the National Library in Paris.

What ideas this new generation of activists will turn to is one of the most important questions of the year. They are certainly being presented with plenty of choices. In Up All Night you can see many defending lifestyle politics: become a vegan, set up a local currency or barter system to defy capitalism, campaign against the idea of work, etc. Others insist that directly confronting the forces of the State (that is, fighting the police) has to be at the centre of political strategy. But changing lifestyles leaves the power of capitalism intact, and the state will always be better at street fighting than our movements can be, (not to mention the elitism involved in small group street fighting reserved for young men).

Fortunately, the very roots of Up All Night, in a class struggle about rights at work, have led significant sections of the movement towards putting the working class at the centre. Working with local trade unionists to blockade bus depots on strike days, visiting picket lines, collecting money for strikers have been popular activities.

The movement against the Employment bill has gone through three phases already. In March and April high school students were central. Exam season has now stopped the blockades of schools, though there are still large numbers of young people on the demonstrations. In April, the Up All Night square occupations were the most visible part of the movement. In May, once the Prime Minister had used a special decree to cancel the parliamentary debate on the law and push it through its first reading without discussion, the renewable strikes, especially in transport and rubbish collection, came to the fore.

The sectors on renewable strikes could not hold out alone for more than two or three weeks, and national union leaders really did not want to go further than one day strikes. This is because union leaders are professional negotiators and see strikes as ways of strengthening their hand in talks aiming at a deal, but also because union leaders do not want to see the Socialist Party governmen overthrown and replaced with a right-wing government under which the role of trade union leaders would be much less influential.

We seem to be at a temporary stalemate this week. Hollande is weak: when asked by pollsters if they wanted him to stand again for president next year, only fourteen per cent of the population said yes! He has failed to win over public opinion as he had hoped: even after the smear campaigns against the trade unions and demonstrators, new opinion polls still see sixty seven per cent against the Employment Law, and sixty per cent saying the movement is “justified” . This despite a disgusting propaganda campaign against the trade unions, which used the excuse of broken office windows in a children’s hospital on the route of last Tuesday’s march to portray demonstrators as heartless anarchists. (Meanwhile, this year, the government is cutting 20 000 jobs in our hospitals!)

Public opinion, though, cannot in itself win the day. Most of the renewable strikes have now stopped, even if the mass demonstrations are very angry and do not at all have the atmosphere of defeat. The law still has to pass through its second reading and another day of action is planned for the 28th. The Socialist MPs are divided, and we may see them propose a motion of censure against the government, if it again applies the 49.3 decree which allows the law to pass without debate.

The government itself cannot agree over tactics. This week saw a ridiculous circus show with Valls asking the unions to call off the demonstration, because of the broken windows and because the police had been working too hard due to the Euro 16 football championship. When the unions refused, the march was banned. In the face of widespread condemnation of this decision (even by the CFDT, the one union confederation which supports the Labour bill) the government backtracked, but authorized a very short march route.

The weakness of our side has been the strategy of the union leaderships. Though they have supported sections calling strikes, they have not wanted to build even for a one-day general strike, which could realistically have been organized on this issue. And there is not an alternative leadership for the working class.

Similarly on the political front. Throughout the movement members of anticapitalist groups (such as Ensemble, the group I belong to, or the New Anticapitalist Party) have been very much involved in building up actions. And the Communist Party and Left Party have mobilized comprehensively. Nevertheless, no organization has given a clear and visible political lead on how to win. For the anticapitalist organizations this is mainly because both are very much federal organizations with each locality deciding action independently. 

Recent events have opened up many political questions for anticapitalists. Questions about how to relate to Socialist party members and voters for example. Many Socialist party offices around the country have been smashed up, and some leading revolutionary activists have, sadly, been publicly applauding such actions and supporting a campaign of pledges entitled “I will never again vote for the Socialist Party”. This approach is a mistake. Attacking Socialist Party offices makes Hollande’s job easier, by uniting the Socialist party, within which there is significant opposition to this law. And the campaign to never vote PS puts the dividing line in the wrong place, between those who hate the Parti socialiste in its entirety, and those who might vote for them (against a fascist candidate perhaps, or in order to elect a local Socialist mayor who at least builds low-rent housing). We need to divide society on the basis of class interest, not on the basis of who has no illusions in social-democracy and who may still have a few. The result of this confusion is that when a group of anarchists attacked the union headquarters of the CFDT (the one union confederation which supports the Labour Law) two days ago, the radical Left  did not denounce these actions.

Will the government be able to push its law through a second reading in the National Assembly, despite backbench rebellions and further days of action planned by the unions? For the first reading they used a special rule to cancel any debate. This lack of respect for even formal bourgeois democracy infuriated millions of people and was a key factor in reinforcing the movement. Dare they do it again? And can Up All Night rise again from its present weakened but still active state ? Will the government manage to use the summer holidays to press the law through? Both sides have strengths and weaknesses, and we must do all we can to make it fall our way.

John Mullen

John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.