French and European Union flags. Source: Wikimedia Commons French and European Union flags. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

France’s working class is taking a sledgehammer to Hollande’s neoliberal reforms – an echo of the European economic machine, writes Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

With seven out of eight oil refineries shut down, France has been brought to a standstill. Organised workers, and young people, have come out to fight a package of measures designed to make labour even cheaper and more dispensable, and against years of hardship and austerity. This upsurge is not simply a rebellion against this country’s current government but is instead a revolt against the European economic order.

The decision by Hollande to try to push through sweeping neoliberal reforms of the country’s labour laws was not an end-of-term whim. Rather, it echoes the policies that are being enacted by governments across the Eurozone, regardless of whether they are administering their countries under the colours of Conservativism or Social Democracy. Similarly the double digit unemployment, which forms the backdrop to this working class revolt (as well as Hollande’s justification for his reforms), is not peculiar to France. Across the Eurozone as a whole, unemployment has been in double figures for nearly seven years.

When it comes to the political economy of the Eurozone, there are three basic parameters which oblige both conservative and social democratic governments to bow down before the god of international competitiveness, and to do so at the expense of jobs and living standards. Firstly, there is Germany, Europe’s hegemon accounting for nearly a third of the entire output of the Eurozone, who’s influence on the European economy has been shaped by two decades of wage restraint, rising productivity (until 2007) and therefore falling unit labour costs. In the context of a free trade area this sets a standard with which their neighbours compete, typically at the expense of the domestic working class.

Secondly there is the single currency. When countries like France cannot compete with German output, they cannot make their goods more competitive (that is to say, cheaper on international markets) by reducing the value of their currency, since they do not have their own currency. Rather competitiveness must be restored at the expense of working people.

Finally and most importantly there is synchronised, Europe-wide austerity – a policy locked in, and generalized across the continent by the Stability and Growth Pact, which obliges governments across the continent to pursue policies of austerity. The consequent decimation of demand across the continent has inevitably led to long term mass unemployment across the Eurozone. Equally it means that countries can only hope to control unemployment by seeking to out-compete one another in a shrinking European market, rather than by boosting domestic demand.

As we see time and time again, this settlement cannot be disrupted by conventional politics, whether they are conservative or social democratic. It can only be addressed by throwing a spanner in the works, or more realistically, by taking a sledgehammer to the machine, stopping the wheels from turning, in order that a settlement which is dysfunctional for Europe’s working classes becomes dysfunctional for Europe’s ruling classes. This is what a significant part of France’s working population clearly understands.

The best solidarity we can offer them is to throw a spanner in the works ourselves and fight for Britain to break with Europe on 23 June. Such a move would not simply alter Britain’s relations with Brussels. A rupture involving the EU’s second biggest economy would be a crisis for the entire European system, which until now has depended so absolutely upon the myth that integration is irreversible and that no other way is possible.

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.