French Workers and Youth Protest Labor Law

by Gerry Foley / April 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The struggle unleashed by the attempt of the French right-wing government to reduce the rights of young workers has led to the sharpest confrontation in recent years in the advanced capitalist world between youth and labor and a capitalist class determined to roll back the gains of previous generations of workers.

Perhaps the most striking aspect is the intransigence of the government in the face of massive protests and repeated general strikes. However, as the struggle has continued and maintained its massive character, the regime has been showing more and more cracks.
The New York Times reported April 4, the day of another general strike and mass demonstrations against the new CPE labor law: “… in a sign of how the ground was shifting, Laurence Parisot, the head of Medef, France’s biggest employer federation, said that the
legislation had been ill-conceived and that it was wrong for the country to try to solve its problems on the backs of young people.”

Paradoxically, the hard line is being represented by the increasingly isolated aristocratic premier, Dominique de Villepin, who was supposed to be the civilized face of the regime. His rival, Nicolas de Sarkozy, the interior minister, with a reputation for being a thug, has been showing more flexibility on the labor law but not in his use of the police against the demonstrators.

The president, Jacques Chirac, is playing a balancing game, insisting on maintaining the CPE legislation but holding out promises of softening it.

Trade-union leaders estimated that nearly 3 million people marched in various cities in protest against the government’s law during the general strike of March 28. Even the police estimate was over a million. According to union leaders, 700,000 people demonstrated in Paris alone.

Le Monde, most authoritative of the French dailies, called the March 28 demonstrations at least the largest in the last 20 years. The demonstrations on April 4, another day of general strike, were at least as large as on the previous Tuesday. Trade-union leaders even estimated that they were somewhat larger. The extent of the strike was comparable, although perhaps a bit smaller.

The scope and militancy of the strikes and demonstrations have led commentators to make
comparisons with the May-June 1968 mobilization, which marked a watershed in modern history for the advanced capitalist world as a whole and came to the brink of a socialist revolution in France.

The distinctive feature of the protests in 1968 and the current ones is the convergence of youth and students with the labor movement. But in the present struggle, the convergence is more deeply rooted, since now young workers are responding to an attack on their rights. It is no longer a matter of student demonstrations acting as a political catalyst.

Some commentators have tried to belittle the present protests by arguing that while in 1968 the students expressed revolutionary aspirations the present demonstrators are only “defending the status quo.” The reality is that the principal change since 1968 is in the attitude of the capitalists. They are no longer ready to offer concessions to avoid a fight but are determined to press an offensive against working people and youth, cost what it may.

This capitalist offensive is a worldwide phenomenon. Its primary targets have been young workers and workers at or near retirement age, the most vulnerable sections of the working class. This has taken the form of lowering wages and rights for young workers entering the labor market, the introduction of the so-called two-tier system, and the gutting of pension
systems for older workers.

The French unions are so far an honorable exception to the trade-union movements in other advanced capitalist countries, which have generally yielded to the attacks on young workers and pensioners, hoping (vainly) to preserve the jobs and wages of workers in the prime ages. The French unions (less dominated by conservative bureaucracies than those in the other
main capitalist countries) have recognized the fact that the attacks on younger and much older workers are only the thin edge of the wedge for an assault on the rights of labor in general.

In a March 30 article, the British Economist, one of the most sophisticated and openly cynical of big business organs, also tried to play on the supposed “conservatism” of the opponents of the new labor law, but it almost immediately contradicted itself: “In another startling poll, however, whereas 71% of Americans, 66% of the British, and 65% of Germans
agreed that the free market was the best system available, the number in France was just 36%. The French seem to be uniquely hostile to the capitalist system….”

The level of consciousness of French working people is higher than that of workers in northern Europe or the U.S. because ever since the 1930s there have been mass struggles in France from which working people have learned some basic lessons. In fact, in 1968 they turned spontaneously toward socialist revolution, only to be betrayed by their Stalinist leaders.

But it is also interesting that despite decades of defeat inflicted on working people and almost total domination of the media by the aggressive right, the percentage of the population in the other main capitalist countries who do not believe that the market economy is the best of all possible worlds is still considerable—enough to provide the basis for a vast social movement, if a leadership appeared with the will and resources to organize it.

Thus, the stakes in the present confrontation in France are very high and not just for the French protagonists. The British Guardian published a comment that tried to justify the French law as a response to the November 2005 rebellion of the disadvantaged youth in suburbs where unemployment is particularly high. This is patently false.

One of the first actions of the right-wing premier, Dominique de Villepin, was to introduce a bill in August 2005 to allow smaller firms to fire employees without reason in their first two years of employment. This was the prelude to the Jan.16, 2006, law removing job security for young workers, which is the focus of the present protests.

The stakes of the confrontation explain the astonishing stubbornness of the government in the face of a virtual social revolution, when public opinion polls are showing that 63 percent of the population are opposed to the law, and the right appears likely to lose next year’s presidential elections.

In fact, some right-wing politicians have been punning on the initials of the law, saying that instead, of Contrat Premier Embauche (First Job Contact), the initials CPE stand for Comment Perdre une Election (How to Lose an Election). Already in the past year the right suffered resounding defeats in the regional elections and in the vote on approval of the proposed European Union Constitution last May.

The likely winner in the upcoming presidential elections, the Socialist Party, has been supporting the protests, despite its record of following neoliberal policies when it was in government. The main university student organization, the UNEF, is now reportedly dominated by the Socialist Party, and it has played a major role in the movement. It seems
likely that this struggle will significantly strengthen the left wing of the SP.

On March 30, the right-wing president, Jacques Chirac, defied the protests by signing the law, although he made some vague promises about delaying its application. The leaders of the major trade unions were shocked and declared their determination to continue the struggle with another general strike on April 4.

Le Monde reported on March 31, “Jean-Claude Mailly, general secretary of Force Ouvriere, considered the president’s decision ‘incomprehensible,’ ‘unacceptable.’… Bernard Thibaut of the CGT struck the same note.” Bruno Julliard, the president of UNEF, the major student federation, said that he was “astonished” by Chirac’s decision. He reiterated that the youth organizations had declared that they would not negotiate in the framework of the CP.

In the March 30 issue of Rouge, the weekly paper of the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire, Socialist Action’s sister organization in France, Francois Sabato wrote: “The government wants to bull it through. It is hitting, and hitting hard. A trade unionist from SUD, trampled by the police, is hanging between death and life.

“The government wants a test of strength. We must not hesitate to take up this challenge. We have to deal it a defeat. The only way of solving the crisis is to force the government to withdraw the CPE completely. This is possible.

“This government is illegitimate. It was already repudiated in the street in 2003, rebuffed at the
polls in the regional and European elections in 2004. Its intransigence is only the cover for weakness of its social and political base. We have to force it to retreat, and if it does not, then it should go.

“This is what should be the policy of a real left fighting the right and the government. Far from
waiting for the 2007 presidential election or accepting the legitimacy of the government, as the official left does, it is here and now that we have to defeat the right and this government, it is here and now that we have to force the total withdrawal of the CPE.”

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