By JEFF MACKLER
One million workers and students took to the streets of Paris and cities across France on March 31 to protest draconian Labor Code changes proposed by the austerity-minded governing French Socialist Party of Francois Holland. The changes are set to be considered by the French parliament in late April; more giant protests are planned at that time.
The March 31 nationwide mobilization, the largest since the great strike waves of May-June 1968, was supported by France’s major trade union federation, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). According to activist participants of the French New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA), an estimated one-third of the participants were youth mobilized by various national student organizations. Strikers included workers from a number of public-employee unions, including teachers and train drivers.
The government’s proposal allows companies to organize alternative “flexible” work schedules. These include a workweek of up to 48 hours, as opposed to the maximum legal workweek today of 35 hours. In “exceptional circumstances” employees could be compelled under the proposed new law to work up to 60 hours a week, including mandatory 12-hours shifts. Other proposed changes are akin to part-time and casual labor schemes implemented in the U.S.
Zoe Farre, 23, told Associated Press reporters during the Paris march and rally that she had serious doubts about the government’s new job “flexibility” intentions. “It’s going to be like the U.K. where you’re on a zero-hour contract or like the U.S. where they make you hold a sign in the street and call it a job,” she said.
Three weeks earlier, on March 9, with barely a week’s preparation, 500,000 French workers and students mobilized against the same proposed legislation.
Leaders and activists of the French NPA have scored the proposed Labor Code changes as “annihilating 100 years of past gains for the French working class.” Additional mass protests are slated for April 26, April 28, and May 7, with worldwide solidarity marches on May 15. Some dissident currents inside the CGTs have called for a general strike of unlimited duration to force the government to abandon its proposed anti-labor regulations, an idea that is gaining traction among rank-and-file worker.
Immediately following the March 31 national mobilization, hundreds of thousands of students, workers pensioners, artists, and others mobilized every evening in a new movement called Nuit debout, which loosely means “rise up at night.” From Paris to Toulouse, Lyon, and Nantes—and to cities in Belgium, including Brussels—the protesters have taken up long-held grievances over government corruption and the massive austerity measures. The sit-ins and teach-ins, daily increasing in size and scope, have obviously given pause to police and government officials, who have to date refrained from attempts to physically remove protesters.
The Place de la République in Paris saw speakers denouncing everything from the tax-evasion schemes of the rich revealed by the “Panama Papers,” housing inequality, and France’s racist refugee policies to the government crackdown on democratic rights following the Jan. 2015 terrorist shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.
One Paris protester summed up the political tenor of the mobilizations, which appear to have been sparked by a core group of left-wing youth, as follows: “There’s something here that I’ve never seen before in France—all these people converge here each night of their own accord to talk and debate ideas on any topic they like. No one has told them to, no unions are pushing them on – they’re coming of their own accord.”
The British-based Guardian newspaper quoted Matthiew, 35, who was retraining to be a teacher after 10 years in the private sector, as follows: “The labor law was the final straw. But it’s much bigger than that. This government, which is supposed to be socialist, has come up with a raft of things I don’t agree with, while failing to deal with the real problems like unemployment, climate change and a society heading for disaster.”
As we go to press, many tens of thousands have taken to the streets of London against austerity and demanding the resignation of British Prime Minister David Cameron [over 150,000 marched in London on April 16]. London’s Daily Mail reported: “The embattled Prime Minister was accused of ‘hypocrisy’ after he finally admitted profiting from more than £30,000 in an offshore tax haven. After days of pressure, Mr. Cameron acknowledged he had benefited from a controversial fund set up by his late father Ian.
Clearly, the pent-up anger and resentment of French and British workers and youth against the generalized assaults on their standard of living and quality of life has found expression and new forms of organization. The gap between this deeply felt outage and mass protests that focus on the inherent horrors perpetrated by a world capitalism system in deep crisis is narrowing.
The French and British mass democratic assemblies are a first and important step to planning united, massive, and enduring protests capable of inspiring working-class victories.
Photo: High school students in Marseille march against changes in the Labor Code. Jean-Paul Pelisser / Reuters