France: All-out general strike now can halt anti-labour “reforms”

By KD Tait President François Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) government has used emergency powers to force through Minister of Labour Myriam El Khomri’s labour reform bill. This major plank of the PS government’s austerity offensive had provoked weeks of mass demonstrations, general strikes and the “Nuit Debout” (“rise up at night”) movement.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution to suspend parliamentary debate, meaning that the bill will now become law even without a vote on it in the National Assembly.

Protests organised at short notice greeted the announcement across the country. Outside the National Assembly and in several cities police kettled, teargassed and baton-charged demonstrators, causing serious injuries.

This decision to use emergency powers was made in order to overcome divisions within the ruling party caused by the huge protests against the bill, and dramatically escalated the government’s confrontation with the PS dissidents. It was clear that a large number of PS deputies might abstain on or even vote against El Khomri’s bill.

The PS leadership tried to intimidate its deputies into voting against a no confidence motion tabled by the right-wing Les Républicains party (LR) by threatening to expel them, or ban them from standing on PS party lists in elections which are now still only a year away. But in a sign of anger at years of “left” austerity imposed by the PS, over 100,000 people signed a petition calling on PS deputies to back the no confidence motion to defeat the bill.

With the Left Party (FdG) and the far-right National Front (FN) both opposed to the bill, everything depended on whether the more left-wing PS deputies were prepared to bring down a PS government in order to defeat it. However a motion rejecting the use of article 49.3, tabled by FdG leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and supported by some PS deputies, narrowly failed to get enough votes to force its debate.

And LR’s no confidence motion itself gathered only 246 votes, short of the 288 needed to topple the government, having failed to win the support of PS deputies nervous that the early general election that would have been forced by it would have lost them their seats.

Resistance

Opposition to the bill had been growing, especially after protests on 9 and 31 March. Four national days of action have seen upwards of a million people take to the streets in some of the biggest protests in recent years. But while Hollande’s government made some minor concessions in response to them, it remains determined to force through the fundamental features of this major attack on labour rights.

Ironically enough, these minor concessions were precisely what provoked the conservative LR (who supported the bill) into trying to bring down the government, by trying to force elections that they hoped to win in order to impose even more comprehensive austerity than that pursued by the PS.

Thanks to the militancy of the French labour movement and its much commented upon “habit” of large strike waves and social movements, France has one of the strictest and most far-reaching labour codes in Europe, enshrining the right to strike and wide-ranging protections on jobs, working hours and workplace conditions.

The French bosses’ organisation MEDEF and the right-wing parties have been pressing for the slashing of these rights for years; and the PS government has given in to them, laughably claiming that this will “increase employment”. The El Khomri “reforms” will allow employers to bypass collective bargaining and opt out of other workplace protections. It will weaken still further the 35-hour week and restrictions on bosses’ ability to sack workers.

The present movement against it is the biggest since the start of Hollande’s presidency, and marks the first major recovery in labour movement militancy since the passing of the State of Emergency after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. It has of course seen the police use these emergency powers against it.

This movement has seen colleges shut and trade unionists using direct action to enforce strikes. Protests upwards of 100,000-strong have marched in the regional centres.

The determination displayed by this movement results from a widespread recognition that these “reforms” undermine a historic and symbolic victory of the postwar French labour movement. In that sense it also shows what could be done in Britain to defend the National Health Service.

But while the involvement of the unions in this movement has helped to broaden it from its origins as a struggle initiated by students and young workers, most union leaders have been lukewarm about forcing the issue through to its conclusion, because a defeat for the government on this law would undoubtedly mean the governments’ collapse.

Strategy

The union leaders’ traditionally preferred strategy of 24-hour “strikes without a tomorrow”, that is without any prospect of escalation, has failed before. It ended in defeat for the huge and militant 2010 strike movement against pension reforms, and left unaltered it will almost certainly fail again.

A joint statement issued by the CGT, Force Ouvrière, FSU and Solidaires trade union federations, and by the student unions UNEF, FIDL and UNL, calls on their branches to “organise mass meetings with the workers” to debate the nature of the strike. This might seem democratic and even rather left-wing, but behind it lies an abdication of responsibility by the union leaderships.

Passing responsibility for the strategy and for the continuation of the struggle downwards to local branches is a recipe for fragmenting the movement, leaving some sections to fight alone whilst others continue to work. That is what happened in 2010, when the oil workers were left to fight on their own – and to be defeated alone.

However the unions have also called two further days of strikes for the coming week, on 17 and 19 May. These strikes are potentially open-ended, and thus open to developing into indefinite action, that is, a full general strike to force the government to abandon the labour “reforms” altogether.

The best insurance against any sell-out by the union leaderships is for the rank and file to do what they have done before, namely to elect local and regional coordination committees of delegates from the workplaces, from the schools and universities, and most importantly from the banlieues (the outer suburbs with a high proportion of youth from families of North African origin).

Together, they could make these days of action so huge and militant that their coordination committees could vote to continue the mobilisations, making it difficult for the union bureaucracies to call a halt to them at will. These bodies will also need to combine services d’ordres (stewards) from the unions and the youth to defend the movement against provocations and the repression of the cops and the riot squads.

The next week or so will be decisive. Workers across Europe should express their solidarity with their French comrades, not just in words, but in deeds.

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