PARIS - The new French President, Emmanuel Macron, speaking at a business start-up event declared in imperfect English, “Entrepreneur is the new France”. Indeed his initial measures openly serve the interests of the social class that created him out of nowhere as a political figure, that supported funded his campaign and his new movement - the big bourgeoisie. Now it is payback time for his backers. First, Macron and his new Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, a member of the conservative Republicans have assembled a government whose key posts are packed with conservative politicians and employers.
Bruno Le Maire, a failed former leadership candidate for the Republicans, is economy minister. He has been advocating a free-market economic agenda, including the privatisation of France's labour offices, the end of job subsidies and a cap on welfare benefits. Other ministers include Muriel Penicaud, former personnel director of food conglomerate Danone who as Minister of Labour will is in charge of pushing through the “reform” of the French Labour Code in favour of the bosses. A publishing company CEO Françoise Nyssen is Minister of Culture and Elizabeth Borne, a former top executive of SNCF, the state rail company, is in charge of transport.
This government is now implementing a policy of wide ranging austerity, the reduction of the public sector and other cuts in social spending. For instance, special allowances reducing rents for students and workers below the poverty line will be slashed, while at the same time the government is planning a major cut to the tax on super-rich (the Impôt sur la Fortune) a beneficiary of which will be Macron himself. In other words the new president is a reverse Robin Hood, robbing the poor to help the rich.
The main course on this disgusting menu is the demolition of the Code du Travail, the collection of protective legislation covering hiring and firing, working hours, healthcare, safety, rights to trade union representation and national bargaining, and many other aspects of workers’ lives. The bosses were demanding a “simplification” of these rules and Macron will continue the deregulation initiated by the previous President François Hollande but which were blunted and delayed by a major social resistance in the last year of the Socialist Party government.
A few examples will be enough to demonstrate what this “simplification” means. According to the present regulations, every worker illegally sacked can sue his boss and receive compensation, fixed by special employment tribunals (tribunaux de Prud'hommes) some of whose members are elected by workers. The Macron government is preparing a new law that will cap this compensation to a low level. This means giving bosses full freedom to fire workers illegally with negligible consequences. However, in Orwellian Newspeak, this objective is described as “free the enterprise, fight against unemployment and stop precarité”.
Even more vicious is what is called “inversion of the hierarchy of norms”, a deceptively fancy name for a simple concept: until now, within in each business sector or individual workplace, agreements between bosses and trade unions can be signed, provided they are more advantageous to the workers than the Code du Travail, which acts as kind of safety net, providing a guarantee of basic rights and rules for everybody. The new law will reverse this concept and allow local agreements to become the rule. As workers are clearly weaker in a workplace by workplace situation, they can be the blackmailed by their bosses with the threat “you sign or the site closes and your job is gone”; this means effectively the end of Code du Travail and a total deregulation to the immense advantage of the bosses.
No wonder then that Macron is expecting resistance. Already the Loi el-Khomri movement last Spring was very popular and the resistance stubborn. Named after the minister in charge of its passage through parliament, the normal procedure allowed time and a focus for mass actions and protests. This time Macron is trying to evade this problem by enacting the reform by decree. The new law will be prepared at the speed of light, during the summer, with a special procedure practically bypassing any discussion in Parliament. And this despite the fact that Macron has an overwhelming majority there.
Worse still, citing his huge electoral mandate (though in fact a majority abstained or spoilt their ballots), all the major French trade unions, including CGT, entered into obviously fake negotiations on the Labour Code reform.
He has even succeeded in persuading Force Ouvriere (FO), a major union involved in last year’s protests, into making several positive declarations with respect to the minister (“Inside the government there is a real will to discuss”) and it probably will not directly oppose the new law. Unless that is a mass movement drags the FO leaders in.
Reinforcing the state
However, reforming labour legislation is only one axis of the government’s general offensive. Knowing he will need their assistance, Macron is reinforcing the armed wing of the bourgeoisie’s class power: the army, the police and the repressive laws. In this vein the state of emergency has been extended for the sixth time and its content is now becoming normal procedure thanks to a new law which normalises formerly ‘emergency’ measures. Night time police raids, renamed “visits”, will be authorised as well as the requisition of electronic devices. Limits to the freedom of movement (assigning citizens to restricted areas) will also be allowed for suspects who have not been charged, let alone convicted of any crime. And “security zones” can be declared, within which the police will be granted extraordinary powers. This whole antidemocratic legal arsenal (denounced even by Amnesty International) has already been unleashed against social movements, and certainly this will continue, making the state of emergency permanent.
Macron has visited the French army in Mali, site of an ongoing French military intervention for several years. Despite this year's cut to the army budget, which provoked the resignation of the head of the army, General Pierre de Villiers, much discussed in the media, the reality is that the army budget will increase up to the Nato target of 2 per cent of GDP in succeeding years, and he certainly does not intend to renounce its repeated use as an essential tool of French imperialism’s foreign policy. On the contrary, Macron aims to play a more aggressive role as the leader of European imperialism. On the military playing field he is a bigger force than Angela Merkel and Germany and hope to use this fact to compenstate for France’s relative economic weakness.
This strategy was openly displayed with invitations to Putin, Trump and Netanyahu to visit Paris. Recently Macron has shown his will to play a major role in Libya, where he plans to install “hot spots” to filter the migrants. This is a continuation of the European Union’s cynical approach to make deals with tyrants like former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi or Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, provided they maintain “order” at whatever cost and block the flow of refugees to the other side of the Mediterranean.
Referring to the upwards of 100,000 migrants, most of whom are living outdoors in terrible conditions, around Nice, Paris and Calais, Macron declared; “Before the end of the year I do not want to see women and men on the streets or in the woods”. While this might sound humanitarian, it means in reality that the arbitrary selection between refugees and economic migrants will be carried much faster, and that deportation will be massively increased. 2,700 migrants in Paris were recently rounded up in the 34th police operation in two years. The reality behind the hypocritical humanitarian concern are operations carried out by a racist and violent police force, who regularly prevent the distribution of food and water by NGOs and refugee and migrants solidarity campaigns.
Macron’s electoral mandate and the methodology of avoiding any parliamentary delays by rushing through decrees means that there is much less time to organise resistance than during the attacks of presidents Hollande and Sarkozy. Time is not on the side of French workers, youth or the immigrant communities under police attack.
A recently formed movement, the Front Social, an alliance of radical trade unionists and other activists has already organised three demonstrations (each about 2000 strong) against Macron’s reforms. They were absolutely right to launch the struggle from day one. But mass forces need to be mobilised in a powerful united front if the poster boy of European free market liberalism is to be defeated.
Clearly united resistance to Macron’s reactionary reforms is urgently necessary. The unions, the youth and students need to come out onto the streets or occupy their workplaces and campuses, as many did against the El Khomri Law last year. Philippe Martinez, the secretary of the more militant of the larger union federations, the CGT, has called a day of strike action and demonstrations for September 12, supported by the Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD) union. But the CFDT, now the largest union federation with 875,000 members against the CGT’s 710,000 and 310,000 for FO, has indicated that, like FO, it will not support strike action against the “reform”.
Another weakness of the resistance lies in the political divisions amongst the left forces, especially to the extent that these obstruct forming a united front to struggle against Macron. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s assumption of the role of Lider maximo of the resistance, and his promotion of his France Insoumise populist movement only alienates other forces in the working class movement.
His social patriotism, verging on national chauvinism, was on display when he condemned Macron for sacking General De Villiers and cutting defence spending, because “France needs her army”. Likewise he denounced Macron’s apology on behalf of the French state for the Vel d'Hiv round up and deportation of Parisian in Jews 1942. Mélenchon, who has banned the red flag for the tricolore and the Internationale for the Marseillaise, embodies the most retrograde trend on the left and is unfitted to be the leader of the resistance to Macron. Since the Presidential and Parliamentary elections he has been waging a vendetta against the French Communist Party (PCF) and the remnants of the French Socialists (PS). He has called his own demonstration for September 20.
Clearly the absence of a sizeable militant anticapitalist and revolutionary party to provide strategic leadership in the class struggle has permitted the flourishing of this populist diversion. Meanwhile internal divisions inside the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) between those who tend towards Mélenchon and those who want an independent intervention in the resistance through the Front social, probably means that its role will be very weak when it comes to political leadership. Its numbers have declined severely since its foundation, through splits and internal struggles which lead to no positive resolution in terms of learning the lessons of the struggles under Sarkozy and Hollande, and preparing a strategy of resistance, independent of the big trade union leaders and reformists in the PCF and left wing of the PS.
While it is certain that there will be resistance on the streets, the social movement needs to organise itself at the rank and file level, in committees of action, which draw together local and regional trade union bodies, leftwing groups, and organisations of the oppressed, women, youth migrants, etc. Such bodies could form the basis for coordinating a strategy of resistance able to mobilise for its own aims, and laying the basis for a new mass, workers' party rooted in the struggles and democracy of the working class. Without such a bold approach, which represents a determined attempt to overcome the leaderships that have led past movements to defeat, Macron's government will take advantage of the cowardice and reformism of the trade union leaders to weaken and divide the movement and carry to its conclusion an offensive that could represent a strategic defeat for the most militant working class in Western Europe.