The common target of the recent strike wave in France was the attempt by the French government to impose a new labour law, threatening to strip away previously established employment rights.
The 35-hour week, won in 2000, is routinely cited as evidence of ‘lazy French workers’. The reality is somewhat different: the number of hours actually worked in France averages 37.5 a week – higher than in either Germany or Britain. Now, under the new law, the 35-hour week is theoretically retained, but only as an average over a three-month period. In practice, workers will be expected to work as much as 46 or even 60 hours a week, supposedly compensated by time off elsewhere in the roster.
In other words, the 35-hour week will become an ever more notional limit, impossible to police in practice. Also lost in the ‘flexible working’ morass will be the regulations that have previously guaranteed decent breaks between shifts, requiring 11 consecutive hours of rest between each working day and one consecutive 35-hour rest period a week.
The new law also makes it easier to fire workers and dilutes state regulation on holiday entitlement and maternity leave. (See French strikes: does France’s workforce really have it easy?, BBC News, 26 May 2016)
In relative terms, the statutory rights hitherto enjoyed by French workers have compared well with those of their British counterparts. The French working class, led notably by the communist-oriented CGT (General Confederation of Labour), has a history of militant struggle that puts nearly all of British trade unionism to shame. This militancy has so far been confined to the dogged defence of the Keynesian consensus that followed the second world war, of which France’s relatively enlightened labour regulations have formed a part.
It is that consensus that is now once more under attack as (‘socialist’) President Hollande tries to stitch up organised labour in the way that (open reactionary) President Chirac tried and failed to do ten years ago when he promulgated similar union-bashing legislation (without actually daring to carry it out, such was the strength of popular protests). Ten years on, with the crisis that much deeper, the bourgeoisie is necessarily back with its wrecking ball, this time on the ‘socialist’ watch.
Clearly, the capitalists hope that Hollande will be able to use his fake-socialist credentials to finish the job that Chirac started. Let those in Britain who dream of a new post-Cameron lease of life for the welfare state on the back of a Corbyn premiership take note.
To the CGT’s credit, it challenged the might of France’s imperialist media, with workers instructed (for the third time this year) not to print or distribute any newspapers which refused to publish a statement from CGT leader Philippe Martinez making the case against the proposed labour reforms. The left-wing L’Humanité, which printed the statement, was the only daily that got printed on the day in question.
Needless to say, the imperialist media, which daily churn out capitalist propaganda, were quick to cry foul. Nicolas Beytout, the proprietor of a rag called L’Opinion, fulminated that “This scandalous intrusion by the union into the content of the media must be denounced as a deplorable attack on democracy,” whilst the editor of the supposedly ‘left-wing’ paper Libération bragged: “We’ve never published a communiqué under pressure and we never will,” denouncing the CGT’s action as “shameful and stupid”. (See French union dispute leaves newspaper stands empty save for leftwing daily by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 26 May 2016)
On the contrary, the CGT is to be congratulated for exposing the real class nature of corporate media that are bought and sold by monopoly capital and which faithfully cleave to an editorial line that is acceptable to capitalism.
The official legal status of organised labour in France is a mixed blessing for the working class. On the one hand, it is a testimony to the traditional militancy of the French proletariat that, despite the fact that only eight percent of workers are unionised, elected trade union delegates in an enterprise legally represent the entire workforce, whether unionised or not, meaning that unions are punching well above their weight. Such a legal position could only have been won in the first place by class struggle.
On the other hand, with unemployment standing at 10.5 percent, and with young people (especially suburban youth of minority, mainly Arab, descent) disproportionately represented amongst the jobless, a trade union movement that fails to organise and recruit widely amongst the masses, including the unemployed masses, instead concentrating exclusively on the preservation of the rights of those already employed, will not be best equipped to lead a struggle against the imposition of capitalist austerity, which is aimed at the whole of the French working class and hits hardest on those whom the union is unable to represent.
Given the situation in which it is operating, the CGT is doing a sterling job of defending its members’ interests in the economic sphere. It is doing what trade unions are supposed to do, but which nearly all its British counterparts long ago gave up even pretending to do. The fact that a higher level of leadership is also needed is not the fault of the union. It is a serious problem for French workers, however, which must be addressed if lasting progress is to be made.
Once again, in France as elsewhere, the course of the crisis is making glaringly obvious the need for a revolutionary vanguard party, capable of giving leadership that will not only coordinate the resistance to capital’s attacks across the class, but will also be capable of organising the workers to storm the citadel itself.
One more instance of the Gallic conception of a day of action: French workers in a boot factory in Normandy mounted a spirited resistance when they heard that their factory was to be closed down and production shifted to Morocco.
The manager, an English woman whom the workers had dubbed Maggie in memory of Mrs Thatcher, was already loathed for her petty tyrannies – in particular, an irritating habit of peering down at them from a landing overlooking the shop floor to make sure they did not exceed the time allotted for coffee breaks.
When news of the closure broke, workers protested by burning a Union Jack and hanging an effigy of the boss on a gallows. Vive la difference! (British boss ‘hanged’ in battle of the boots by Matthew Campbell, Sunday Times, 3 July 2016)