France heads for a winter of discontent

As Macron attempts to fulfil his promises to the bourgeoisie.

French workers have distinguished themselves in the fight against Macron's neoliberal reforms.

The French bourgeoisie is set to make a determined assault on the interests of the French working class. As a result of the militancy of much of the French trade union movement, it has not up to now been able to make much headway in its quest to lower the cost of labour power in France.

This leaves it lagging in competitiveness behind many other imperialist countries, such as Britain and Germany, which have forced through cuts in wages, job security, pensions, welfare provision and social benefits in order to maintain high returns to the bourgeoisie on their capital

On 31 August the newly-elected government of wonder-boy President Emmanuel Macron announced sweeping changes that would be made to France’s labour law, having first ensured that the draft legislation would be finalised by presidential decree, avoiding time-consuming parliamentary debate on its individual provisions, and leaving a parliament in which Macron’s party holds a comfortable majority to rubberstamp it as a single whole.

Under the provisions of Macron’s bill: “Employees will no longer have jobs that last for a lifetime, but periods of unemployment are more likely to be temporary and go in hand-in-hand with more frequent job changes and retraining …

“Among the changes in the decrees … is license for employers to directly negotiate with their workers over certain workplace issues rather than having to follow industry-wide agreements. That will allow a car parts factory in one region to have a different agreement with its workers than a similar company elsewhere.

“Small companies especially are being given more leeway to bargain directly with workers or their representatives, without the mediation of unions.”

Moreover, “The step was the first of several that President Emmanuel Macron and his government are planning to take to galvanise the French economy.” (France Unveils Contentious Labor Overhaul in Big Test for Macron, New York Times, 31 October 2017)

By introducing greater ‘flexibility’ into the workplace – ie, greater precariousness in employment for staff in the private sector – the mantra is that more investment in France will be encouraged, which will ultimately lead to more jobs being available. This, we are told, will put an end to the rise of ‘populist’ parties that feed on discontent among the masses.

It is, however, difficult to see how it will be possible to contain discontent, even supposing rates of unemployment did fall, if the wages and conditions of those in work deteriorate sharply – this being the whole point of the new labour law, explicitly designed as it is to undermine the power of the unions and thus of the working class to defend its interests.

Nevertheless, the Macron sweet talk in the weeks of ‘consultation’ about the proposed reforms that took place with employers and unions before the finalised draft was announced appears to have persuaded some French unions that it is useless to resist the reforms. The result has been that the unions are split as to whether or not to oppose the measures.

Neither the so-called French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), generally aligned to the Socialist Party, nor Force Ouvrière, a union grouping generally more likely to take a more progressive stance, was prepared to take to the streets. The militant Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), however, influenced more by the French Communist Party than by the Socialist Party, is determined to do everything in its power to prevent these reforms from going ahead.

“Look at Britain, where Margaret Thatcher made such reforms and you’ve ended up with insecurity and zero-hours contracts – that’s where the government wants to drag us,” quite rightly said Reynald Kubecki, a militant union leader quoted in The Sunday Times. (‘Hot autumn’ looms as militants fight Macron’s union reforms, The Sunday Times, 3 September 2017)

Britain, of course, as a result of these anti-working-class reforms among others, is these days said to be staging a ‘recovery’, universally recognised as a ‘jobless recovery’, accompanied by ever-tightening austerity – i.e. a ‘recovery’ purely for the benefit of the super-rich.

The CGT therefore called a general strike for 12 September to serve as a warning to the French ruling class of what they could expect if they went ahead to implement the measures following a parliamentary rubber stamp of the legislation drafted by Macron’s team. Demonstrations throughout France on 12 September brought over 400,000 people on to the streets, despite the non-participation of the unions mentioned above.

Sixty thousand marched in Paris and a like number in Marseilles, with demonstrators in many places fighting running battles with police. Macron, however, despite his spectacularly plummeting popularity in the opinion polls, believes that if the French government stands firm, the French working class, led by a weakening trade union movement, will have no option but to succumb.

However, French unions do not do things by halves, and working-class solidarity has not gone out of fashion in the way it would seem to have done in Britain for the time being.

Four thousand strike notices were served for 12 September, and schools and hospitals were affected despite the reforms not extending to public service workers. Petrol refineries were blocked, train services disrupted and industrial action was planned at Air France, France Télévisions and the Paris transport network.

Provided working-class solidarity can see to it that the French bourgeoisie has to pay an unacceptably high price for attacking the livelihoods of the French working class, something that certainly forced former Socialist Party president Hollande to back down over similar anti-working class measures, then the French proletariat can succeed not only in sending Macron back to the hole he crawled out of, but can also set an example to the beleaguered proletariat of the rest of Europe of how to fight successfully in defence of workers’ hard-won rights.

Of course, as long as capitalism subsists, the bourgeoisie will seize every opportunity to return to the attack, and many of the battles it will win. However, every victory it scores must act as a spur to the proletariat to overthrow the whole capitalist system for once and for all, rather than having to involve itself in constant defensive action over even the most basic of rights.