France: Government plans to impose “labour reforms”
President Hollande’s Socialist government has decided to use emergency powers to force through the ‘El Khomri’ labour reform bill, a major plank of the PS government’s austerity offensive, which has provoked weeks of mass resistance, general strikes and the Nuit Debout movement.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution, which suspends parliamentary debate, meaning the bill becomes law within 48 hours unless the government is defeated today in a no confidence vote.
Protests organised at short notice greeted the announcement across the country. The decision to use emergency powers to overcome a split in the ruling party caused by huge protests has dramatically escalated the confrontation.
The PS is trying to intimidate deputies into voting against the no confidence motion tabled by the right wing by threatening to expel them and banning them from standing on PS party lists in the elections which are only a year away.
But, in a sign of anger at years of ‘left’ austerity imposed by the PS, over 100,000 people have signed a petition calling on Socialist Party MPs to back the motion to defeat the proposed labour law.
The leader of the Front de Gauche, Jean Luc Melenchon, has called for a motion of no confidence to be put by the left but, failing that, for deputies to vote for the motion.
With the FdG and the far right Front National both committed, everything now depends on whether the left deputies of PS are prepared to bring down the government in order to defeat the labour reform.
Opposition to the bill has been growing since March. Four national days of action have seen a million people take to the streets in some of the biggest protests in recent years.
Although there have been some concessions, the government is determined to force through the fundamental attacks. France has some of the strictest labour rights and workplace protection in Europe; the El Khomri ‘reform’ will allow workplace agreements to bypass collective bargaining agreements and opt out of legal workplace rights.
The movement is the biggest since the start of Hollande’s presidency and the potential is demonstrated by the hostility to the use of the emergency powers - the first announcement of the proposed “reform” did not provoke anything like this kind of response.
The movement has seen colleges shut and trade unionists using direct action to enforce strikes. Protests upwards of 100,000 have marched in the regional centres.
The mobilisation is injected with a determination because it undermines the ‘Labour Code’ a historic and symbolic victory of the French labour movement, which enshrines rights, incomparable anywhere in Europe.
Although union participation in the movement has helped to widen a struggle initiated by students and young workers, the leaders of the unions have mainly been lukewarm about forcing the issue to its conclusion; a defeat for the government on this law would undoubtedly mean the collapse of the government.
Today’s no confidence vote coincides with another general strike supported by several union federations. They have also threatened more strikes on the 17th and 19th. But who are they threatening? Tomorrow, either the reform will have passed or the government will have fallen. The French union leaders’ preferred strategy of 24 hour “strikes without tomorrow”, that is, without any prospect of escalation, in order to bring the dispute to a conclusion, has categorically failed.
It has not forced the government to abandon its proposals. In an ironic twist, the minor concessions that the government did make provoked the conservatives, the Republicains, who supported the reform, into trying to bring down the government, triggering elections, which they hope to win and impose austerity.
We are witnessing a repeat of the strategy that ended in defeat for the 2010 strike movement against pension reforms. The trade union statement jointly issued by the CGT, FO, FSU and Solidaires trade union federations and UNEF, FIDL, UNL student unions, calls on branches to “organise mass meetings with the workers…” to debate the nature of the strike.
Behind this democratic and left rhetoric lies an abdication of responsibility by the leaderships of the unions. Passing responsibility for the strategy and continuation of the struggle downwards to local branches is a recipe for fragmenting the movement, leaving the different sections of workers to fight alone. That is what happened in 2010, when the oil workers were left to fight on their own - and to be defeated alone. What is needed, immediately, is a call for an all out, indefinite strike to force the government to abandon the labour ‘reform’ altogether.